It is the beginning of June and 14-year-old Somirao Kavdu Madavi from Yavatmal's Madhavpur village is getting ready with his bags. But he is not going to school. A Standard 4 dropout, he is set to leave for a cotton farm where he works all year around. His family gets Rs. 25,000 for his 12 months of work. The amount, he states, is difficult for his family to let go.

As agriculture is not specifically disallowed for children under 14 under the Child Labour (Prevention and Regulation) Act 1986, farmers across Maharashtra employ children: sometimes as full-time labourers like Somirao, otherwise as daily labourers as and when they need them.

Activists say it leads to children missing out on education altogether. Vidarbha is a glaring example of this.

Somirao is not the only one in his tribal village of Kolam Adivasis who has had to drop out of school to help support his family. His work includes everything — from sowing to spraying pesticide to cotton picking. “I had just come home for a three-day holiday,” he said.

He struggled to recollect when he had dropped out of school. “I studied till Standard 4,” he said, which would mean till the age of 9. For the last five years, he had been working.

“We have no other source of income. I am probably earning more than anyone in my family. What can my parents do when there is poverty to face?” His parents, who do not own any piece of land, work as farm labourers in nearby villages.

“While the amount of children working in agriculture, and thus losing access to education is more in Yavatmal, there is largely a societal ‘sanction' for using children for farm work all over Vidarbha,” says Suresh Bolenwar, a farmer-activist with the Vidarbha Jan Anolan Samiti (VJAS).

Yavatmal is one of the worst-affected districts of the agrarian crisis, he adds. “Rs 25,000 is more than what the parents would earn through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, if it is implemented fully. It is difficult to pull the children out when the needs of the family are concerned.”

In the nearby Hiwra village, 13-year-old Gajanan Uike tells a tale similar to Somirao's. He works in a farm for Rs. 25,000 which, he states, is the ‘going rate' this year. He has studied till Standard 3, till the age of eight, and dropped out later to “support the family.”

But not everybody is lucky to get jobs that guarantee to pat for the whole year, says Gajanan's 15-year-old friend Ajay Meshram. He works as farm labour whenever there is a demand. He has studied till the Standard 7.

“I get Rs. 100 a day. I also work in my own farm. If I find someone who will keep me on their farm for the whole year, I will go. Now, I barely earn Rs. 1,500 a month. You will call it child labour, but at least we get steady income,” he stated.

Asked if they would have liked to continue studying, both Ajay and Gajanan said they now wished they were pushed to study more. “But what is the guarantee? People who have studied more than us have no jobs,” Ajay adds, as an after-thought.

Girls too are part of the many children in the region dropping out of school at an early age. Vrinda Atram, Surekha Rampure and Parvati Tekam of Ambezari village have said they are enrolled in ashramshalas meant for tribal children, but their attendance is irregular as they have to travel to different villages to find work. The day this correspondent met them, they were waiting at a bus stop, with food and clothes to last them for a week, in search of work.

“Someone told us we could find work in the chilli fields here, but everyone has finished picking chilli. Now we have to wait till we find something else,” says 13-year-old Surekha. She and Vrinda have dropped out after Standard 6, while Parvati is still studying in Standard 9. “The school does not care if we don't show up. For everyday of work that we get in the field, we get Rs.100-150. So nobody complains,” Vrinda, 13, said.

The NGO, Save the Children, has been working in some of the districts in Vidarbha, trying to encourage farmers and parents to stop children from working, in order to complete their education up to the age of 14, as mandated by the Right to Education Act. In the last three years, the organisation claims to have mainstreamed more than 12,000 children in 986 villages: some had completely dropped out while some were irregular for months. And yet, villages across Yavatmal are untouched by intervention by any organisation.

In the villages that are supported by Save the Children, farmers say the number of child labour has gone down, “but it is difficult to refuse needy parents.”

In Amravati's Dadhi village in Bhatkuli taluka Dudarao Telmore, a landless labourer stated that his daughter Kiran had to give up education at 12 years to help feed the family. “There is no other way. The school is six km away. She cannot do both: work and go to school,” he said. Kiran, now 16, works on the fields in the cotton-growing season and otherwise settles for odd jobs.

At a farmers' gathering in Dabhade village in Amravati district, cotton growers lament that parents themselves are insisting on making their children work. “What the government pays us farmers is not enough, and so we cannot give the labourers enough money. So they eventually get their children to work on the fields too,” says Triambak Raut, a farmer.

“We know that we cannot afford agriculture: the labourers cannot afford to be just labourers. So they have to send their kids to the farm to work.” For some, it is justified because the parents can then pay for the children's education and other needs. “The children work in the sowing season in f June, just before the rains. At least then the rest of the year the children can go to school in peace,” Devidas Patil said.

Ashok Pingale, State programme manager of Save the Children, believes that the discrepancy between the Child Labour Act and the RTE is holding back the spread of basic education. “Only if the government bans all forms of child labour for children under 14 under the Child Labour Act, as recommended in one of the amendments, will we be able to realise the potential of the Right to Education Act fully.”

National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) member Yogesh Dube, who recently released a study that said child labour is prevalent in cotton seed farming in Andhra Pradesh, said the Commission was not aware of the children working on cotton fields in Maharashtra. “If we get media reports about the occurrence we will definitely look into it,” he told The Hindu.