From Gunji village, 12-year-old Reshma Itiwale walks for more than an hour to reach her workplace. For the past two months, she has been plucking cotton for Rs. 30 a day, along with her mother Nalini. Her father Vishwas and brothers Amol, 4, and Akshay,11, are daily wagers elsewhere.

The family owns two acres where they can plant cotton and tur dal in the monsoon. “In the summer and the rest of the time, we have to work,” says Nalini Itiwale. At Gunji in Dhamangaon taluka of Amravati district, with a population of 800, 25 per cent are landless. Unmindful of the searing afternoon sun, Nalini and Reshma are plucking cotton and throwing the bolls into a makeshift backpack made of cloth.

Reshma has studied up to Std. V. After Std. IV, she had to walk to Ashok Nagar, three km away, for secondary school. Soon she stopped going. Along with her is Kavita who says she is 18. She dropped out last year after studying up to 12th standard. Kavita comes from Phulam, and her family owns four acres. Nalini who has never been to school says: “We are poor people, if our children don’t work we cannot sustain the family.”

At Gavhani Pani, 12-year-old Gajanan, Std. V dropout, goes to pluck cotton for Rs. 40 a day. Since his father died five years ago, his mother Chaya struggles to make ends met. The family is landless and don’t even own a BPL card. “I want my son to study but I have no choice,” says Chaya. Her daughter Yogita is in Std. IV. It is because of children like Reshma and Gajanan that Save the Children, a non-governmental organisation, and IKEA Social Initiative have identified child labourers, especially those slogging it out on cotton fields, as a major hindrance to child rights in India’s major cotton growing States, including Maharashtra and Gujarat.

By promoting child rights, the partnership intends rooting out child labour from the cotton production and supply chain and other sectors in these States. The first phase of the four-year project has been launched in Gujarat and Maharashtra. In Maharashtra, the project covers 986 villages in four major cotton growing districts (Amravati, Akola, Buldhana, Washim) in the drought-prone Vidarbha region, targeting 287,179 children in the age group of 3-18, including 122,653 working children.

At Giroli, also in Dhamangaon taluka, Gayabai Meshram, in her 70s, peers dejectedly at the world through her glasses. After her son and daughter-in-law died some years ago, her main worry is her three grandchildren, two of whom have returned from a relative’s place to live with her. Ashish dropped out in Std. XI and his sister Neha studied till Std. IX. “I left school five years ago and came to live with my grandmother. I mostly work in the fields, do weeding or plucking for Rs. 50 a day,” he says. If Neha and her brother don’t earn, they cannot survive. “I have no support now and depend on these two children. I get Rs. 250 in pension but that too is erratic, it comes once in four months. How can I manage?” asks Gayabai.

This is the first year that Chanchal Sonawane who studies in Std. VI has gone to pluck cotton. She is a bright student whose favourite subject is Marathi, and usually comes among the first three in class. However, she barely manages school twice a week. Her mother Tulsa had abandoned Chanchal and her two younger brothers owing to her husband’s alcoholism. It took the efforts of the entire Giroli village to convince her husband Laxmanrao to give up drinking and look after the family. Tulsa has since returned to her home.

Chanchal, with her nimble fingers, manages to pluck 20-40 kg of cotton a day. “When Chanchal goes to work, I stay at home to look after my youngest son who is two,” admits Tulsa. When her mother goes to work, Chanchal stays at home to mind the baby. “My daughter is good in studies, and at work too. It is expensive though to send her to school,” says Tulsa.

The key objectives of the project are to create child-labour free villages, ensure that all primary school children are in school and no child under 14 is engaged in exploitative labour, to set up a functioning Child Protection Committee at the community level, a functioning children’s group at the community and school level and to create awareness of child rights.

Save the Children’s baseline study in the four districts of Maharashtra revealed there are 556,476 children working with 383,849 (69 per cent) in cotton fields. Over 30 per cent of them report physical or sexual abuse at worksites. Many toil for 6-10 hours a day under hot and dusty conditions, exposed to the harmful pesticides.

The data reveals that over 50 per cent of the targeted children began working between 11 and 15 years of age, and a majority of this group unilaterally chose labour owing to economic conditions at home and lack of interest in education. Children lose 60-90 days at school to cotton weeding and picking during the season. One of the main problems is the lack of economic alternatives, and the project is planning to mobilise self-help groups, promote rural employment and train women and adolescents in vocational skills with market-oriented approach.