The practice of bhag-kheti (a system of wage sharecropping) in BT cottonseed farms in Gujarat is tilted in favour of “landlords” and the migrant agricultural workers who are part of this system “work in conditions comparable to forced and bonded labour,” states a qualitative study that was conducted during Covid-19 crisis from August-October 2020.
The study titled “Seeds of Oppression” has been published in July 2021 by Netherlands-based Arisa (Advocating Rights in South Asia) — a non-governmental human rights organisation — and research for the same was conducted by Ahmedabad-based Centre for Labour Research and Action (CLRA), an organisation promoting workers’ rights.
The study mailed to The Indian Express by Arisa states that Gujarat has around 25000 hectares of cottonseed growing area, where 25-30 national and multinational companies operate.
“Cottonseed production is the upstream end of the cotton garment and textile supply chain. The bhag-kheti practice violates a series of fundamental rights of workers. It is a widespread practice in Gujarat, which is a major production area for BT cottonseed. Our first aim with this report is to raise awareness of the existence of wage sharecropping in cottonseed production in Gujarat, and to describe some of the characteristics of this practice,” it added.
The study focuses on widespread practice of wage share-cropping in North Gujarat and interviews 77 “bhagiya” workers (sharecropper) who were part of 14 families engaged in cottonseed production in districts of Sabarkantha and Banaskantha. In-depth studies, carried out with five families and their experiences, have been presented as case stories.
The reports observes that practice of wage share-cropping or bhag-kheti unique to Gujarat entails a family that receives a cash advance for agreeing to perform manual labour on a landholding, usually for 10-12 months for a fraction of the agricultural yeild. The landowner or the farmer provides irrigation facility, farming equipment, seeds, fertilisers and pesticides. During the tenure of the agreement, the sharecropper and his family lives on the landholding in a temporary shelter that is devoid of basic facilities.
“Besides performing agricultural labour on the landholding, the family is often required to run errands and perform domestic chores for the landowner which includes tending to draught animals— all of which is largely unpaid work,” states the study.
Those interviewed during the study narrate how landowners, usually from upper caste, cheat them of their share of the crop and often use “crop failure” as a reason for non-payment of the agricultural workers share.
“Nine out of 14 surveyed families end up with a debt as opposed to income at the end of a season. For five families, this debt is more than Rs 30,000 which is around 100 days work for an unskilled agricultural labourer,” the study states.
The respondents in the study reported that the landowners “use caste names, tribal identity or migrant status to humiliate the workers, and impose various kinds of excesses varying from long hours of work, additional chores at landowners’ house, denying weekly allowances and holidays, not allowing migrant workers to return home during festive season.”
” The findings of study establish that the migrant agricultural workers are at the receiving end of violence of various kinds: physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, abuse based on caste and tribal background and even economic abuse in addition to the abject violation of their rights and entitlement as workers…. When the ILO (International Labour Organisation) indicators of forced labour (abuse of vulnerability, excessive overtime, debt bondage, withholding of wage, intimidation and threats, etc) are considered and the conditions of the wage sharecroppers are juxtaposed against that framework, one can only conclude that the migrant agricultural workers in the bhag-kheti system work in conditions comparable to forced and bonded labour,” the study states.
When asked if the sample size of 14 families is too less to make a larger statement on conditions similar to bonded labour in BT cottonseed farms in Gujarat, Gine Zwart, programme officer business and human rights from Arisa said, “Indeed the sample is too small to make a larger statement. However, the practice (of bhag kheti) is common in the agriculture sector in Gujarat.”
Zwart said the labour department in Gujarat is aware of this practice involving migrant agriculture workers. “The issues related to agriculture workers used to be handled by rural labour commissionerate, but since January 2020 it has been merged with labour department. So as of now, I have not received any complaints regarding exploitation of agriculture workers in North Gujarat. Secondly, if an NGO does a survey, where they find workers being exploited, they should bring it to our notice. Only then we can inquire and help them,” said Shruti Modi, assistant labour commissioner, labour and employment department.
A draft verison of this report was also sent to seed companies for their comments and modifications. Quoting one of the largest seed companies Bayer, the report states, “In their response, Bayer mentions that the group takes the issues addressed in the report very seriously and recognises them… Bayer implements a child care programme to eradicate child labour in seed production supply chain and also has a programme to ensure that mimimum wages are paid to the hired labourers.”