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Child labour "rampant" 15 km off Gujarat capital in Shertha chili segregating fields

By Kevin Antao*
Shertha, a semi-urban town area 15 kilometres away from Gujarat capital Gandhinagar, and situated on the bustling Ahmedabad-Mehsana highway, comes to life from the first week of February till April-end, when its fields are filled with different shades of red chilies or red peppers.
Shertha is one of the 21 town areas of Gandhinagar taluka of Gandhinagar district. According to administration records, it has 1844 houses. With a population of around 9,000, of whom 51% of whom are males, the literacy rate here is 82% as against female literacy rate of 69%. Just about 14% of the working population (around 3,400) of Shertha is dependent on agriculture.
This is the place where two major chili varieties, Reshampatti and Kashmiri, apart from many others from across the country, make their way each year. If Reshampatti chilies are mainly used by Guajaratis and Maharashtrians for pickle purpose, the Kashmiri chili is smaller, rounder and less pungent, but lends a very bright red color to the food, and is mostly used in tandoori dishes.
Shertha is the place where the stalks of chilies are removed, are dried in sunlight, and then crushed into powder. There are around ten units involved in this massive business. Workers employed by these units remove the stalks, segregate them and dry chilies.
The workers are not just locals from Shertha, but also migrants from Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Many of them come here with their families, including children.
The Government of India may have banned child labour, but here one can see many children from the age of six working for the segregation of chilies. They remove stalks of chilies, which, say those involved in the job, become a cause of major health hazard to kids, who inhale their pungent smell.
These children along with their parent sit in the open fields exposed to the cold winds of February and hot sun of March-April. The Right to Education Act does not appear to have touched them. They do not go to school, as they are busy working with their parents, often for more than eight hours a day.
These chilies, once dried are crushed into powder, are a hot favourite with Non-Resident Gujaratis (NRGs) living in USA, UK and Canada, to whom they are exported, as also the middle classes and elite sections of Gandhinagar, Ahmedabad and other neighbouring cities.
One of the dealers claimed, this is a 200 years old busy, bringing in good financial benefits.
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*Independent photo journalist, based in Gandhinagar

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