19 june 2018

Central Asia news

Schoolchildren sent to cotton fields in Uzbekistan en masse

16.09.2004 14:45 msk

Sergei Yezhkov, independent journalist


The use of free labor of children in fulfillment of economic tasks has taken the form of annual campaigns in Uzbekistan. It does not surprise anybody anymore, and that includes the media remaining pretty indifferent instead of being indignant or critical.

This is not how things always were. When the Soviet Union was disintegrating, Uzbek elite and ruling nomenclature too smart to stick to the CPSU when the house was all but falling all around was condemning communists for the use of children in cotton plantations. As a matter of fact, they restricted their criticism to the communists who sat in Moscow and who (as it was usually said then) had transformed Uzbekistan into "a raw material appendix of the Soviet Union." By the way, this aspect of the relations between the republic and the center was one of the central theses in the populist rhetorics of Islam Karimov, a functionary on his way from the post of first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic to presidency.

Sure, there was a kernel of truth in these speculations. Let us face it, however: it was the local authorities who dispatched kids to the cotton fields year after year. They needed it to promote their own careers by making a glowing report to Moscow.

Quiet revival of old traditions began, quietly and unobtrusively, a couple of years after restoration of sovereignty. These days, the practice is used on the same scale (if not on a larger), just like 15 or 20 years ago. Every year, millions of juveniles meekly wait for the annual "mass conscription", the so called offer they cannot turn down. It cannot be turned down because of the consequences of this obstinacy - it may even cost the obstinate his or her place at a university, lyceum, or college.

So, the kids pack their folding beds (old ones, of Soviet vintage, because new ones cannot be had for love or money), mattresses, old clothes fit for fieldwork, and prepare to move into some dilapidated barn (students may hope to end up in some village school - also empty this time of the year).

Parents' humble attempts to get a medical certificate relieving their offspring are doomed to failure with an almost 100% guarantee. Doctors were told in no uncertain terms that kids and teenagers must be found healthy for the annual slavery in the fields.

Over 60% of the population of Uzbekistan lives in rural areas and more than 30% work there. Why do the authorities persist in using children?

Abundant resolutions of the government and presidential decrees notwithstanding, practically no progress has been made in reorganization of the agricultural sector. First and foremost, because peasants remain absolutely dependant on power structures of all levels and kinds. They do not decide what and when to sow, when to water or to harvest. They do not handle the crop - they cannot even sell even a part of the cotton yield. As for the structures that do sell it, they are not in a hurry to pay peasants. Even if and when it happens, peasants get only 3% or 4% of the real cost.

On Karimov's order, the Prosecutor General's Office set up a special structure to handle obstinate peasants. The structure has its divisions all over the country. Its functions boil down to additional control over the agricultural sector regardless of the form of property. As of now, prosecutors can check the depth of plowing (and punish for violation of norms) and concurrence of actual plantations to the grain quotas with instructions...

Peasants' meek attempts to at least lessen the pressure usually fail. Political parties of agrarians and businessmen denied official registration, Ozod Dekhkonlar cannot change the situation radically because they are not legitimate. Neither can an open mutiny of peasants against the dictatorship be relied upon. Even should living conditions become outright intolerable.

A colleague of mine back from Karakalpakstan spoke of a small settlement Kazakhdarja located 90 kilometers from Nukus. No drinking water, money, shops, or drugstore. One doctor per 3,000 residents. He attends births, pulls out rotten teeth, treats kids, and operates on patients when no other option is available. Phonendoscope is all he has by way of equipment. Medicines are out of the question. The so called Train of Health arrived in Karakalpakstan not long ago, in the full glare of publicity organized by the local media. Shortly speaking, populists of the Ekosan (a nomenclature-ecological organization) brought a couple of bottles of carbonated water to the population of the settlement.

It's best not to expect any changes for the better.

Meanwhile, truckloads carrying meager possessions of provincial schoolchildren run to cotton plantations.

Slowly and obediently.