The city of Agra is famous the world over as the location of the Taj Mahal. But it also holds economic significance: it is India's biggest footwear production hub, and meets 65% of the country’s domestic footwear requirements.
This status was achieved at great cost to lakhs of workers in the city –particularly to the children and adolescents of underprivileged families, who have long been forced to work to make shoes to contribute to the families’ meagre incomes. Despite these challenges, many of these children toiled to balance both their education and the demands of their work.
Then, the pandemic struck.
As schools shut down, and financial pressures intensified, many of these young people were pushed out of schools, and into full-time work. Ritwika Mitra visited the city in December to understand how the lives of these children had changed. Of 25 children and adolescents – or their families – that Mitra spoke to, 16 had dropped out of school during the pandemic, never to return. Twenty were working in the footwear industry, some after school hours.
The children spoke of their struggles, the injuries they suffered, and their hopes of studying. Given that she was reporting nearly three years after the pandemic hit, Mitra said, “I had assumed things were perhaps slightly different now, more children must be returning to schools. On the contrary, the ground visits showed that children were engaged in labour, in household after household.” She added, “What struck me the most was the intergenerational cycle of poverty – children being forced to pick up work even though their parents may have had dreams of a different future for them.”
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