Until 2020, it appeared that Seeku might be able to complete his education.

Then 14 years old, he was the third-eldest of six siblings who lived in the Shanti Nagar area of Uttar Pradesh’s Agra city. Their father, who had eked out a living by sewing shoes from his home, had died in his sleep in 2013, at the age of 45. The loss of his income put immense financial pressures on the family – the children’s mother, Rajesh Kumari, was forced to ask her two elder sons, then aged 11 and eight, to take up work to help the family.

“How would we eat?” she said when I met her, Seeku and her daughter Nandini at their home in early December. “I put them to work so that we can at least get rotis. My children have never had ghee or milk.”

Within six months of their father’s death, the two boys began to work at a small-scale factory around 20 minutes away from their home. They worked to sew the upper part of shoes – also known as “uppers” – and together made around Rs 100 every day.

Their income helped their mother send Seeku and two younger siblings to school. The youngest sibling, now ten, was only a few months old at the time. The children, like many in the locality, studied at private schools in the area – parents told Scroll.in they hesitated to send them to the nearest government school because it was more than 25 minutes away on foot, and because the children had to cross major roads to reach it. Pinky Jain, programme coordinator at Uttar Pradesh Gramin Shramik Shiksha Sansthan, an NGO that works in the area, explained that the organisation had been advocating for the government to open a primary school there, but that the matter had stalled during the pandemic.

The money that Seeku’s two elder brothers earned was not enough to run the household. So, around 2019, Seeku decided to go to a home-based factory to learn shoe work. He would attend school, then head to the factory, near his home. For six hours every day, he polished shoes there – one of the final steps in manufacturing them.

Then, in 2020, the pandemic hit. When classes shifted online, Seeku could neither afford the smartphone nor the internet data packs that were necessary for students to attend classes online. His education came to an abrupt halt in March 2020. When schools reopened in 2021, Kumari was hopeful that Seeku would be able to pick up where he left off, even if he had lost precious time.

But the school told her that it could no longer offer Seeku the subsidy on the fee that it had given him on humanitarian grounds since her husband died – without this support, she would not be able to afford the school. Still, she held on to hope, reasoning that she could get a transfer certificate, and enrol Seeku in a government school. But to her shock, the school demanded that she deposit the full, non-subsidised fee for the six years he had studied there since her husband’s death.

Seeku had no choice but to drop out. “I feel sad thinking Seeku will never be able to go to school again,” Kumari said. “He should also learn something like other school-going children. Instead, my child has to earn money. If their father was alive, all of my children would also be going to school.”

Now, Seeku polishes shoes for around ten hours a day, for which he earns Rs 200. He cannot estimate how many pieces he polishes each day. The rough amount of Rs 4,000 that Seeku earns for around 20 days of work is one-third of the total monthly income of the family of seven. The money he earns helps keep the family afloat, and send three children to school.

Seeku’s family faced financial distress after his father died in 2013. His elder brothers started work in a shoe factory to support the family. In 2019, 13-year-old Seeku, too took up similar work. Photo: Ritwika Mitra

Seeku’s story is far from unique. Data shows that the pandemic severely disrupted the education of children in India, as it did of children across the world. A 2021 UNICEF report noted that in India, the “closure of 1.5 million schools due to the pandemic and lockdowns in 2020 has impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools”. It further estimated that 9 million children were at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of the pandemic.

In Shanti Nagar, children struggled to attain an education even before the pandemic. In 2016, the local NGO, Uttar Pradesh Gramin Shramik Shiksha Sansthan, surveyed 876 families in the area. They found that 250 children among the 1,200 they surveyed had either never gone to school or had dropped out. In 2018, the NGO set up a school in the area, named Muskan, where they enrolled students aged between six and 16, and sought to prepare them to study in more formal schools.

But when the pandemic struck, funding to the NGO from private donors plummeted, forcing it to shut down the school. There were 125 children enrolled with Muskan at the time.

“When we started the school in 2018, it was extremely difficult for us to convince families to let their children attend school,” Pinky Jain noted. “Many children were already working, and attending school would mean they would lose their income. We held several meetings at the community level to make them understand why they should send children to school. After the first year, we had managed to put 110 children in different schools.”

Now, she said, they were “back to square one and worse.” She added, “The efforts made to put children in school have now been undone. A large number of children who we managed to get enrolled dropped out of schools again during the pandemic.”

Though there has been no follow-up survey, according to Jain’s rough estimate, around 300 children in the area dropped out of schools during the pandemic.

“Children from marginalised groups were already at risk of dropping out even before the lockdown struck,” said Ankit Vyas, an independent education consultant and co-author of a report published by OXFAM on the impact of the pandemic on education. “With physical closure of schools and lack of access to education, their dropping out of education became inevitable.”

Scroll’s reporting from the area suggests that many children and adolescents whose education was disrupted by the pandemic were absorbed into the shoemaking industry. We spoke to 25 children and adolescents – or their families – who were of school-going age at the time the pandemic struck. Only nine of them were in school. Sixteen had dropped out during the pandemic. Twenty of the children were engaged in the footwear industry, including six who worked after attending school.

Indian law prohibits the employment of children under 14 – thus, Seeku’s employers were in violation of the law when they hired him the year before he turned 14. Now, technically, they are not barred from employing him in shoe-making – the occupation is not among those classified as hazardous under the law, and for which the law prohibits employing both children, and adolescents like Seeku.

But this technicality elides the fact that adolescents like Seeku suffer physical harm from shoe-making work. As a 2005 paper noted, work in the footwear industry carries a range of risks – workers can suffer exposure to wood and plastic dust, piercing injuries, ergonomic hazards and exposure to chemicals in adhesives and glues.

R Venkat Reddy, national convener of the Hyderabad-based non-profit MV Foundation, which works on the problem of child labour, and was a partner in the 2016 Agra survey, noted that the process of assembling shoes “is hazardous as a lot of chemicals are involved in it”. He added, “children work in hazardous conditions at these workplaces because they are often handling leather, and work in dark rooms. So the working conditions are inhumane. They also handle glue, which they are inhaling.”

Syed Rizwan Ali, state coordinator and nodal officer of child labour and bonded labour at the Uttar Pradesh government’s labour department, noted that while shoe-making was not listed under the hazardous category for adolescents, “there are processes in the assembling of it where chemicals are being intensively used. In that case, it becomes hazardous.”

Indeed, the children and adolescents of Shanti Nagar bore signs of injury from their work. “Look at his hands,” Kumari said. “Look at what the chemicals do to his hands.” At first, Seeku clasped his hands closed more tightly, then he opened them reluctantly – his palms were cracked and blackened from the hours of polishing shoes.

Ali noted that a major challenge of tackling the problem is that “a lot of the work in the supply chain is home-based”. He added, “A lot of the organised sector, including the factories are very smart – you would not find children in the premises. But it becomes difficult for us to regulate when work is sub-contracted and goes to the household level where children are engaged.”

The economist Jayati Ghosh pointed out that the law has done little to ensure that children don’t work. “In the absence of adequate compensation for adults working in the informal sector, families can turn to children to generate additional income,” she said. “When the livelihood of adults is inadequate to provide for the family, survival strategies can encompass bringing children into work.”

Workers like Seeku support a massive economic sector. India is the second-largest global producer of footwear in the world after China, and Agra alone meets 65% of the domestic requirements, and 25% of the total exports. The sector remains largely unorganised, and built on the labour of home-based workers. According to 2020 estimates, around 3.5 lakh skilled workers are active in Agra in around 30,000 units, which are mostly in homes, and which produce around 2 lakh pairs of footwear per day.

Umi Daniel, director of migration and education at Aide et Action International, pointed out children remain invisible in the home-based industries, and live precarious lives. “First, the government should ensure that children who dropped out of education are re-enrolled in schools and receive quality education,” Daniel said.

Further, Daniel noted, “the government needs to track if the informal workers are covered by social protection schemes and the public distribution system. Without these measures, it is unlikely that children will remain in schools and not go back to work.”

Syed Rizwan Ali, from the state’s labour department, told Scroll that the government had planned several interventions to tackle the problem. Among them was one named Naya Savera, under which children who drop out of schools are identified, and categorised as “never enrolled, early drop-outs or permanent drop-outs”. In such cases, Ali explained, “we are trying to tie up the families with some welfare schemes of the government, so that the families do not push the children for income, and to retain the children in schools.” He added that in cases of children who had lost their parents in the pandemic, “the labour department has a scheme in place where we are giving Rs 1,000 to boys and Rs 1,200 to girls.”

This story is part of Common Ground, our in-depth and investigative reporting project. Sign up here to get a fresh story in your inbox every Wednesday.

Among the most common tasks assigned to children who work in Agra’s home-based shoe industry is the making of shoe uppers – this involves applying glue on pre-cut material and stitching it into shape. The uppers are then sent to sweatshops, in each of which typically between 25 and 30 people work to affix the lower parts of the shoe and finish the product.

Suraj, who is 12 years old and lives in Shanti Nagar, dropped out of school during the pandemic, after Class 4. He was then sent off by his parents last year to a sweatshop where he learnt to sew uppers. “I learnt it in a day,” he said. “In one hour, I can make two pairs.” Interviews with children and young adults of Shanti Nagar indicated that they were paid between Rs 5 and Rs 7 per pair of uppers depending on their level of expertise, and on the sub-contractor handing out the work.

Suraj, who studied till Class 4, said he didn’t like the work he did. He enjoyed school, though he “had difficulty remembering things”.

Suraj’s father earns a living by loading and unloading material at a hardware store – work came to a halt during the pandemic, leaving the family in financial distress. Now, he gets sporadic employment as a porter. He works on shoes at home on other days. Suraj’s mother, Mala, also does the same work.

Mala explained that keeping her child out of school was a matter of survival for the family – it allowed them to save precious funds needed to feed themselves. “Should we educate our kids or should we feed them?” she said. “We can do either.”

Mala has two more children, both daughters, who stay in Bareilly with her mother. They studied for some time because their grandmother sent them to school. But now, Mala explained, one had dropped out, while the other is continuing. Both work with shoes when they visit their parents in Agra.

Mala seemed unsure that they would be able to continue their education. “Education is for kids of people who have money,” she said. “We cannot educate our kids.”

Among the most common tasks assigned to children who work in Agra’s home-based shoe industry is the making of shoe uppers. They are paid between Rs 5 and Rs 7 for each pair they make. Photo: Ritwika Mitra

Dhananjay Tingal, executive director at the nonprofit Bachpan Bachao Andolan, explained that entire families are often involved in home-based industry work because wages are dependent on the number of pieces produced, or worked on. “This means that you would earn relatively more money if you take up more work, “ he said. “Invariably, families involve children who mean extra hands. Education becomes secondary in these cases.”

Seventeen-year-old Mamta also works to sew uppers, for which she now earns Rs 6.5 per pair. Mamta grew up in Fatehabad village in Agra district, where she went to school. Her parents moved to the city a little over five years ago, after encountering financial troubles in the village – her father earned a living selling vegetables. They could not afford to send her to school, but eventually, she enrolled in Muskan, the NGO’s school. She dreamt of being a teacher when she grew up.

But her studies were also interrupted when the school shut down during the pandemic “I thought I would grow up to be a teacher,” she said when I met her at her home in Shanti Nagar. “But not anymore. There is no money to study. I feel sad about it.”

Mamta had no work on that particular day. Because work is sporadic, when it does come in, she devotes all her time to complete it – if she finishes orders on time, on an average week she earn arounds Rs 1,500.

R Venkat Reddy said the lack of regulation of companies in various supply chains is one of the biggest challenges in containing child labour. “The only link between the companies and the workers is the sub-contractor who hands out work to them,” he said.

Because the industry is informalised, workers have an even lower status than they otherwise would, he added. “This creates a burden on the family to work on the piece rate, which means getting more hands to do the work,” he said. “There is no respect for labour laws. Children end up having erratic work timings, eating timings, and continue to work in poor conditions.”

Even those who do study lose out on other opportunities and experiences, Reddy explained. “They return from school, drop their bags and start working,” he said. “They cannot focus on any extra-curricular activities like other children.”

The work extracts a cruel toll from the children. As her brothers watched television inside, and her mother washed clothes, Mamta, who starts work at 9 am and continues through the day, spoke about how the long hours affected her health. “My hands get cuts,” she said. “ My back starts hurting. I get headaches and have problems with my vision.”

But Mamta’s mother, Beervati, said there was no question of her daughter going back to school. “She is engaged, and will get married soon,” she said. She added that once Mamta is married and shifts to her in-laws’ house, Beervati would struggle to support her family without the help of Mamta’s income.

Mamta’s friend Ragini, who also lives in Shanti Nagar, was also present at her home – she had her first experience of schooling in Muskan, before it shut. Ragini had brought pieces of shoes with her to work on, since she could not afford to lose time from her work. “See, this is the thread that cuts our hands,” Mamta said, holding up a piece of the thread that Ragini was working on.

“The needle and the thread leave wounds on my hands,” said Ragini who is 13. “I get aches as I work all day sewing these. I start working around 8 am and work until 4 pm. I also work during the evenings. I can do one pair in around half an hour.”

Seventeen-year-old Mamta’s education was interrupted by the pandemic, after which she took up more work. The hands of children who work on shoes are left scarred as a result of the work. Photo: Ritwika Mitra

Ragini’s father also works on shoes – sometimes at a factory, sometimes at home. Her brother does the same work at home, and has never attended a formal school. Ragini’s teenaged sister, who also attended Muskan was married off in the lockdown.

“We are doing work out of compulsion. If we do not work, how will we eat?” Ragini said.

Despite the constraints that working imposes on them, and the physical injuries they suffer, ironically, for some children it was in fact work that enabled them to study – and the cessation of work because of the lockdowns during the pandemic that also led to the end of their education.

Seventeen-year old Aman studied up to Class 10, precisely because he met some of his educational expenses by working at a shoe factory after school hours. But in 2020, when the pandemic hit, he lost this income, and did not enrol for Class 11 for a number of months. “Once work stopped, there was no income,” he said.

When factories started opening up, and he began to find work again, he enrolled at a private school. He did not attend classes, but prepared for his exams at home after his factory hours. Last year, he passed his Class 12 exams with a second division. Earlier, he had aspirations to pursue a college degree in commerce but now, he said, he planned to just continue working.

Seventeen-year-old Nitin, who, before the pandemic, helped his father sew shoe uppers after his school hours, now does the same work fulltime. The work allowed him, together with his elder sister, to save and invest in a second-hand smartphone for Rs 3,000 last year.

“I did not have a smartphone when online classes started,” said Nitin, who was studying in Class 9 when the lockdown struck. “We did not have any money then.”

He added that he felt a sense of responsibility to support his household. “See, everything is about money,” he said. “When the lockdown struck, we could not go to school. Now, we are not kids anymore. We can sense the household’s financial situation. So we have to make decisions accordingly.”

Now, he added, “it is too late to go back to school. I would have passed my school finals by now if I did not have to drop out.”

While the pandemic struck a particularly harsh blow to the educational dreams of Agra’s underprivileged children, their struggles are, in fact, part of a continuum of previous generations’ fight to escape poverty.

Dilip Kumar, who is 45 years old, has been making shoe parts for a living for the past 30 years. His father, who worked at a shoe factory, died when Kumar was 15. Since Kumar was the eldest of four siblings, he had to shoulder the family’s financial responsibilities alongside his mother, who started running a small grocery store.

His father, who worked at a shoe factory, had never wanted Kumar to follow in his footsteps. But his death left the boy with little choice. “Soon after his death, I started going to the factory,” Kumar said. “My siblings were very young. I would work for at least eight hours. For the entire week, I would get Rs 90-Rs 100. I studied till Class 8.”

Though he continues to face financial challenges, he is determined to educate his three daughters, and one son. “I do not want my children to come in this line of work,” he said. “The income is not proportional to the labour that you put in.”

Dilip Kumar, who is 45, has been making shoe parts for a living for the past 30 years. He followed in his father’s footsteps after his father died when Kumar was 15 years old. Photo: Ritwika Mitra

Seeku’s mother Rajesh Kumari recounted that her late husband Megnath, too, had been sucked into work in the shoe industry as a young boy. His father died when he was four, after which his mother started working as a daily wage labourer, and Megnath began to work in a shoe factory.

Now, Kumari, too, is trying to realise her husband Meghnath’s unfulfilled dream. Though neither she nor Meghnath ever went to school, she recounted that while he lived, her husband would say, “Hum kuch jante nahi hain, humare bachche kuch seekh jaaye” – we do not know anything, at least our kids should learn something.

While Seeku himself has given up on securing an education, his mother remains hopeful that they will find a way for him to complete it. “We will eat one meal instead of two,” she said.

For now, the family is ensuring that his two sisters, Nandini and Sonam, who are 14 and 10, are attending school. While Sonam goes to a private school, Nandini attends a government school. When asked what she wanted to do when she grew up, Sonam said in a faint voice, “Desh ki raksha,” protect the country. Seeku’s 12-year-old brother, who is also named Aman, is enrolled in a school, but is not as enthusiastic about education as his sisters, and does not attend regularly, Kumari said.

In spite of her mother’s intentions, Nandini is hanging on to her education by a thread. For the two years she did not attend school, she borrowed books from a friend and studied on her own. Her mother sent her to tuition classes for some time, but could not afford to do so for very long.

These days, she returns from school at 4.30 pm, after which she straightaway starts assisting her eldest brother, who works out of home, with cutting and thread work on shoe parts. She does this till 6 pm, and then, till 7 pm, helps her mother in making rotis. The little time she gets till 9 pm after completing her chores is dedicated to studying. Weekends mean more work hours.

Like other children, Nandini’s hands, too, bear the scars of this work – cracked skin, and scars from cuts from the needle. But her school hours still bring her considerable joy. She recounted with delight the subjects that she studies – English, geography, science and Sanskrit; then, she giggled, and admitted that she has barely been able to learn any Sanskrit. She also spoke fondly of sharing lunch with her friends on days her mother was unable to pack her a meal. “My best friend Reena brings macaroni on some days,” she said, smiling.

On being asked what she would like to be when she grows up, her face brightened up. “Sometimes I think I will become a teacher, sometimes I think a doctor,” she said.

It continues to gnaw at Kumari that three of her sons have had to drop out of school. “Like my daughters are studying, my sons should also study,” she said. “I am unlettered. I thought my children would learn to write their names. I can’t sign. I put my thumb stamp.”