BURLINGTON, Vermont — India has recently overtaken China’s title as the most populous country in the world, with more than 1.4 billion people settling in the ridges of India’s land. The population in India has been on a steep uptick long enough to have decades’ worth of health legislation attempting to prevent further population growth. Urban spaces in India are choking with the sheer number of people roaming the streets and attempting to find a home in garbage piles of city waste.
No part of India is spared from the abrasive hand of poverty, but urban poverty is unique in that all of India looks to the cities for their economic development. The ever-growing population only adds to the number of people struggling to maintain a life for themselves and their families in an abusive and suffocatingly crowded environment. People struggle to survive, seeking any possible job they can get, leading them to wage jobs in sectors such as India’s leather tanneries, where human rights violations are commonplace.
Poverty in India
CNN reported in 2017 that almost 60% of India’s people live on a little over $3 a day and more than 20% are fighting to survive beneath the World Bank’s poverty line of $2 a day. India lacks balance in wealth distribution, as the top 10% of India’s richest people control 80% of the country’s wealth, leaving the rest of the country to fight over the remaining 20% to maintain a survivable life.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Dr. Jonah Steinberg, an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of Global Studies at the University of Vermont, explains that “Poverty in India is largely a legacy of colonialism—an extractive structure that sought to get as much out of India as possible in terms of both labor and resources and return very little of the yield back to India.”
Rural and Urban Differences
Steinberg describes India as having a “completely torn social fabric” that reaches all corners of the area. No part of India, rural or urban, is safe from the reach of colonialism and the poverty that ensued.
Dr. Steinberg also clarified that urban and rural poverty are different, whereas people existing in rural poverty are still “wealthy in family and place.” He further explains that “when you find a group of people who are living in shacks in urban spaces or on the street or in slums, they do not necessarily have that safety net, because they have faced the displacement in one way or another. Urban poverty is poverty, often, of everything.”
Because of their poverty in “everything,” there is a desperation that is unique to these urban spaces – often leading people to pack into whatever wage jobs they can grasp. Leather tanneries are one type of wage job that creates debilitating health and safety issues for India’s people, and yet India stands as one of the largest exporters of leather with more than 2,000 tanneries in operation, mostly in these urban spaces.
Unregulated health and safety regulations in industrial environments further exacerbate the issues of poverty in India. Steinberg explains that the lack of regulations leaves people “in utter misery,” and they are “poisoned while they do labor. They have no guarantees, they have no parental support and many of them are children.”
As many as 2.5 million people work extensive hours in India’s leather tanneries, making less than a living wage while constantly experiencing exposure to toxic chemicals that, as Dr. Steinberg said, actively poison them during their labor. In 2015, three workers died in a Tamil Nadu tannery after inhaling toxic chemicals while cleaning a holding tank; they had no protective gear and no safety training, Pulitzer Center reports.
Those experiencing poverty in India are often “not part of the formal wage system, so their life consists of living off other people’s waste and also other people’s charity—begging, busking, stealing,” Dr. Steinberg explains, so “the tanneries quickly become a job of desperation” despite the wages being under the poverty line.
In these tanneries, the workers (many of whom are children) struggle with exposure to unsafe conditions that lead to severe injury and even death; they work with heavy machinery that easily traps and harms them, toxic sludge where people have drowned, and fumes from tanning chemicals that lead to severe health issues or death, Reuters reports.
Dr. Steinberg published “A Garland of Bones: Child Runaways in India” in 2019, detailing the extent of the pain poverty inflicts on every aspect of life for children roaming the streets of India.
Poverty in India often affects children the most – ripping away vital developmental necessities like food, potable water and education. Without access to viable education, thousands of children turn to work, instead, with children as young as 5 years old working to help their families earn an income.
Child labor is illegal in India, but due to poor regulations, it has been on the rise over the past few years. In particular, child labor in Tamil Nadu has increased by 180% since 2020. Poverty is the most prominent reason children drop out of school and have to go into laborious, unsafe jobs.
Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA)
In 1980, Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi founded Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), a grassroots child rights movement that works to safeguard children from violations, such as child labor and slavery.
BBA’s vision is to “create a child-friendly world where all children are free from exploitation and abuse.” Its website highlights, BBA works to prevent exploitation, ensures legal help and provides support to victims of trafficking through rescue and rehabilitation. It also focuses on creating and promoting an accountability framework for law enforcement and other child protection agencies and safeguarding the interests of children through child-friendly policies and processes.” Thus far, it has protected more than 100,000 Indian children from the consequences of several facets of poverty, particularly exploitative child labor.
Dr. Steinberg also advocates for the “embarrassment of organizations and companies.” Exploitative systems like India’s leather tanneries seek cheap labor to spend as little as possible on production costs and there is nothing firm to hold companies accountable for their poor labor laws. He explains that methods like documentaries are a way to “really shame people who are causing harm.”
The U.S. and Europe often seek to set their company in countries like India “because labor is so cheap and so unregulated there, and so the Western—the American-European companies—that profit from this also turn a blind eye” to poor labor regulations and human rights violations, Steinberg explains.
The work of organizations such as the BBA advocates for sectors to protect the rights of children. Leather tanneries in India should be compelled to align themselves with health and safety standards that protect the people within them. With increased access to education and stricter enforcement of child labor laws, the government of India and the international community can safeguard the rights of India’s vulnerable children.
– Eden Ambrovich