The first thing that struck me was that the streets were spotless, polished clean with the swing of hundreds of broom strokes a day. Women squatted in front of their corrugated iron homes, wearing ragged sweaters and hats to ward off the January Delhi chill. They chatted while they ripped the feathers off scrawny, recently butchered chickens. Pre- school-age children played with sticks in the dirt, and one three-year-old girl in a dusty pink hoodie with bunny ears confidently grabbed my hand.

The waste-picker slum community that I visited in east Delhi in January 2015 works off the landfill. Every day parents and children hike a one- thousand-foot tall mountain of rubbish and hunt for plastic bottles, metal cans, and other goods, which they then sell to recyclers, earning about eight dollars per family each day. In India the 1.5 million waste pickers reside near the bottom of the social and economic ladder.

Mohammad Asif and his family are among the more affluent in the community. In addition to the one-room hut he shares with his wife and children, he has a small, covered storage area where his extended family works at separating small mountains of plastic water bottles f rom Tetra Pak juice packs and aluminum cans. The poorer slum residents (who have no storage area) sell their daily finds to Mohammad, who sorts and stores them to sell to larger, more professional recyclers. He pays significant rent for his hut to a slum landlord. His family has enough food to eat, but barely.

Mohammad’s lanky, elegant daughter Farida is in first grade at a government school and also studies at the special learning center for children in the slum that a nonprofit organization that helps waste pickers, called Chintan, has set up. The learning center helps her catch up with the other kids in her formal school, and additionally serves as day care: it keeps her and other children off the toxic waste dump where her parents work, and where she would be exposed to chemicals and disease.

Supriya Bhardwaj, the energetic, young director of Chintan’s children’s programs, walked me around the learning center and the slum community, and explained much about the life of Delhi’s urban poor. We stepped gingerly around several cows feeding on trash and over an open sewer, and then climbed rickety stairs to a collection of four tiny, windowless rooms on the second floor of a listing concrete structure. In each room fifteen or so children sat happily on the floor in front of a teacher, learning basic writing and math, and spontaneously sang a welcome song for me.

Supriya explained that it is an enormous challenge to get the local families to trust Chintan enough to send their kids to the school. “You must understand, each child that is in our learning center is not out on the land- fill trash picking, and that takes several hundred rupees a day away from the family income. Our teachers walk through the slum every morning to bring the children here. It is positive peer pressure, and they love to come, and beg their parents to let them go.”

In total, almost 65 million Indians live in urban slums, and 300 million live under the World Bank poverty line, which is a depressingly low $1.25 each day. Almost a third of the rural Indians and a quarter of its city dwellers are this destitute. This seemingly incurable poverty—despite decades of effort—is the most fundamental problem India faces on its way to becoming a true world power. It is the issue that keeps Indian politicians up at night, determines whether they are reelected, and has until recently kept Indian leaders—who were preoccupied with solving these domestic issues—from engaging more deeply in international affairs.

By contrast, China’s economic juggernaut has lifted many millions out of poverty, so fewer Chinese live in extreme deprivation. According to the latest World Bank data, in 2011 approximately 84 million Chinese lived on less than $1.25 per day, many of those in the rural interior of the country.

The massive efforts the Chinese government has made to build hous- ing in the country’s interior means there are far fewer Chinese urban slums like the one I visited in eastern Delhi. However, vast income dispar- ities remain. While the GDP per person in Shanghai and Beijing is close to that of Portugal or the Czech Republic, the per capita GDP of interior provinces like Xinjiang resembles that of Congo. As a result, hundreds of millions of migrant workers left their farms in the interior over the past three decades in search of higher incomes in the giant metropolises near the coast. Until recently the government attempted to ignore this enor- mous migrant community of nearly 220 million people. Instead it tried to push them back to their villages by refusing to provide them with any services at all in the cities.

Xian and her younger sister Qian are two tiny, energetic women in this mass of migrant humanity.* Xian, the quieter, older sister, dropped out of high school at age sixteen, married a man her parents found for her, and moved with him to Guangzhou, where they worked in separate garment factories—twelve-hour shifts, six days a week. After two years, the garment factory reduced the number of overtime hours Xian was able to work, so they moved to Shenzen, where she and her sister were lucky enough to land a job in one of the enormous, city-like electronics factories that assemble our cell phones and tablets.

Xian and Qian do not live in a slum, but their life is at times more reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle than Mohammad’s life i n Delhi. Their dorm room, for which they each pay 100 yuan (sixteen dollars) in rent a month, has eight bunk beds covered in polyester blankets. Suitcases under the beds hold the women’s few possessions. It smells of Chinese noodles and inexpensive room freshener. A blanket covers the one filthy window at all times, because five of the room- mates work at night, and the others during the day, so someone is al- ways sleeping.

Xian last saw her husband three months ago because he lives in a similar men’s dorm attached to a different factory across town. “That’s fine,” she comments; “it’s better than fighting all the time when he is around.” It is harder for Xian to talk about her one-year-old daughter, who lives with her husband’s parents in their home village in Hunan. She sees the little girl only once a year, during the spring festival, and says “she hardly recognizes me.” Xian talks about her family as if she is describing someone else’s life—with no real feeling. She acts a decade older than her twenty-two years and is quite pessimistic about her future. Young factory workers are more often single, but being married, like Xian, is not unheard-of. Migrant workers endure long separations from their partners and children in order to make enough money to send home. The Economist estimates that 61 million Chinese children are left with relatives in villages while their parents work in big-city factories. Factory life is all-consuming, and there is not much room for personal lives. 

*I am indebted to Sungmin Rho (PhD, Stanford), assistant professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, and one of the world’s foremost experts on Chinese migrant workers, for sharing these stories with me, as well as some records and pictures of her more than three hundred interviews of migrant workers. To protect them I have changed the names of the two sisters and not disclosed the name of their employer, a well-known electronics manufacturer. Chinese migrant workers are very sensitive about speaking to foreigners and several refused to be interviewed by me, worried that the Chinese government would somehow penalize them for talking about their difficult circumstances.