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Despite India's Economic Boom 26% of Population Lives below Poverty Line - 2003-09-16

The Gateway of India, a massive stone arch at the southeastern waterfront of Bombay, attracts foreign and domestic tourists alike. It is at the edge of the historical heart of India's largest city and the embarkation point for ferries to the cave temple on the Elephanta Island. Hustlers, hawkers and beggars besiege the tourists.

"Q: Where are you from? A: Pune. Q: Do you come here every day? A: Yes, I come begging. Q: Do you make a living like this? A: Yes Q: Do you make enough? A: Yes. Q: So how much do you make a day? A: 70 rupees, 20 rupees…. Q: Did you ever try to find a job? A: No job. Q: Why not a job? A: There is no job for poor people in this area. Q: You can't get a job? A: No job."

Young female beggars like this one usually have a child in one arm and an empty baby bottle in the other. Taxi-driver Maggi says the child is not necessarily theirs.

In his words, begging is almost a profession in India and some beggars are organized in union-like groups. According to Maggi, a woman can borrow a baby for a day of begging. Children as young as three or four can also be seen begging. This 10 year old girl from Pune, a town some 170 kilometers south of Bombay, says she lives in a Catholic orphanage.

"Q: Do you go to school? A: I am going to school, but today (is) holiday, no? Q: What do you want to be when you grow up? A:I am coming, I am going to school and I am here begging. Q: But what do you want to be when you grow up. A: Business. Q: Why do you beg? A: I have a small sister one month (old), that's a problem. I am here alone."

Other signs of urban poverty are the decaying and moss-ridden facades and make-shift shelters almost everywhere: in some of the central streets as well as in the suburbs, under the bridges and along the highways.

Local writer and scholar Kannan Srinivasan says the poor condition of some of the buildings does not necessarily mean poverty, but slums and beggars do: "It means that you have a peculiar real estate market in Bombay, where you have very high profits on knocking down buildings and re-building them and no returns in renting them. And so you have an economy which is focused on real estate speculation. So a lot of rich people live in these dilapidated looking buildings. That is another oddity of Bombay. But what is really appalling are the people who live in these shanty towns and many people who live on the pavement and sleep on the pavement."

Indeed, one must be careful not to step over a sleeping body on the sidewalks of Bombay and Calcutta. Mr. Srinivasan says the number of slum and pavement dwellers has grown in recent years, and they now make up more than a half of Bombay's population:

From the top floor of Nehru Center, a cylindrical tower built in the 1970's to house a museum, a planetarium, a science institute, several exhibit halls and lecture rooms, one can look down on the black and blue plastic sheets that represent roofing of the hovel community below.

Satish Sahaney, chief executive of the Nehru Center, says the economic boom has increased the purchasing power of many Indians. However, he adds the shortage of housing has become severe: "One of our problems has been, where our gains have not come to be as obvious as they should be, is the population explosion. If you continue to have this type of population growth, no amount of development would be able to match it. That has been our failure: our inability to do something about the population control."

More than 16 million people are born in India every year, which is like adding the entire population of Australia to it -- annually. The impoverished farmers coming to cities in search of jobs add to the housing problem.

But Satish Sahaney of the Nehru Center says the lack of housing is not necessarily a sign of poverty:

"Take the case of Bombay. You will see huge buildings, and side by side you will see slums. But if you say that people dwelling in these slums are poverty-stricken, I would not agree with that. Those people -- in many of the slums you will find they have refrigerators, they have TV's, they have other facilities too, but what they do not have is the space to build a house. But their earning capacity in Mumbai (Bombay) is much more than what their earning capacity would be if they were going back to their village."

Satish Sahaney notes that India is becoming less poor. Just over 26% of people live below the poverty line, compared to more than half of the population in the 1970's.

Retired government official Vappala Balachandran says the economic boom has resulted in some visible improvements in India but it has also caused some setbacks: "For example, 20 years ago, the mainstay of Bombay used to be the textile sector. There used to be about 60-70 textile mills. It used to be called the Manchester of India. What has happened is that with the churning of the economy, the edging out of unprofitable industries, those textile industries became practically dead, with the effect that all those millions of workers depending upon the traditional sector, like the textile, are unemployed."

Still, says Mr. Balachandran, many people have been able to adjust to the new economic reality, and the last decade has seen a growing middle-class in India.

Writer and scholar Kannan Srinivasan contends that the development has been too limited and uneven: "You have this paradox that at one level you can buy virtually any consumer good and you have an information-technology economy operating in Bombay and Bangalore and places like that, servicing large western companies like Microsoft. And at the other end, you have this completely terrible poverty and people living in terrible conditions and suffering from virtually medieval illnesses."

More than two million new cases of tuberculosis occur in India every year and half a million new cases of cancer. Malaria, leprosy and AIDS are among other common diseases. Child mortality due to contaminated drinking water is also still relatively high. (It is estimated that more than 150 million people lack access to safe drinking water.) Average life expectancy for both men and women is below 60.

Illiteracy and poverty often go hand in hand. One-third of the adult population cannot write, making India the country with the world's largest number of illiterates.

Satish Sahany expects a combined effort of the government, private sector, non-governmental groups and volunteers will help reduce that problem.

I saw that children from Calcutta slums have learned to sing a little song in English through volunteer effort. Aged five to twelve, most of them work to help support their families and take classes for just a few hours a day.

"Q: What do you want to become when you grow up? A: Doctor. Teacher. Doctor…" With kids like these, the future of India twinkles (as in the nursery rhyme).