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Many Indians Find Promised Prosperity Elusive - 2004-04-22

India's economy has surged over the last decade and is now one of the world's fastest growing. Over the next few weeks, voters are casting ballots in national elections -- and many politicians have been promising continued growth. But many villages have seen little of India's new prosperity.

The village of Nath Purwa in India's state of Uttar Pradesh is like millions of others across the country. Located down a bumpy dirt road an hour from the nearest highway, the village has no electricity and its 1,200 people live in simple mud houses.

While the village looks much like many others, it has a difference: Nearly every woman in the village, aid workers say, is - or has been - a prostitute.

"This practice of prostitution has been going on for about 300 years in this village," says Sandeep Pandey is with the aid organization "Asha," or "Hope," which operates in Nath Purwa. "But the basic cause is poverty."

Most villagers in Nath Purwa are "Dalits," or untouchables, the lowest level in the Hindu faith's caste system. Thousands of years old, the caste system is a social hierarchy for India's Hindu majority that governs whom an individual may marry and what work he or she may do.

Many members of higher castes refuse to touch or share a table with a Dalit. But aid workers say the aversion is overlooked when it comes to paying for sex, making prostitution one way a low-caste woman can earn a living.

"It started out as a tradition," says Ms. Chandralekha, a former prostitute in Nath Purwa. "The women were all prostitutes and the men in the village lived off their income. About 25 years ago, some women decided to stop. But even now, girls are being supplied to Bombay."

Although Ms. Chandralekha has been out of prostitution for 20 years, she still remembers the shame. "I used to feel extremely bad. I was a burden to my children," she says. "They didn't want to be seen with me - they wouldn't even give me a ride on their bicycles."

Around India, politicians are campaigning for the national elections, which began April 20. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads the ruling coalition, is facing the Congress Party, which until the late 1990's dominated Indian politics.

The BJP is touting the country's economic growth using the campaign slogan "India Shining."

The ad shows happy, middle-class families receiving tax returns, driving down new highways, or celebrating the success of the stock market. Reforms since the early 1990's have steadily pushed India's economy higher.

Last year, gross domestic product grew by 7.5 percent, making India one of the fastest growing major economies. And since 1991, United Nations data show, the number of extremely poor Indians - those living on less than $1 a day - has dropped by more than 120 million people.

Still, 26 percent of the population lives below that minimal level. Aid workers say India's poor have received little attention since campaigning began and the most impoverished areas have not benefited enough from the nation's economic gains.

Mr. Pandey from Asha says Nath Purwa - like most other poor villages - is not on the campaign trial. He talks about the contrast between the Uttar Pradesh capita, Lucknow, and surrounding villages.

"You will have roads in Lucknow, which will be lighted all night?. You will play the game of cricket at night and you will light up the entire stadium," says Mr. Pandey. "But you will not bring electricity to the real people. I don't think these people have been even touched remotely by this India Shining."

BJP Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani dismisses the criticism that the poor are being ignored. "They went about looking for all shortcomings in the present situation - and there are so many," he says. "We have never claimed that we have solved the problems of poverty or backwardness. We are saying that we would do it by 2020."

Many people, however, are not waiting for the government to solve their problems.

Ms. Chandralekha saved her daughter from prostitution through one of the few avenues available to poor Indian women: she found her a husband. Now, working with Asha, she counsels other women in the village. "I tell women they should not pass on their suffering to their girls. For a few hundred rupees they are forced into a life of hell," she says. "I tell them my example - that I was a prostitute and I got my daughter married off. It just takes a little bit to get it done."

As one of India's millions of poor, Ms. Chandralekha's life has hardly been touched by a government or political party - making her someone the politicians need to reach if they want to change India for good.