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India's President Stresses Economic Growth, Peace, in First Speech to Lawmakers - 2004-06-07

The Indian government unveiled its new program of continued economic growth, pledging to improve the lives of millions of rural poor. The government is promising to promote religious harmony throughout India, which has been wracked in the past by communal bloodshed.

President Abdul Kalam read the speech outlining the government's policies before both houses of parliament Monday in his largely ceremonial role as India's non-ruling head of state.

Speaking on behalf of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, President Kalam says the government's goal is to make India's more than one billion people "smile" through economic development that helps all segments of society.

"We will ensure that the economy maintains a growth rate of seven to eight percent a year, in a manner that generates employment and provides an assured livelihood for each family," he said.

Specifically, the government says it will spend two to three percent of India's gross domestic product, or GDP, on health care with a special emphasis on children, and another eight percent of GDP on education.

It also says it will increase welfare assistance for India's farmers, and improve the rights of laborers, women and minority groups.

The new government further pledged to encourage foreign direct investment and to sell state-owned companies that are not making money.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress Party won an upset victory last month in parliamentary elections, ousting the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, from power. Observers say despite India's record economic growth last year, the BJP did little to help the poor.

Critics charge that the BJP fostered religious violence through its platform of Hindu nationalism.

Mr. Kalam says the new government wants to eradicate what it called "forces of communal hatred," which it blamed for violent riots in the state of Gujarat in 2000. Up to 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed.

"The government will adapt all possible measures to promote and maintain communal peace and harmony so that minorities feel completely secure," said Mr. Kalam.

Analysts say the first real test facing the government will be the passage of the budget, which is expected in early July.