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India's New Prime Minister Pledges to Help Poor - 2004-06-24

India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, says his government will focus on improving life for the country's poor people. In his first address to the nation, he also pledged to pursue peace with Pakistan.

Mr. Singh says high economic growth in recent times has improved lives for many Indians, but millions of citizens are still afflicted by what he called illiteracy, disease, want and hunger. In a televised address to the nation, he vowed to implement policies that remove economic disparities and improve the lives of disadvantaged people.

"Growth is not an end in itself," he said. "It is a means to generate employment, banish poverty, hunger and homelessness, and improve the standard of living of the mass of our people."

Mr. Singh's address to the nation came a month after he took office following the surprise victory of his Congress Party in general elections. The previous Hindu-nationalist government had projected India's recent economic growth as its achievement, but the campaign failed to convince rural and urban poor who still lack access to basic services such as schools and clean water.

Prime Minister Singh now promises to give a new deal to rural India, where 70 percent of Indians live. He says his government will boost agricultural growth, provide easier credit to farmers, invest in irrigation and improve education and health facilities for the country's poor.

Prime Minister Singh also reiterated a pledge to improve New Delhi's relations with neighbor Pakistan. The commitment from India's top leader comes two days before both countries begin a high-level dialogue to solve their dispute over Kashmir and ease their tensions.

"We desire to live in a neighborhood of peace and prosperity," he added. "We will actively pursue the composite dialogue with Pakistan. We are sincere about resolving all issues including Jammu and Kashmir."

Mr. Singh also vowed to continue a dialogue with separatist groups in Kashmir, where India has been battling a violent Muslim insurgency for the past 14 years, but he said terrorism continues to be a challenge for India, threatening the country's internal security.

The prime minister also pledged warmer ties with the United States, but said India will work for a multipolar world order that meets the aspirations of developing countries.

Mr. Singh is a professional economist who liberalized India's economy in the early 1990s when he was the finance minister. He now vows to pursue those reforms with a human face but critics have questioned how his government plans to fund its ambitious programs to help the poor.