NEW DELHI - Just before a quiet dawn, calls to prayer waft from a whitewashed mosque towering near the center of this city of nearly 14 million people. The end of Ramadan is nearing, and devout Muslims who fast during daylight hours of the month-long Islamic observance rise to eat their last meal until nightfall.
Over four-fifths of Indians, of course, are Hindu, but Islam also has a place: About 13 percent of Indians are Muslim. The major religion that has only a toehold is Christianity, the faith of about 2 percent of Indians, according to the 2001 census. But that may change.
Soon after the melodic mosque chant fades, the stillness ends again as this capital city rouses to life. By daybreak the streets of New Delhi buzz: Motorized rickshaws with squat bodies and bright yellow roofs narrowly miss compact Toyotas in crowded intersections.
Clean-fuel transport trucks pass skinny men pedaling bicycles with wooden platforms bearing large bundles of cloth and small appliances. Mopeds carrying whole families, including small children and sari-clad women, dart past meandering cows, considered sacred in India.
Tall office buildings shelter thriving information technology centers in an economy as bustling as the city's streets. American corporations like Microsoft, Google, and Dell are thriving in India, and Wal-Mart announced plans last month to open a store in New Delhi by next fall.
The size of India's economy has doubled since 1991, and it averages an annual growth rate of 8 percent, almost 4 points ahead of the United States. The country's middle class is also burgeoning, and companies compete for newly disposable income. Oversized billboards in New Delhi advertise flat-screen televisions and cell-phone carriers. Near the center of the city a billboard advertising high-rise condominiums beckons buyers: "Live Your Urban Dream."
But for the dozen or so Indians camped directly beneath the billboard, urban life looks more like a nightmare: These homeless city-dwellers live in dilapidated tents and makeshift shelters, cooking bits of rice in iron pots over small fires.
They are a tiny slice of New Delhi's huge homeless population, eking out a miserable daily existence in the world's second-fastest-growing economy. Officials estimate as many as 45 percent of the city's population is either homeless or dwelling in one of many sprawling slums.
Many of the homeless in India are children, and many of them are orphans. Estimates vary on the number of street children in New Delhi, but some put the number as high as 500,000. Children as young as 4 years old roam crowded streets, targeting tourists and begging for help. Others turn cartwheels through dangerous lines of traffic, hoping to garner spare change from passersby.
Hundreds of street children live in the city's downtown train station, sleeping in tiny holes behind staircases and collecting rubbish to sell for change. Many are malnourished, and some suffer from diseases like tuberculosis. Some are addicted to a form of liquid paper they inhale from small, soaked cloths. Many spend their days jumping across the dangerous platforms while tourists and businessmen zoom by in fast trains.
New Delhi's striking mixture of progress and poverty mirrors conditions in other large cities around the country. Analysts predict that India's economy will rank in the world's top five by 2025, yet the United Nations estimates that 35 percent of Indians live on less than $1 a day. The nation's per capita income hovers around $500 a year, and about 39 percent of the population is illiterate.
Those stark contrasts reflect the economic and logistical complexities of merging two rapidly growing worlds. But they also reflect the consequences of a centuries-old caste system that remains entrenched in the religious and social fabric of Indian life.
For more than 3,000 years the Hindu caste system has dictated India's social structure. For the 300 million Indians in the sub-caste known as Dalits or "Untouchables," this usually means a life of deep poverty and hardship. Though India's constitution outlaws the caste system, the practice continues.
Most Dalits live in separate communities, scorned by others and consigned to lifelong servitude in meager-paying, menial jobs: cleaning sewers by hand, picking up trash, fixing shoes on street corners. Very few go to school. Many remain unemployed and live in abject poverty.
In recent years, thousands of Dalits have formed a political movement aimed at throwing off the chains of the Hindu caste system. In November 2001 between 50,000 and 100,000 Dalits rallied in Ambedkar Bhavan to convert en masse to Buddhism as a protest against Hindu elites.
Christian workers in India say Dalits abandoning Hinduism are often open to Christianity as well. Many evangelical organizations are now active. For example, Gospel for Asia (GFA) has for over 25 years trained indigenous missionaries and planted churches across Asia. Christians have faced persistent persecution and violence, especially in northern India, where government leaders have enacted anti-Christian legislation, but GFA now operates 54 Bible colleges with more than 9,000 students across India.
Evangelistic work is a hazardous occupation in India. Last month Hindu militants attacked five Bible school students conducting outreach in New Delhi's northern state of Uttar Pradesh. GFA officials say mob members whipped the students with heavy leather belts and burned their Christian literature. The attackers threatened to burn the students alive if they continued their outreach.
But not all GFA efforts are met with hostility. Two years ago, the organization was one of the first groups to organize relief work on India's tsunami-stricken southern coast. Devastated locals welcomed evangelical workers who provided emergency shelter and supplies. Those relief efforts led to church-planting efforts.
And hostility was not evident on a late afternoon in an open-air courtyard on a side street in one of New Delhi's lower-caste neighborhoods. Here some 75 children, many considered untouchable by large swaths of society, sit cross-legged in neat rows or on teachers' laps, singing Bible songs and saying afternoon prayers. They've spent much of the day in Christian schools, and they come here in the afternoon for tutoring, Bible stories, and an evening meal.
Through GFA more than 45,000 children, mostly from Hindu backgrounds, are enrolled full-time in schools across India. A Western sponsor makes a monthly contribution for each child. Evangelical workers go door-to-door in low-caste neighborhoods, offering parents a chance to send to school children who otherwise would be unable to go.
Most of the parents are uneducated and illiterate: Sunu Rajiv, a counselor at GFA's New Delhi center, says, "These children will be the first in their families to read and write." The children will also likely be the first in their families to speak English, a skill that could open countless doors for education and employment later in life: "Education could mean freedom for them."
As the children attempt to sing "This little light of mine," Rajiv talks about their opportunity for spiritual freedom. Counselors visit each family's home once a month to discuss the child's progress and well-being, and such meetings may lead to discussions of the parents' spiritual welfare as well. Church planting remains the primary goal of many Indian evangelicals, but they also see community development as crucial in the process of spiritual transformation.
At GFA's national headquarters, tucked in the jungles of a tropical rainforest in the southern state of Kerala, Sujata Kamat walks the halls in a flowing pink sari, fielding cell-phone calls through an earpiece. She manages a database of the 45,000 children in GFA's centers and supervises workers who profile each child. Some are deeply needy and work part of the day in factories and coal mines. Others are street children.
Kamat also oversees a database that includes 16,000 missionaries and pastors. Prayer cards featuring solemn-faced men in remote villages list ways to pray for their ministries. During a recent trip into central India's countryside, one of those solemn-faced pastors told WORLD about the severe persecution he faced during his first few years in the rural village where he lives with his wife and two children.
The drive to his small village about 15 miles outside the city of Hyderabad is full of reminders of the Hinduism that grips millions of Indians. Small square buildings painted with elaborate designs of bright yellow snakes serve as temples to a handful of the millions of Hindu gods.
When the pastor arrived with Christian literature, a group of villagers expressed interest in the gospel. Hindus gave the pastor a severe beating, knocking out his teeth and mangling his ear-but he remained in the village to serve his small congregation of new Christians. When a church group offered to dig a well for the small church of less than a dozen, the other villagers scoffed: The community had never had its own water source, and they doubted this would work.
But the pastor and his church prayed and "by God's grace and for His glory the water came," he says. The persecuted pastor announced that anyone in the village who was thirsty could come to the water and drink. Seeing the water and the pastor's perseverance "changed many hearts," he says. Today nearly 60 people crowd into the small one-room church each Sunday morning for worship.
GFA founder K.P. Yohannan has been working in India for nearly three decades, but says residents of thousands of other villages have never heard Christ's message. "One-seventh of humanity is right here," Yohannan says. "Just think of it. . . . It's incredible."
-"Sunu Rajiv" and "Sujata Kamat" are not the real names of the two evangelical workers quoted. Disclosing their real names would jeopardize their jobs and perhaps their safety.