Cover Story

Up from Hinduism

An entrenched and rigid caste system fuels poverty in one of the world's fastest-growing economies yet opens many of India's poor to the work of evangelical organizations. But proclaiming the gospel in India is not without dangers

Issue: "Looking at India," Dec. 9, 2006

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.

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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.

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