Cover Story
Reinhard Krause/Reuters/Landov

Dreams and reality

India's Commonwealth Games this month highlight the country's phenomenal economic growth and persistent poverty

Issue: "On the rails," Oct. 9, 2010

NEW DELHI-Near the center of a traffic-packed circle in the streets of New Delhi, a neatly landscaped hill boasts bright green grass and shiny silver balls atop tall steel poles. Under a nearby overpass, rows of bare feet and small children peek out of tattered tarps and makeshift tents, settling in for nightfall.

It's a tale of two Indias packed into one city. Landscape and construction projects mark the capital city's massive effort to prepare for the upcoming Commonwealth Games-an Olympic-style athletic event set for Oct. 3-14 that could draw as many as 10,000 athletes and 500,000 spectators from 54 nations and territories once under British rule. It's the first time that India has hosted the event, and only the second time that the games-held every four years since 1950-have come to Asia. For Indian officials, it's a high-­profile opportunity for the developing nation to impress the developed world.

But a series of game-related debacles-and the city's massive population of poverty-stricken residents-betray a nationwide reality that impressive sports stadiums can't erase: In its sprint toward modernity, India continues to leave masses of needy citizens at the starting line.

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Though a handful of Indian politicians appear poised to offer more government handouts by raising the official poverty line, those efforts won't solve long-term, entrenched problems that have left nearly 40 percent of the country's 1 billion citizens living on less than $1.25 a day. For poverty-stricken Indians to capture a taste of the country's rapidly growing economy, the best opportunities may be efforts that allow the poor to become more productive, instead of more dependent.

Even as Indian officials spent an estimated $6 billion to prepare for the Commonwealth Games, troubles multiplied along with the bloated costs: Corruption scandals led to the ouster of three of the games' top organizers, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ordered an investigation into allegations of corruption in at least 16 game-related projects.

At the same time, road improvements crucial to absorbing the games' large crowds remained incomplete a few weeks before the games were scheduled to start, and construction delays left crews racing to complete venues in time.

Those delays may have contributed to another crisis: an outbreak of dengue fever in New Delhi. The chairman of the city's health committee said construction delays left large holes in the ground that became breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying the virus that has infected at least 1,500 people in the city this year. Private doctors say the infection rate is likely much higher.

Even if organizers manage to complete the major projects on time, the city's problems run far deeper than game-related troubles. Striking contrasts between a growing economy and a desperate population are everywhere: On the south side of the Delhi metropolitan district, elaborate banners advertise luxury condos: "Expandable independent villas." Another sign beckons: "Discover the shades of fine living." Upscale homes aren't uncommon in the capital city of one of the fastest growing business sectors in the world: India's economy is expected to grow by nearly 9 percent-double the global average-by the end of this year.

But directly across the street, another reality blares: Handfuls of families have become squatters in a half-finished building. With no outer wall, a passerby can watch family life in progress in the exposed rooms: a woman hanging ragged towels on a clothesline, a man sleeping on a thin mat, children playing in a corner near a broken chair.

Similar dynamics plague other major cities. Huge billboards for Samsung phones, LG flat screen televisions, and HP laptops line the streets in Hyderabad, a technology center in central India. On the same streets-packed with cars, rickshaws, bicycles, mopeds, and buses scrambling for inches of space in ill-defined lanes-street children roam between vehicles at stoplights.

The begging lasts into the night: At one major intersection, a little girl, perhaps 5 years old, wanders alone down a busy median in steady rain, wearing a tattered dress and a gaunt face. She goes from car to car, feebly tapping on windows and holding an outstretched hand.

As in other developing countries, poverty hits children particularly hard: Nearly half of Indian children under the age of 3 are malnourished. In Delhi, estimates of the number of street children range from 100,000 to 500,000.

So while the overall economy may be surging, India's government planning commission raised its estimate of the country's poverty rate in April from 27.5 percent to 37.2 percent-an increase of nearly 100 million people. That number could rise next year as officials tabulate results of the country's census, and some experts believe the rate already is much higher.

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