Cover Story

Dreams and reality

"Dreams and reality" Continued...

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

Officials will likely conduct a separate survey of rural areas next year to gauge poverty. Past surveys have included a point system. For example, a family scores zero points if they go to the bathroom in the open. They earn four points if they use a private latrine. Electricity, running water, a telephone, and a concrete foundation all raise a family's point level-and deems them less poor in the eyes of the state.

Those scores are used to determine who is eligible for government aid, usually in the form of a ration card used for obtaining rice and kerosene. Some government officials have created national fanfare by proposing that the state add 100 million families to the subsidy rolls next year.

But that plan could be fraught with problems and do little to address entrenched poverty: In the past, the government has capped the number of ration cards it distributes, meaning many families already are left out. Others say families who don't need the cards still obtain them through bribes to local officials. And government officials estimate that as much as one-third of the grain they buy to distribute to the poor is stolen before it reaches its destination.

For some of India's poorest population, ration cards are moot. For example, Renu, a single woman I met living in a rural village in central India, would earn few "points" for owning any assets: Her one-room house has no electricity and no running water. She cooks with firewood and uses an open latrine behind her house. But Renu doesn't get a ration card. The only help she receives comes from a small, evangelical church tucked away on a side street in the predominantly Hindu village. The congregation-made up of other poor, rural families-began helping Renu when her husband abandoned her after the death of their young son several years ago. Renu has lived alone ever since. Her pastor says Renu's single status since her abandonment makes it more difficult to get a ration card, since she doesn't have a family to support.

The same is true for Sujin, an elderly member of the church. The 80-year-old man has slept in the one-room church building for five years, where church members share their food with him. The widower is unable to perform the labor-intensive jobs that once sustained him, and his only son refuses to care for him. He hasn't received government help, but he has found material aid at the church, along with spiritual renewal.

The church's care for members like Renu and Sujin (not their real names, but used to protect their safety and livelihoods) isn't rooted in handouts. Through the assistance of the Dallas-based mission group Gospel for Asia (GFA), the church leadership is offering some of its poorest members opportunities to become financially productive.

GFA helped the church supply Renu with a sewing machine that she uses for local tailoring jobs. She also teaches sewing to other women in the village. Most weeks she earns more than twice the income she once earned at inconsistent day jobs.

The church gave Sujin a mobile, coin-operated phone that he carries through the village each day. With many residents living without landlines or cell phones, he has plenty of customers, and he makes enough cash to buy toiletries and other small items at the end of the month.

White-haired with intense eyes, Sujin cradles the bright yellow box as he explains how the phone works, clearly grateful for the chance to work. But mostly the former Hindu seems thankful for the spiritual opportunities he's found at the church. "Until five years ago, I was living in idol worship, and nobody cared for me," he said. "But now I am free because of Jesus Christ."

GFA, like many other Christian organizations, helps churches with similar labor-based projects all over India and also focuses on another root problem of poverty: lack of education and literacy. The group helps local churches establish projects called Bridge of Hope centers in poor communities to provide tutoring and meals to thousands of children across the country.

That's a major boon for many families, particularly ones from lower castes. Hinduism-India's predominant religion-dictates a caste system that assigns social standing based on birth. The poorest Indians usually comprise the Dalits, or the "untouchables."

Though the influence of the caste system is waning in some parts of India, particularly in the south, it remains strong in many areas. In one largely Dalit neighborhood in Delhi, signs of poverty are everywhere, including open sewage running through the rutted, dirt roads, and heaps of trash burning on street corners.

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