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.
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.
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.
Inside a nearby Bridge of Hope center, nearly 100 elementary-age children learn that they are not untouchable, as they recite Bible verses and sit under a hand-painted sign reading: "Jesus said, Let the children come to Me."
The children also spend the afternoon learning math, science, reading, and conversational English. A social worker at the center helps neighborhood children gain entrance into local schools that sometimes turn away Dalit children. She helps others attend Christian schools, if possible.
Education is key to finding opportunities beyond the menial jobs that keep many in grinding poverty, and the young social worker says parents are eager for their children to learn: "Many of the parents can't even write their names."
Many of the parents also have trouble providing food for their families: Inflation has brought a steep climb in food prices and has left many scrambling. At the end of one recent afternoon at the New Delhi center, children sat in full classrooms, scooping rice and beans from deep, silver dishes before going home. For some, it's the only meal they'll eat all day.
If productivity and education are chipping away at deep-rooted poverty, experts say that the government should foster an economy that encourages the poor to develop and thrive.
Derek Scissors of the Heritage Foundation says increasing government intervention in markets has done more harm than good to the poor. After nearly two decades of reform that helped free up markets and create more opportunity, Scissors says the government is reversing course: "The state is shoving the private sector aside because it wants to do more and more and more."
A painful example came in August: Government officials in New Delhi admitted that they had allowed some 67,000 metric tons of grain to rot, and that another 17 million metric tons were in similar danger. The reason: layers of government intervention in markets.
The Indian government guarantees farmers a set price for grain and encourages farmers to sell their grain to the government. When government officials took in a surplus of grain this year, they sent it to the market. But they also overpriced the grain, so it didn't sell. Exporting wasn't an option because the government banned such exports in 2007.
That means the government may waste enough grain to feed 140 million people for a month in a country with a 40 percent poverty rate. The Indian Supreme Court has tried to intervene, ordering government officials to release some of the grain to the poor. It's unclear how much food will reach poor populations in time to avoid vast waste.
Meanwhile, plans for menus at the Commonwealth Games are robust: Officials promise to offer food from all over the world, including a variety of fish, chicken, vegetables, fruit, cheeses, nuts, yogurt, and salad. The Times of India reported that the central kitchen is set to serve up to 30,000 meals a day.
One church leader in central India has a chilling way of describing the persecution he says is a constant reality for many Christians in the predominantly Hindu nation: "They try to catch us from the water."
The evangelical pastor-who asked to remain anonymous to protect his ministry and his safety-says that Christians are often targets on the day of their baptism. So are their pastors. "I know one pastor who was jailed seven years for baptizing," he says.
Accounts of persecution in India ebb and flow in media reports, but Christians in India say it's an ongoing reality.
The pastor from central India says in some areas, pastors conduct baptisms in secret: Church members take different routes to rendezvous at predetermined locations to witness baptisms of new Christians. But precautions don't always work. And extremists who want to persecute Christians sometimes lure pastors into harm by asking them to come and pray for a relative or speak with them about Christ. At least three ministers who have gone to such meetings, the pastor says, were discovered dead a few days later.
Another church leader says he escaped beatings three times in reaction to his becoming a Christian in a remote village. And another pastor endured a group of radicals carrying him into a Hindu temple and trying to force him to worship other gods. He refused.
K.P. Yohannan, who is Indian and the president of the Dallas-based Gospel for Asia, says persecution is "a way of life" for many Christians in India: "There is not a day that goes by that I don't get an email or a telephone call to the extent that somebody has been beaten up."
Yohannan says that extremists often oppress Christians to wield power, especially over the lowest castes. "A Dalit who would live as a Dalit is always convinced in himself that he is less than an animal in value," he says. "But the Christian faith liberates him-he is equal in value, he is a child of God. And that is the biggest threat to the people in power."
The pastor in central India says persecution hasn't hampered the growth of the church there. "The church has grown the most since the persecutions," he says. "Persecution builds the church."