Date: 7/7/2005


Thursday July 7, 08:35 PM/// FEATURE - As the world's rich meet, /// Click to enlarge photo /// By Terry Friel /// SILIGURI, India (Reuters) - Dipak Sarkar will almost certainly never see one of India's shining new shopping malls or ultramodern infotech centres, much less go inside one. But the three-year-old stonebreaker's work and sweat will go into many. /// As India joins the G8 table for the first time on Thursday, its racing economic growth, among the fastest in the world, often masks the almost unimaginable poverty that drives millions of children into slave labour, teenage girls to sell their bodies for $1, and kills countless numbers by starvation and disease. /// "There are up to 50 percent of Indians who are struggling to survive," said Sanjay Bapat, who runs an anti-poverty portal, from the financial capital of Bombay for aid agencies and companies who want to help the poor. /// "I see children who have more flies on their bodies than clothes. One meal a day is terrific. Two is unthinkable. But the sense of urgency to fight this is completely lacking." /// At an age when he should be learning to play with toys, Dipak, face locked in grim concentration and too busy to spare more than a few words, pounds river rocks into pebbles with a chunk of truck axle weighing almost a kilo. /// He works an hour a day, helping his parents fill a lorry with gravel destined for the building sites of India's economic boom. /// "I want to go to school," he says, stooping to pile another load of stones into his black singlet. It takes two or three grown men two weeks to fill a lorry, worth 800-1,000 rupees ($18-$22). /// Within sight of Dipak's pile of stones, a cheerful billboard with a perfect, smiling mother dressed in white promotes a new luxury resort - "A family entertainment zone". Dipak's mother taught him how to smash stones without smashing his fingers. /// In the wide beds of the Balason and other rivers around this town in eastern India, near Nepal, thousands of people, mainly children and old women, spend their days crushing rocks and dragging wicker baskets of heavy wet sand from the shallow water. /// Families live in one-room, dirt floor bamboo huts. Black plastic help keeps the monsoon out. /// About 30 percent of India's more than one billion people live below the official poverty line of 2,100-2,400 calories a day. /// MILLIONS STRUGGLING /// But by the global definition of earning a dollar a day, that figure jumps to about half the population -- more than 500 million, larger than the entire population of the European Union. /// And that is more than the poor in Africa, the focus of poverty talks at the summit in Scotland of the Group of Eight -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States -- where Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets leaders on Thursday. /// Not far from where Dipak works, 45-year-old grandmother Rani Shah sits in the stifling humidity surrounded by marigolds, waiting for one of her regulars to turn up at her brothel in Siliguri's Khalpara red light district, a squalid slum with excrement blackening the open drains. /// The roughly 1,000 girls here, brought by poverty and sometimes people trafficking and many looking younger than 18, earn $1-$2 a session, a bit more if they agree not to use a condom and risk becoming infected with HIV/AIDS. /// "I have to do this work for my family," Rani says, dressed in a red sari and smiling warmly. "I can't do anything else." /// Rani, who has lived in Khalpara most of her life, used to be a dancer like her mother, but she can't dance any more because of her heart condition, kidney stones and diabetes. /// She earns about 600-700 rupees ($14-$16) a week from her two or three regulars -- "all gentlemen" -- including her truckdriver "husband" when he can spare time from his regular family. /// Since India began opening its markets and liberalising its economy in 1991, growth has taken off. It averaged 7 percent a year over the past two years and foreign investment has poured in, though at smaller levels than in China. /// The middle class has exploded to more than 300 million, by some estimates, who send their children abroad for an education and are buying second family cars in a country where not so long ago the wait for even just a motor scooter was a few years. /// But the gains are unevenly shared and have largely bypassed the rural and urban poor. Resentment among the poor was a major factor in the surprise ousting of the Hindu nationalist government last year. /// "We are poor basically because we don't want to be rich," said Bapat. "If we want to be rich, we can be rich. The resources are there, it's just a matter of unlocking them." /// ............................000000000