India at 60, Monsoons, Weddings and Yet More Misery

08/15/2007 07:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

NEW DELHI - At daybreak in the last remnants of world-class slums along the Yamuna, all the "India Shining" hype smells as foul as the fetid black river. This can't be what Gandhi had in mind, 60 years ago, when he brought down the British Raj to build an India for Indians.

Measured in macro number, plastic golden arches, or by sleek members of a flashy new Mercedes caste, India's boom is the stuff of miracles.

But catchy slogans tend to mislead. In a 5,000-year-old curry of cultures that encompasses one-sixth of humanity, they are beyond absurd.

True enough, for the brainy, the pushy, and the lucky, India's sky is no limit. Private jets carry its corporate conquistadors deep into Africa and beyond. Yet in today's global gravity, wealth trickles up, not down.

Call centers and techie jobs employ only a few million people who share their largesse with mobile phone makers, motorcycle dealers, and servants.

Yet nearly 90 percent of the work force falls into the "unorganized sector." That is, they scrape by any which way they can, from subsistence farming to hard labor.

An authoritative government survey just out shocked even the cheerleaders: 836 million Indians - 77 percent of the total population - live on less than 50 cents a day.

"Monsoon Wedding" gave the world a joyful look at a new slice of life. But climate change has made monsoons unpredictable and deadly. The soaring cost of dowries can be so crippling that some desperate families murder their female newborns.

With old notes on India dating back to 1971, I went down to the river for a look at the larger slice. I found heaps of rubble left by government bulldozers where I had last seen those slums in 2000.

Raju Yadav, 22, a master swimmer who learned his strokes in water that can kill a catfish, still squeaks by selling juice to mourners at nearby Hindu funeral shrines.

He expects he'll soon have to join 300,000 ex-neighbors who since 2004 were trucked like landfill to sites far from Delhi pretty much the way the capital's non-human waste is dumped into the sacred, if putrid, Yamuna.

All those people shared 100 acres of land dotted with Hindu shrines, dirt wrestling arenas, markets, hand water pumps, and latrines. It was nothing a Donald Trump could love, but it was home to interlinked extended families that made sure no one fell off the edge.

When the government decided to raze the slums, some officials said it was to stop river pollution. But New Delhi dumps close to a billion gallons of waste - from raw sewage to toxic chemicals - into the Yamuna each day.

Though plans are not yet clear, the suspicious among us see the beginnings of a riverside park in a booming capital where housing prices are higher than London's.

"How will I survive?" Yadav asked, not expecting an answer. The place where he'll likely end up is two hours from Delhi and offers no visible means of support. Now he can make 200 rupees ($5) in a day, a fortune. With a costly four-hour commute, he would be out of business.

Up against India's poorest, Yadav is a rich man. In tribal hill country north of Rajasthan, the cure for illness is too often death. I found villages where per capita income averages a nickel a day. Families' total cash reserves are often no more than 10 dollars.

And yet distant experts who measure poverty in such numbers miss the point entirely.

In India, and elsewhere, poverty is less about cash income than the loss of spiritual satisfaction and simple dignity. Many are happy to go without 42-ounce cokes or podcast updates on Paris Hilton.

India's real strength is in the villages that Gandhi championed, where 70 percent of the population barely gets by. Farmers need catchment dams and deeper wells. Their children need vaccinations and clinics. Without schools, kids must abandon thought of a different sort of life.

That sounds easy enough, with all the investment pouring in. Yet many foreign companies behind India's boom secured substantial tax breaks. Most refused a government request that they employ some of the desperately poor. They can fire workers without warning or severance pay.

High-level thievery and nepotism torpedo efforts by honest civil servants to slow the growing imbalances. A recent poll reported 38 percent of Indians regard corruption as their nation's greatest shame.

India has always had a top layer of wealth. What is changing is in an upwardly mobile middle class that is obsessed with keeping up with the Singhs.

There is the upside. New roads stitch together vast regions, helping the poor and rich alike. Much is already better than it ever was. In time, new wealth may improve life for a broad majority. Or, maybe not.

Those half-lovable, half-infuriating quirks known as "TII" - this is India - may never go away. You can check onto your flight by SMS, for instance, but the airline can take a week to find your bag.

People with "VVVIP" stickers on their Jaguar windshields flash past barriers that stop the rest of us. These include some prominent media watchdogs who are therefore less likely to bark.

Deeper down, more fundamental issues trouble India.

On the Yamuna each morning, Shourie Lal, 75, strips down to a saffron loincloth to bathe. He performs elaborate ablutions, drinking a bit of the Hindus' sacred Yamuna as he has for 60 years.

"I don't see dirt," he told me. "I see a river that is like my mother. How can it hurt me?"

Lal's smile fades when asked about India today. "There is a lot of boom, but money leads to vices, drinking, promiscuity," he said. "We are losing the values we treasured."

Short of food himself, Lal carefully kneads flour into dough balls that he throws to feed whatever fish have survived, as his religion demands. He prays, shovels silt from the stone steps, and then hangs out with his friends.

Lal looks very much like a happy man. Watching him, comparisons between First and Third Worlds are hard to avoid.

The India-shining set reveres the Donald Trumps who prove to themselves their own value by amassing infinitely more than they can ever consume. If this were purely an intellectual exercise then what the hell; I'm no commie.

But think about it.

Trump's Florida estate probably uses, in a week, more water for gardens he rarely sees than Lal has used for drinking and bathing over all his 75 years.

The comparison may be specious, like when our mothers reminded us of starving people in India if we left food on the plate. You can't send uneaten spinach to the Yamuna.

In terms of the simple sort of humanity on which Gandhi founded India, however, it goes right to the heart of it.

Global injustices worsen the Indians' plight.

"Down to Earth," a magazine published by the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi, recently focused on thousands of suicides by cotton farmers. In part, they could not compete with subsidized cotton grown in America.

As everywhere, climate change hammers the old ways. Worsening monsoons tear away topsoil; drought parches land for years on end.

In the Yamuna slum, on his rope cot outside a flimsy lean-to, I found a writer who it is best not to name. Officials in the world's biggest democracy can be touchy when speech is too free.

The man was born a year before India won its freedom. Now he is all but toothless in both dental and political terms. "No one wants to hear what I say about forced removals," he told me. "We don't really matter."

He remembers when Rajiv Gandhi (no relation to the Mahatma, as newspaper editors like to insert) and his wife, Sonia, visited the slums before he became prime minister.

"No guards, no driver, nothing," the writer said. "They just came to see how we lived. We explained that this has been holy ground for six centuries. They promised we could stay permanently with improved conditions."

That guarantee, good at the time, has slipped away into India's long history.

In that recent poll, more than half the respondents called Gandhi India's grandest icon. The writer, however, saw bitter irony in those results.

"Gandhi preached honesty, sincerity, and contentment with what you have," he said. "These days, too many people believe in lying, duplicity, and always craving for more. That is not what India was supposed to be."