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Last Updated: Friday, 7 July 2006, 00:04 GMT 01:04 UK
Powerhouse rises on Asia's fields
As India and China compete for future dominance of the world economy, both countries face huge challenges to ensure their vast rural populations are not left out of the growing prosperity.

Indian women labour on the land
Crop failure constantly haunts India's poverty-stricken farmers

Hundreds of millions of people in both countries struggle to live off the land.

How are they to be included in the record-breaking growth India and China are experiencing as they race each other to the top of the world?

In the third of his special reports from the emerging Asian superpowers, BBC diplomatic correspondent James Robbins focuses on the rural challenge.

It is in the vast countryside of India and China that their future greatness may be decided.

Both countries need to industrialise if they are to sustain their record economic growth rates, and stay on target for world dominance.

Some experts suggest that China could be the world's largest economy within 40 years, and India could be third-largest.

That outcome would reshape our entire world - its trading, and its political relationships.

To succeed, however, both India and China need to persuade millions of people to leave the land, and acquire the skills needed for new lives in manufacturing or in service industries.

The stories of two people who live off the land - Cai Jin Fu in China, and Bhagyamma in India - are the stories of hundreds of millions of farmers who risk being left behind in their country's dash for wealth.

Cleared off the land

Cai Jin Fu has only a few days left to work his land - the Chinese authorities are taking it to make way for a new factory.

Chinese farmer Cai Jin Fu
Mr Cai will be moving to a block of flats for his retirement

He and his wife, both in their sixties now, took me to the edge of his fields where rubble is all that remains of their neighbours' homes.

Their whole village was being destroyed, like countless others across China.

But Mr Cai told me he was willing to move - with the compensation they have been offered.

"I'll miss the land of course," he said, "and I'll have to give up work, but at least I'll be able to enjoy life now."

But it quickly became obvious that other, younger farmers were angry. One man saw us filming and came over to pour out his resentment, although he was well aware that public protest in China is risky.

"We're all unhappy," he told me.

"What's there to be happy about ? They've got my land. They gave us a much smaller place to live in, and very little money."

But nothing stops the demolitions here. We watched teams with sledgehammers bashing down houses.

China's government is convinced industrialisation must go ahead - even at the risk of rural revolt.

China's authorities have admitted the immense scale of protest right across the countryside. In 2005, they recorded a staggering 87,000 examples of disturbance, protest or unrest - 1,600 incidents a week.

Battling despair

In India, the plight of farmers worries their government too. Farmers here are victims not of land grabs but of relentless poverty which excludes them from the new wealth.

Indian farmer Bhagyamma
Bhagyamma saw her husband succumb to despair

Bhagyamma is one of India's many farm widows.

She and her daughter struggle to survive in a small village in a part of Andhra Pradesh which has been dogged by drought and offers very little to sustain farming communities.

Bhagyamma's husband followed an all too frequent path here - he drank pesticide to escape crop failure.

"He couldn't pay his debts," she told me. "He didn't know what to do. That's why he killed himself. I'm so desperate we may end up doing the same."

It can look as if India is condemned to rural poverty. The local village school, like most in India, is overflowing.

The headmaster told me he was getting extra resources from the state. He needs them.

India's population is expanding twice as fast as China's and, on present trends, will actually overtake China's within 30 years.

India's future depends crucially on its growing number of children. To have any chance of lifting millions of them out of poverty, there will have to be radical improvements in education at every level.

Bold new generation

In China, the worry is precisely the reverse - too few children.

Chinese schoolchildren
Most of China does not have India's advantage in English

Decades of a strict policy - one child per family - may leave China with not enough workers to support its ageing population. So China now fears that India's growing numbers could prove a winner - not a loser.

And China is struggling against another handicap: the urgent need to learn English, today's global language.

At a vocational school in the city of Hang Zhou, I have to fight to suppress giggles.

I am listening to 17- and 18-year-old boys in a class singing Edelweiss from The Sound of Music to hone their English vocabulary and pronunciation.

The method may seem bizarre, but it is hard not to admire the sense of a whole nation slogging to get to the top of the world.

And what about the farmers?

Mr Cai, his wife and their grandson are about to move into their new government-provided home, spread over three floors of an apartment block with two extra storeys for them to rent out for extra income.

But that is what the village has come to now: sucked into China's phenomenal rise.

India's answer to rural poverty is more modest.

Bhagyamma will stay on the land, but she has now joined a huge government job creation scheme guaranteeing her 100 days' pay each year.

So I leave India and China two vast countries in the midst of epic revolutionary change.

If they can solve the problems of the countryside, both India and China will be close to their goal of future greatness, reshaping the world for all of us.

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