Page last updated at 19:57 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Amethi notebook - Miliband's 'other' India

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Semra

It's late at night in the village of Semra, in rural Uttar Pradesh.

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband (left) and Rahul Gandhi, general secretary of India's Congress Party
Mr Miliband slipped away from the usual diplomatic hurly-burly

David Miliband and Rahul Gandhi are sitting on mats on the floor listening by lamp light to the stories of a group of local women.

The British foreign secretary and the general secretary of India's governing Congress party are visiting a self-help group, where the women pay 20 rupees (£0.3) into a pool each week and invest their money together.

"We get access to finance," says Manal, "and it gives us control. We feel like the upper caste."

She adds: "We need money and we need to be brave - at the same time."

They tell stories of children and grandchildren getting a better education, and of their hopes for the future.

I thought it would be quite interesting for the foreign secretary to come to rural India and have a look at what people here are doing
Rahul Gandhi, general secretary of India's Congress Party

"Before we could never borrow anything because the money lenders rates were so high. Now, if officials try to ask for bribes, we will rise up and beat them," Manal says.

Everyone laughs.

'Mental notes'

At an earlier stop, one local dignitary is introduced as a man who's been re-elected nine times.

"Nine times? What's the secret?" Mr Miliband asks.

"Look after the grass roots," says Mr Gandhi, acting as translator.

Mr Miliband (right) shakes hands with an Indian boy in Semra
Mr Miliband saw grass roots projects beginning to make a real difference

"Ah, yes. Organisation."

Is Mr Miliband taking mental notes?

"Stay close to the people. Very impressive."

Certainly good advice for two young politicians with ambitions perhaps for even higher office.

But why have they come here?

Well Amethi is Rahul Gandhi's parliamentary constituency - one which both his mother and father have represented in the past. Nine elections could be a shoo-in.

And Mr Miliband? Amidst crises in Gaza and Pakistan, he slipped away from the diplomatic hurly-burly to catch a glimpse of what he calls the other India.

"A lot of people come to India and they have a particular perspective based very much on the big cities, on Bombay, on Delhi on Bangalore," Rahul Gandhi explains.

"I thought it would be quite interesting for the foreign secretary to come to rural India and have a look at what people here are doing and the type of energy that is prevalent here.

"Particularly in the rural areas, women are the key to changing things," he adds.

'Blog disaster'

A convoy of cars sweeps along dusty roads as the sun begins to set.

There are visits to schools, a hospital to treat preventable blindness, and a local facility for selling and storing milk, where everyone gets a fair price.

Excitement builds during a stop at a mobile phone shop in a nearby town. The owner says 80% of local people have a mobile phone.

"He's exaggerating," Rahul Gandhi admits, "but the numbers are growing fast."

This shop alone sells between five and 10 phones a day.

The foreign secretary wants to send an e-mail, to write on his blog. "It'll cost you seven rupees (£0.1)," Mr Gandhi says, and the money is secured.

But sadly the line is down… the blog will have to wait. The mobile revolution is having a huge effect in rural India, but connectivity takes time.

"Ten rupees (£0.14) for a five-minute call to Delhi," observes Mr Miliband. "It does change your life."

As they leave a crowd chants the Gandhi name.

'Tough night'

Back in Semra, well past midnight, David Miliband is taken by torchlight to a small brick hut with white walls and green doors. Inside is a simple bed - a traditional charpoy strung with rope. This is where he spends the night.

 David Miliband enters a cowshed in Semra
"The cows kept me up a bit," admitted the foreign secretary

"Goodnight BBC," he says ruefully, as we retreat to our guest house. So there is an obvious question the next morning. How did he sleep?

"I have to say it was a pretty tough night, the cows kept me up a bit."

"But I think it was trying to show a mark of respect for the people who had explained to us what they were doing that we spent the night there.

"The five am start," he had to concede, "was a bit of a challenge."

Food for thought

And all too quickly it was back on an executive jet, back into the diplomatic bubble, and a dash down to Mumbai before heading for Pakistan and then home.

This was the briefest glimpse of the India which a British foreign secretary usually never sees.

David Miliband heard from people struggling to improve themselves, and saw grass roots projects beginning to make a real difference.

"Places which on the surface can seem desolate," he says, "have actually got a really throbbing heartbeat. That's very exciting to see, without in any way diminishing the size of the social and economic challenges which exist."

A long way from the booming Indian economy which is starting to take on the world, about 700 million people still live in the villages, many of them on less than $2 (£1.40) a day.

More food for thought in Amethi, perhaps, than in twice as many meetings with the rich, the famous and the powerful.

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