Page last updated at 14:48 GMT, Monday, 27 February 2006

India's poor seek budget relief

By Karishma Vaswani
Mumbai business correspondent, BBC World

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For a country that's talking about matching China's 10% growth rate in a few years time, India's rural areas have a long way to go.

Just four hours away from Mumbai, India's bustling commercial capital, is the village of Sangam. A little more than 1,000 people live here, most of them farmers.

More than half of India's population are employed in a similar manner - but they produce just 20% of the country's gross domestic product, and lack the resources to develop their farmland.

For six months of the year, very little happens in Sangam's fields, as its villagers wait under the dry Indian sun for the all-important monsoon rains.

Harvest worries

Arvind Yashwant Rao, whose family has lived in Sangam for generations, is the head of the village.

If the government spent more on irrigation, we'd have the facilities to grow crops all year round
Arvind Yashwant Rao, farmer

He would love to extend the growing season - but water, the most precious resource for farmers, is hard to come by.

"It's impossible to develop these farmlands without water," he says.

"There is a river nearby - about one kilometre away - but without irrigation, our lands sit idle.

"We only have one harvest, and we wait for the monsoon to grow our crops. We depend on the monsoon for our entire year's income.

"If the government spent more on irrigation, we'd have the facilities to grow crops all year round."

One doctor, 20,000 people

This kind of problem is what has prompted India's Finance Minister, P Chidambaram, to promise that this year he will produce a "common man's budget".

His party, Congress, came to power in 2004 partly as a result of dissatisfaction with the previous administration's perceived focus on growth for the burgeoning middle class.

But two out of three Indians still live on less than a dollar a day - so Mr Chidambaram says his budget will focus on agriculture, healthcare and education for the masses.

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Not far from Sangam, the effect on healthcare of India's weak infrastructure is evident.

The village of Sarel, about an hour and a half's walk away, is home to some 4,000 people. It boasts pharmacies, schools and many restaurants, signs of the prosperity that has reached some people of this village.

But the primary healthcare centre in the village remains extremely basic.

Sarel's sole doctor, Dr. Archana Chitte, is responsible for the well-being of 28 surrounding villages and more than 20,000 people.

She is originally from Mumbai, but - in line with the government's policy of posting doctors to rural areas as part of their training - she's been living in Sarel Village for four years now with her children, while her husband still lives and works in Mumbai.

Limited investment

Life for a rural medic can come as a shock.

"There's a lack of running water and electricity here," she says. "And I'm responsible for a vast number of patients.

"Why doesn't the government have a system where there are two doctors responsible for this number of villages, so that we can alternate our days? Sometimes I have to travel to nearby villages to pick up supplies, and medication. Who looks after the patients on those days when I'm gone?"

Security at her hospital is also a problem.

"It's just me and my nurses here. There have been instances at night when drunken people come into the compound, and demand that we give them drugs or injections. I can't do that!

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"So I have learned the hard way just to keep quiet and keep doing my job. But it's not easy. I fear for the safety of myself and my nurses."

The predicament of Dr Chitte and her patients is a symptom of India's limited public health spending: less than 1% of its gross domestic product, a lower figure than either of its two main neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

By 2009, the government says it wants to be doubling or tripling this amount.

Struggling at school

The third leg of Mr Chidambaram's plans is education, widely seen as the "silver bullet" for encouraging economic development. In last year's budget, the Indian government set aside $1.6bn for education. More funds are expected this year.

Back in Sangam, the village's Vidya Mandir secondary school teaches 150 children between the ages of 10 and 15 subjects English, Hindi, mathematics and science.

Many of its students walk more than 5km to get there, because the buses which might otherwise get them there only come every three to four hours.

If it were a primary school, there would be a morning meal provided for by the government.

But secondary schools do not have this luxury - and since many of the students do not have enough money to pay for their school fees, the teachers sometimes help them out by bringing in food for them to eat in the afternoon.

The lack of money means some students have to leave their education midway, teachers at the school say.

And the lessons have to do without light, since Sangam - like many of India's villages - only has electricity for a few hours a day.

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The state of Maharashtra is currently facing a power crisis and in the last week, the state government has appealed to its citizens to cut down on power consumption by 20%.

Admittedly the school is luckier than many. It has a new science lab, albeit one which was only built thanks to a private donation.

The school's chairman is keen for more funds to come from both the government and the private sector.

"The children and teachers need more facilities," he says. "Clean toilets, more books, clean water and electricity. We have no clean water for our children here - and that isn't safe for them."

Spreading the benefit

For the past 10 years, India's annual economic growth has about averaged 6%.

More people have lifted themselves out of poverty thanks to that economic growth than at any other time in India's history.

But most people in Sangam and in Sahel have yet to see much of the benefit.

And if India's economic miracle is to continue, growth will have to reach all corners of the country.

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