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Last Updated: Monday, 22 May 2006, 07:19 GMT 08:19 UK
India 2026: What will life be like?
By Karishma Vaswani
BBC Mumbai business correspondent in Rajasthan, Northern India

In the early hours of every morning, yet another day of backbreaking and gruelling work begins for Gayatri, a scavenger here in Hazurigate in the Rajasthani town of Alwar.

Scavenger Jayshri
Scavenger Jayshri says the work is passed on through generations

Scavenging is a job that is reserved for the lowest of India's castes.

Stuck at the bottom of an historically hierarchical system, Gayatri and other women who belong to her caste have worked as scavengers for as long as they can remember.

Before them, their mothers and their grandmothers also worked as scavengers.

They were taught to clean toilets when they were barely entering the teens.

Economic opportunities for them are few and far between.

Teaching their daughters

Sifting through filth and sewage, Gayatri makes her living by disposing the human waste she collects from open toilets.

Graph of economies in 2030

She makes $10 a month doing work that no one else here will.

"When I go to clean toilets at the houses in the city, the owners of the houses don't want to give me my salary directly - they don't want to touch me," Gayatri says.

"They throw the money down from the window, and even food and water. They throw it down or put it in a plastic bag and leave it outside their door. We are dirty, they say, they don't want to touch us."

It is the same for most of the women in Hazurigate, the district of Alwar where she lives.

"Our daughters too will learn this work," says Jayshri, another scavenger.

"And they will continue to teach their daughters too."

Labour required

But trade is providing a way out.

Lower caste women
As commerce replaces caste, many poor look towards a brigher future

Here, at a training centre for lower caste women in Alwar, hundreds of the towns former scavengers are trained as beauticians, and taught how to make and package Indian snacks that are then sold to hotels around the country.

The centre provides them with work, as well as a sense of dignity and self confidence.

Morning prayers at the centre are led by the man who conceived the concept.

Dr Bindeshwar Pathak wants to include those at the bottom of India's social rung in the country's economic boom.

Women at the Alwar training centre
Lower caste women in Alwar are taught commercial skills

So he has created an easy-to-maintain and affordable toilet for the residents of the town of Alwar, and he has also set up a centre for the scavengers to learn a new trade.

He says that had there not been growth in the Indian economy, his two-pronged strategy would never have worked.

"The economy has created the need for jobs," he says, showing us the various activities in his centre.

"More people are needed to work for these multinational companies who need women to sew their garments, make handicrafts, work in their factories."

"Before this centre, these women would have never even thought of a life like this, or a way out. Now, even their children feel they can be proud of their mothers."

From caste to commerce

Economic growth has changed the lives of the lower caste in Indian cities as well.

Composer Max Zhao
Our generation is buying cars and houses, but compared with my parents' generation, we've got much more pressure
Composer Max Zhao

Arun Chowdhury, a lower caste businessman, runs a thriving outdoors advertising firm in Delhi.

A dozen men work for him, many of them from the upper caste.

In the pursuit of wealth and employment, ancient social barriers have become irrelevant.

"I've never felt that because of my caste my advertising business has suffered," says Arun.

"No one ever asks me. It is not important in the cities like Delhi. It is commerce and trade that is important now. Everyone wants to make money."

Mr Chowdhury's family's life has been transformed by the economic opportunities his business has created.

Trade has provided his two children with good education and housing.

As India's economic horizons expand over the next two decades, perhaps this shift from caste to commerce will continue to bring about fundamental change in Indian society.

By then, India's economy is expected to be one of the three largest in the world, and by 2050, its expected to be larger than the US economy.

If these predictions come true, along with the social changes on the ground, it could translate into a higher standard of living for millions of Indians currently living on less than two dollars a day.

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