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India's forgotten people

Bara village
Villagers in India's poorest state, Bihar, have yet to benefit from the country's economic success

India's economy is booming. But, as the Today programme's Mike Thomson explains, hundreds of millions of its people still live in abject rural poverty, victims of a caste system whose grip remains as strong as ever.

China may be the world's faster growing economy but there's a tiger to the south that's hot on its heels.

President Obama's visit to India, with a plane load of American business leaders in tow, was evidence of this. The country is said to have more millionaires per square mile than anywhere else on earth and a growth rate nibbling at its northern neighbour's coat tails.

Add to the mix India's huge and youthful population of nearly 1.2bn, which is predicted to overtake China's by 2050, and you have a potential economic superpower in the making.

In the capital, New Delhi, thousands of shiny new air-conditioned buses, some running on natural gas, have replaced many of the city's battered, fume-belching old bangers.

Beneath the roar and bustle of its congested streets lies a modern metro system that glides two million residents around the city.

Delhi's stock exchange symbolises the wealth flowing into India

Designer labels, which Indians once travelled abroad to buy, adorn pricey goods in shopping centres all over Delhi, Mumbai and India's other big cities.

But step out of the urban centres, and you enter a very different world.

A government-funded report published in 2007 found that 77% of Indians, which is more than 830 million people, lived on less than half a US dollar a day.

The country is home to around a third of the world's poor and has more cases of malnutrition than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

The worst affected areas are the rural states of central and eastern India like Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Bihar.

Bihar has long been India's poorest state. Over the decades it has become known as the "bandit state" due to his high levels of crime, corruption and poverty.

These days, crime levels have eased a little and government welfare programmes have lessened the plight of the very poor, but is life is still hell for many.

In the village of Bara, about 40 miles south-west of the state capital Patna, families sit listlessly in the shade of their mud-walled homes.

Father-of-three, Nagina Manjhi, tells me that things are now even worse than before: "We used to work in the fields or do other manual labour and somehow manage to make a living," he explains.

"Things were not so expensive then, so we could make ends meet. Now the farmers are using big machines, so the work is not there any more."

If we drank from a jug, the other children would wash it out before they used it.
Marachi Manjhi

Nagina says that, under a government help scheme, he and other rural workers are guaranteed 100 days of work a year. But, last year, he claims, he only got ten.

As we talk his wife, Dukhni, cooks some rice for their evening meal. "There's nothing but salt and chillies to go with it," she says, "and some days I have nothing to feed the family at all."

Here, the culprit is not only a shortage of work and money. In the middle of the family's tiny home a near-empty bottle of whisky lies on the floor.

Confronted with the evidence, Nagina sheepishly replies: "I know it's not right but when I work my body gets tired and in the evening the liquor works as a medicine and provides some solace."

Nagina's wife shakes her head, saying she has tried but there is nothing she can do to stop him drinking. The family are Dalits or "untouchables", a group at the bottom of India's caste system.

I was told by members of Delhi's growing middle class that caste, which has long determined where Indians are born, marry and die, is no longer relevant in India.

But the family's oldest daughter tells me this is not so.

Marachi, who was married when she was 12 years old, speaks about the prejudice she has suffered in her short life: "When I went to school, the children practised untouchability. The sons of the farmers used to sit in the front rows and we had to sit at the back.

Ayoung girl holds her baby brother in her arms
What will the boom mean to this young girl and her brother?

"They would taunt us and say we won't sit with you. If we drank from a jug, the other children would wash it out before they used it. I was treated like an animal."

Where development has come to rural areas it has often done little for local people. Amongst the worst affected are many of India's indigenous tribes. Some claim that mining companies have felled their forests and turned them off their land with little in the way of compensation.

Despite recent government efforts to prevent this happening, such accusations have fuelled insurrection by Maoist insurgents, known here as Naxalites.

They say they are fighting for the rights of poor and disadvantaged people like these, though they seem more intent on overthrowing democracy here and turning India into a communist state.

Over the last few years the Naxalites' guerrilla campaign has spread across more than a third of the country, resulting in more than a thousand deaths during the last year alone.

Swami Agnivesh, a respected religious figure and campaigner for civil rights, fears for the future of the nation if the divide between its rich and poor continues to grow.

"People have been left out, marginalised completely and are no longer going to take it lying down," he reflects. "If they [the government] don't change their policies, I think it will create a situation that will get out of hand."

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