January 23, 2008 / 12:58 AM / 10 years ago

In India hinterland, Dalits pin economic hopes on gods

DAUD NAGAR, India (Reuters) - An hour's drive from the palatial headquarters of India's "untouchables" leader, her talk of eight-lane highways and birthday gifts for the poor had yet to filter to villagers pinning their hopes more on rain gods.

The villagers, from the same "untouchable" or Dalit caste as Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, stood by their ramshackle mud huts and pointed to broken water pumps.

"We've four hand pumps and none are working. We've made a written complaint but no one listens to us," said Radhey Lal, a 45-year-old leader of Daud Nagar village on the outskirts of Lucknow, the state capital.

"We've no irrigation facilities. It's all in the hands of the rain god."

Lal, like many in this mainly Dalit village of 1,800 people, had high hopes for Mayawati -- known by just one name -- after she won an outright victory in the state last May to become chief minister, equivalent to a state governor in the United States.

But frustration in villages like Daud Nagar, even after only eight months of one of their own caste members in office, shows the economic challenges facing this northern part of India, where a national boom is making little headway in a Dalit hinterland.

Mayawati is now one of India's most well-known politicians and heads a state of 170 million people that would be the world's sixth biggest nation. She is now talked about as a future prime minister and coalition force in the 2009 general election.

Which is why she is being closely watched to see if she can harness an alliance of India's poorest, like Dalits, to offer national economic alternatives to India's two mainstream parties, the ruling Congress and the Hindu-nationalist and pro-market Bhartiya Janata Party.

Supporters say she will usher in change for Dalits, who account for about 16 percent of India's 1.1 billion people and who are still among India's most oppressed minorities, with a pragmatic focus on private and state investment.

The task is huge in one of India's poorest states. Its six percent growth lags a national rate of nearly nine percent. Two thirds of homes lack power.

GRANDIOSE PROJECTS?

Villagers like Lal complain that despite Mayawati's championing of Dalits and her grandiose projects, including a 400 billion-rupee ($10-billion), 1,000-km highway project along the banks of the Ganges river, they still feel ignored.

"When we voted we had a lot of hope. I don't know now," said Ram Lali, a mother of five children from Daud Nagar. Her husband makes between $1 and $2 a day as a laborer.

Mayawati, economists say, has been making one economic step forward, one step back, amid a battle between graft, interests of politicians and plans of well-meaning technocrats.

"The basic issue is economic growth. You have to make money, whether by begging, borrowing or stealing," said Cabinet Secretary Shashank Shekhar Singh, one of her closest aides, who is helping direct a massive infrastructure program.

"Let's give good infrastructure, law and order, and people will come to our state."

But on the ground, promised aid has not arrived and corrupt police and local officials mean many projects did not reach them, scores of Dalit villagers said in interviews with Reuters.

In one village, landless Dalits complained that government officials were asking for bribes of around $5,000 for state government jobs reserved for Dalits. Similar bribes were asked, they said, for entry into the army.

Government food ration cards for lower castes were also going to the highest bidder, they said.

"Mayawati's people promised new roads, electricity," said 22-year-old Soni Bhau, a villager. "It all just been promises."

In Daud Nagar, Dalits say they can't collect firewood in a nearby forest. Higher-caste villagers threatened them with guns and beat up a teacher who complained to police, villagers said.

But even if little is changing, the government is spending. Uttar Pradesh is increasing the money it spends on infrastructure by around 35 percent this year.

The Ganges highway has been praised by business executives as a farsighted plan to better tie the state to the rest of India.

While the rural poor may complain, the urban rich in Lucknow are wealthier. Billboards advertise new housing complexes for middles classes. The city has five new, shiny malls.

"Mayawati's government is the first in decades with an absolute majority (in state parliament)" said Dr. Arwind Mohan, an economics professor in Lucknow and a World Bank consultant.

"They have a great opportunity to do something. But now they are losing time and people are getting jittery."

Jitters surfaced in September when Mayawati, facing protests from traders, shut down Reliance Retail, a unit of top private firm Reliance Industries, from an ambitious plan to introduce Western-style supermarkets.

For many economists this was exactly the billion-dollar project -- knocking out middlemen between farmer and sellers and increasing village incomes -- that benefits the hinterland.

"It's been a sad experience," said one senior Reliance official, who asked to remain anonymous. He said the project would have created up to 50,000 jobs, mostly in rural areas.

"To tell you the truth, this would have been great for the state, it was more of a social project than a business one."

Critics say the move showed Mayawati was like previous Uttar Pradesh leaders by favoring political interests over economic. A rash of new statues and parks in her party's honor, costing more than $100 million, have added to the disappointment.

For the moment, many dreams of India's most downtrodden caste are on hold despite one of their own in power.

"We can dream we'll get a helicopter," said 18-year-old villager Vicky, leaning on a cricket bat as he chatted about the new wealth he had seen a few miles away in Lucknow.

"But that doesn't mean we'll get one."

Additional reporting Sharat Pradhan; Editing by Jonathan Allen and Megan Goldin

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