Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Model "Democracy"

Once a poverty-stricken afterthought for much of the world, India has been transformed by the past decade's economic boom into a burgeoning world power whose wealth can be seen everywhere: New cars cruise the streets, high-end apartment blocks are rising on the edges of cities, luxury shops fill the seemingly endless supply of new shopping malls.

But the inequality in this country of 1.1 billion people is as often as conspicuous as the consumption - Indian children are more likely to be malnourished than African ones and the country is home to about a third of the people in the world living on less than $1 a day.

"India cannot become a nation with islands of high growth and vast areas untouched by development, where the benefits of growth accrue only to a few," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the nation in his traditional Independence Day speech. "We have moved forward in the many battles against poverty, ignorance and disease. But can we say we have won the war?"

In the six decades since, the South Asian rivals (India/Pakistan) have fought three wars and engaged in tit-for-tat nuclear tests. While relations have improved since the start of a peace process in 2004, mutual animosity still lingers across the subcontinent, a region stretching nearly 1,900 miles from Pakistan's mountainous north to India's steamy southern tip.

Any talk of Pakistan was conspicuously absent from Singh's speech.

He spoke from behind a bulletproof screen atop the ramparts of the historic Red Fort, the massive 17th-century sandstone structure built by the Mogul emperors who ruled much of India before the British arrived.

His speech, the main event of the day, touched on a range of domestic issues - from plans to invest $6.25 billion in agriculture, which provides a livelihood for two-thirds of Indians, to improving schools in the country where a third of the people remain illiterate.

"Gandhi's dream of a free India will only be fully realized when we banish poverty from our midst," Singh told a crowd of thousands of dignitaries and schoolchildren dressed in the orange, white and green of the Indian flag, referring to independence leader Mohandas Gandhi.

He also pledged to press ahead with industrialization and build "first-rate infrastructure" - moves that in the past year have led to repeated clashes between police and farmers who don't want their land plowed under to make way for factories.

Security was tight across India for the festivities, especially in places where insurgencies are simmering. Police stepped up security around the Taj Mahal, India's famed white-marble monument to love, saying there was a specific threat to attack the site.

Authorities also shut down mobile phone service in the restive Himalayan region of Kashmir in a bid to prevent violence. An Islamic insurgency has raged for nearly 20 years in the predominantly Muslim region split between India and Pakistan.

Five bomb blasts were reported in the northeast state of Assam, where there are dozens of rebel groups operating. No one was killed or wounded in the attacks.

Ethnic Assamese rebels have in the past week killed 32 people, most of them migrant workers from others parts of India who speak a different language and have different customs.

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