NEW DELHI, India -- India's poorest souls crowd the banks of the Yamuna in an early morning mist, dumping waste, washing clothes and bathing in one of India's holiest -- and most polluted -- rivers.
The Yamuna Pushta slum, a sprawling shantytown in the capital, New Delhi, has become a modern symbol of the economic and social ills that have plagued India for centuries.
Unable to afford homes, hundreds of thousands of poor people live in what amounts to little more than a trash heap, devoid of running water, toilets or sanitation of any kind. Few schools can be found in the mud huts and mounds of garbage that dot the riverbank for miles.
Nearly 260 million of India's more than 1 billion people live below the poverty line, with individual incomes of less than $400 a year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Literacy is 68 percent among men and 45 percent among women.
With an elected government and a 1950 constitution that promotes equality, India is the world's largest democracy. But more than half a century after independence from British colonial rule, its entrenched caste system aggravates persistent economic troubles.
Discrimination suffered by women, the lower castes and tribal groups "is a crying denial of the democracy that is enshrined in our constitution," President K.R. Narayanan said in nationwide broadcast last week on the eve of Republic Day, which celebrates the document's passage.
Education bill offered
Narayanan -- a figurehead who has less power than the prime minister and Parliament -- urged legislators to pass a pending bill guaranteeing education for all children between the ages of 6 to 14. "India has the largest number of illiterates of any country in the world," he said.
After pursuing a socialist-style economy for 44 years following independence in 1947, India opened up its economy and launched market-oriented reforms in 1991.
The economy grew at nearly 6 percent a year for several years, but growth has slowed to below 5 percent a year and the economic reforms have slackened since 1997.
"Renewing the pace of reform, and thereby broadening and reviving growth, is essential if India is to achieve its economic imperative of breaking out of the Third World," Stanley Fischer, senior adviser to the IMF's managing director, said at a seminar in New Delhi last week.
Fischer, a former first deputy managing director at the IMF, praised India's achievements in the 1990s, including a reduction in its poverty rate from 34 percent to 26 percent and a decline in the gap between the incomes of the rich and poor.
Now, the government's budget deficit is among the highest in the world, at nearly 10 percent of gross domestic product.
Fischer said implementing the reforms needed to end the backslide would challenge the interests of privileged groups and involve painful adjustments, but he warned that India risks being left further behind by other developing countries if it fails to change it economy fast.
"The challenge is a mighty one, but it is time for India to meet it," he said.