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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

In India, No Job Is Too Small

Amid growing wealth, hundreds of millions of the poor are left behind in a curbside economy, scratching out a living any way they can.

October 25, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

KANTADIH, India — All day long, Subodh Mahato cools postal workers in this West Bengal village by tugging a rope attached to a grass-mat ceiling fan. He's been pulling it for 17 years because no one thought to connect the post office to the power grid.

In Calcutta, the state capital, Mohammed Jamal and other sidewalk entrepreneurs extract clients' earwax with modified tools made from bicycle spokes, clean betel juice stains from teeth with a mysterious red fluid and wash street muck from feet in rusty basins -- just like in the days when maharajahs ruled.

India is a nuclear power and a leader in information technology that rockets its own satellites into space, but millions of its people live as if time had passed them by. The fan, or pankha, puller, Mahato, and curbside caregivers like Jamal are among the masses of 21st century India's working poor. They are the bedrock of an economy that is one of the fastest growing, yet most unbalanced, in the world.

Most of the benefits of India's rapid economic growth are going to the wealthiest 20% of society, said economist Malay Chaudhuri. They have swimming pools in a country where millions of people don't have clean water, and they stroll through gleaming new air-conditioned shopping malls where security guards keep beggars at bay.

India's elite is getting steadily richer from cheap labor that has been one of the country's main economic advantages since it began opening up to global competition just over a decade ago, Chaudhuri said.

"The gap is growing between the poor in the bottom 80%, and the middle class and upper class," said Chaudhuri, founder of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management and author of a recent book on India's ills.

"Those at the very bottom, below the poverty line, are seeing hardly any increase in their income," he added. "If this growing gap goes on, it will be very difficult to govern the country."

India has more than 1 billion people, and by more optimistic estimates, as many as 300 million belong to a middle class. Their hunger for consumer goods has helped the economy grow at 6% or more a year during the last decade.

But about 350 million others -- more than a third of the population -- live in dire poverty, according to the United Nations. In Calcutta alone, an estimated 250,000 children sleep on the sidewalks each night.

The luckiest among India's poorest make a steady wage, like pankha puller Mahato, who toils through muscle ache and monotony for next to nothing because it's the best work he can get. And he is too proud to beg.

The village of Kantadih sits in a neglected stretch of eastern India, down a potholed, single-lane road surrounded by lush rice paddies, about 155 miles north of Calcutta.

Kantadih, with its several hundred people, is just important enough to have a sub-post office in a small, rented building on the walled campus of a local high school. The outpost's three full-time staff and five part-timers serve about 30,000 people in 11 villages.

The postal workers sort and deliver about 300 letters a day. They cancel postage stamps on outgoing mail by hand and melt wax over a small oil lamp on the floor to close mail sacks with a government seal. It is a restful place, where telephones don't ring and computer keyboards don't click.

The little sunlight that spills through two windows, and the flickering lamp, leaves much of the post office in shadows. The only noise is the occasional thump of a rubber stamp, the mournful wail of a distant train, and on this day, the steady, all-day rain of a slow-moving cyclone.

Because there's no electricity, the pankha is all that stirs the air when the post office heats up to 115 degrees or more during the long, humid summer months. The fan is made of two grass mats, sewn together with a red cloth border that is badly frayed. It is about 5 feet across and swings on chains from a wooden cross bar over the desk of the sub-postmaster, Jiban Mukherjee, and his desk mate, postal assistant Karan Chandra Mandi.

Mahato sits a few feet away and tugs on a lime green nylon rope. He is the last known pankha puller in the state, and while the bosses he cools wish for the day when a more efficient machine replaces him, they are also his friends and worry that he won't find another job.

Mahato sits in the shadows, in a grimy white plastic patio chair. His back is straight, his stare blank, and one arm is raised at a right angle, tugging on the rope like a bus passenger pulling the bell cord for his stop -- except Mahato has to keep pulling, dozens of times a minute, for hours on end.

"No, I don't feel bored. I have gotten used to it," he said. "There are times when, even if I doze off, my hand keeps tugging at the rope automatically."

He would rather be pursuing his real passion: cockfighting. He has trained several of his birds to be winners in local rings, but there's little profit in village gaming. When he pulls the pankha cord, Mahato insists, he focuses on the work at hand.

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