Inflation-hit poor feel short-changed in rising India

LIBBAR HARI, India Wed Jan 26, 2011 6:08am GMT

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LIBBAR HARI, India (Reuters Life!) - Bhola Nath doesn't care much for India's growth story.

Not when the 65-year-old migrant brick kiln worker has stopped buying onions and garlic, key food staples for Indian families, and manages to save just 1,000 rupees ($22) per month to send his family of five back home due to the ever-increasing prices of food and other basic commodities.

"We have stopped having tea at work, and we add only red chili to our vegetables as even oil has become too costly," said Nath, who hails from northern Uttar Pradesh state but has worked for 15 years in this small dusty village in neighboring Uttarakhand state, about 160 kilometers from India's capital.

Five of his fellow workers whose 12 hour shifts heating bricks at the kiln earn them 150 rupees ($3) per day seconded the remark, with one jokingly adding that even "donkeys would faint" near them as they couldn't afford to buy soap anymore.

This motley group of migrant laborers who hail from different parts of the country represent a microcosm of the country's vast underprivileged, who feel they have been left behind by India's recent economic boom.

Their sentiment also highlights a schism between the rural poor and a prospering urban class which talks of putting India in its rightful place among the world's great nations.

The Indian economy has been growing an average of 8.5 percent over the last five years, propelling millions into what is often described as the great Indian middle class and making the south Asian giant a darling for overseas investors.

But 40 percent of its 1.2 billion population still lives below the U.N.-estimated poverty line.

"We are earning more now, but our living condition has actually gone down because everything costs so much more," said Shiv Kumar, who gets 220 rupees ($5) for every 1,000 bricks he molds, an increase of 20 rupees compared to two years ago.

NOBODY CARES FOR THE POOR

On the other side of the divide is kiln owner Ankur Lohan, who says business in booming due to many new factories in neighboring Uttaranchal stat. The demand for bricks has also grown 20 percent in last one to two years.

But with the country battling the highest rate of inflation for any major Asian economy, with food inflation at an annual 15.5 percent this month, sentiment is running high among the poor. The effect could be felt in upcoming state elections this year and a general election due by 2014, as the poor vote in greater number than the well-off.

The ruling Congress party-led coalition could well bear the brunt of voter discontent despite its populist measures, as there is a general perception about poor governance and corruption.

"The central government gives things but it never reaches us as it gets lost somewhere in the middle," said Kamlesh Kumar.

Most of the migrant workers at the factory distrust political parties, but given a choice, would support regional parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party led by "Dalit Queen" Mayawati, which champions lower casts, and the Samajwadi Party led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, who they think can better represent them.

"From the day Mayawati came to power, the lives of the poor have got better. She works even for the poor," said Shiv Kumar from in Uttar Pradesh, where Mayawati is chief minister.

But many others are simply indifferent.

"They (politicians) come with folded hands to greet you before elections but disappear after voting," said Bhola Nath, whose community traditionally votes for Samajwadi Party.

"Government only does things for people living in the city. Here we only have dust."

(Editing by Elaine Lies)

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