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India's youth reflect nation's contrasts

By Seth Doane
CNN
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NEW DELHI, India (CNN) -- "Progress will be when I can afford to buy good shoes," a poor farmer says.

Standing to the side of a rutted dirt path near the field where Shailendra cuts grass for 50 rupees, or about US $1, a day; Shailendra says it's hard for him to compare his life to those living in India's cities. He says he's never been to the city himself and the rural village where he lives in Bihar doesn't have electricity; so there's no television to see pictures of such far-off places.

Shailendra's life seems removed from figures supporting the booming economic development across the subcontinent. In India, growth rates surpass 8 percent, according to World Bank statistics.

But Shailendra is hardly an exception in India. Just under 70 percent of Indians live on less than US $2 per day, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Living in Bihar, India's poorest state, Shailendra says that farming is one of the only options available to help him eke out a living.

Despite his meager earnings and rudimentary surroundings, he is remarkably upbeat. "I am not going to be like this forever, life will be better for me in (the) future," Shailendra says, though he's less clear when asked how he'll accomplish such change.

Shailendra's setting and story is in stark contrast from that of Mohita Mathur; a teenager living in New Delhi. Over a cup coffee at a hip coffee chain in India's capital city, Mohita says; "Job opportunities in India, with the growth rate here, will in a few years be on par with job opportunities abroad."

Mohita has the unbridled optimism of a young Indian generation with an overwhelming work force. Roughly half a billion Indians are under the age of 25.

Drinking "cold coffee," a milky-sweet coffee drink popular in India, Mohita acknowledges that the beverage costs more than a farmer like Shailendra would earn on an average day. "We can't always be depressed when we see that one side of poverty and unemployment and all of that," Mohita says.

She considers herself socially responsible and says she'd even like to work for a non-governmental organization some day. Poverty, she says, "is reality and you have to face it, the least that you can do is help them out."

A country of extremes

Witnessing the birth of a baby girl at Fortis/La Femme Hospital, one of the finest such medical facilities in India, the state-of-the-art facilities appear on-par with the best maternity wards in New York or Singapore. Just hours after giving birth to a baby girl, Madhavi Tripathi, feels her daughter is, "among the luckiest" in India.

"We are at a position to provide her with whatever she feels like doing in India," Madhavi whispers as her newborn daughter sleeps wrapped in a pink blanket tucked under her arm.

Matched only by her soft whisper and the quiet appearance of fatigue, Tetra Devi, sits on the cement outside a hospital in Bihar having just given birth to her own baby.

Tetra says she'll work to educate her newborn child. "My baby will work in the fields if he does not get a job," Tetra Devi says.

As India surges ahead, and the middle-class grows, this "next" generation will have to deal with the huge disparity between rich and poor.

Recent headlines herald the existence of a record number of "billionaires" in India. And at the Indian Institute of Management in Kolkata, one of the finest Business schools in the country just announced that the pre-placement salaries for two talented students are to exceed $250,000.

The sexy headlines of development, progress, and big bucks for top graduates are only part of the story here. There are millions of people like Shailendra; the poor farmer in Bihar, whose life and story is just as much a part of the fabric of India.


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Mohita Mathur: Poverty "is reality and you have to face it."

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