Sonia Gandhi, chief of the ruling Congress Party, has pushed laws guaranteeing a right to food and education, as well as a gargantuan rural jobs program for nearly 100 million people. But as many as 800 million Indians still live on less than $2 a day, even as Mumbai's stock exchange sits near record highs.
Many fear the situation is unsustainable.
"Everybody understands the threat. Everybody recognizes that there is a gap, that this could be the thing that trips up this country," says Anand Mahindra, vice chairman and managing director of the Mahindra & Mahindra manufacturing company.
Private companies have tried to fill that gap, and Tata sells a 749 rupee ($16) water purifier for the poor. Mafias provide water and electricity to slumdwellers at a cost far higher than what wealthy Indians pay for basic services.
"For every little thing, we have to pay," says Nusrat Khan, a 35-year-old maid and single parent who raises her four children on less than 3,000 rupees ($67) a month and blames the government for her lack of access to water and a toilet.
Image: In this Oct. 22, 2010 photo, a malnourished child sits at the doorway of his makeshift home at the Rafiq Nagar slum in Mumbai.