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Income inequality is surging, and there are few countries where it is rising faster than the United States. The distance between rich and poor is greater in America than nearly all other developed countries, making the US a leader in a trend that economists warn has dire consequences. GlobalPost sets out on a reporting journey to get at the ‘ground truth’ of inequality through the lenses of education, race, immigration, health care, government, labor and natural resources. The hope is to hold a mirror up to the US to see how it compares to countries around the world.

In India, water and inequality are intertwined

Water access and quality are of grave concern to hundreds of millions of people.

Comparing the Divide: Fernley, Nevada and New Delhi, India struggle with distribution of resources. In both of these places, water access and quality are matters of life and death. Fernley and India also share a close Gini coefficient: 0.370 (Fernley) and 0.368 (India).

NEW DELHI — Water has always flowed through India shaping its caste system, purifying believers and offering a font of political and industrial power.

In Kathputli Colony it trickles into the sprawling slum through a collection of thin pipes and hoses. They snake across potholed roads lined by open sewers, through narrow alleys where children in ragged clothes beg amid the stench of feces and urine carrying an illegal water supply to the people who live there.

Not far away, water soaks the sprawling green lawns of beautiful bungalows where corporate elites practice putting on well-watered golf greens all to the constant sound of ticking sprinklers. It’s not uncommon for urban settlements like Kathputli to crop up right beside the golf courses, some of them legal, others on usurped land.

In India, the top 10 percent of India’s wage earners make 12 times more than the country’s lowest 10 percent. Two decades ago, the top tier made six times more. As many of the world’s developing economies make progress on income inequality, Kathputli is a window into the reality of many neighborhoods across unevenly growing metros, overflowing with migrants from rural areas and poorer neighboring states as government policy lags behind.

“Demanding 24/7 water supply in India is like flying in the air with no feet on the ground.”
~Gautam Bhan

“We had no access to water,” says Mohammad Maqsud, 33, the self-appointed people’s representative of one part of Kathputli and an electrician by trade. “So we discovered the city’s main supply line, which was running alongside the railway line. We dug ourselves to an access point and developed our own supply line off it.”

Prior to 2005, India had no legislation on mandatory delivery of basic services like water. Hence, those with limited or no access to water found ways to get those resources — whether building illegal lines or organizing politically to offer votes to leaders willing to make a deal.

“In reality — although there was no legal framework to provide water to illegal settlements — people did get services through various platforms that they negotiated with full collusion of the authorities,” said Gautam Bhan, who teaches urban poverty, housing and planning theory at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements.

Many parts of New Delhi suffer from water supply issues, explains Bhan. “I live in an upper-middle class neighborhood and I get water for 45 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes in the evening. Demanding 24/7 water supply in India is like flying in the air with no feet on the ground.”

The story of urban Indians, however, is a mere fraction of the larger reality of accessibility to resources that spans the country.

“The 2011 census showed that of India's 79 million urban households 18.6 percent were without a toilet while for the 168 million rural households it was 69.3 percent,” explained Juan Costain, who heads the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program in India. More than 65 percent of the country’s population resides in rural areas where sustainable access to water is an even greater challenge. There is also the issue of quality — urban water is full of pollutants that vary by city. The country’s water lifelines — the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Kaveri rivers — carry waters deeply contaminated by untreated sewage. Towns and cities across India dump untreated domestic waste directly into the rivers.

In rural areas, water is laced with chemicals thanks in large part to agricultural practices that are heavily dependent on pesticides. The lack of access also puts the burden of collecting water on the shoulders of women and girls, who spend countess hours walking to far-off water sources and carrying it back for cooking, sanitation and drinking needs. Many girls sacrifice their education as a result, making it far less likely that they will ever be able to climb out of poverty.

According to the World Bank, India has made much progress in recent years to improve access to water from 63 percent of the rural population in 1990 to 90 percent in present day. Access to improved sanitation facilities increased to 23 percent over the