Jawaharlal Nehru once hauntingly described India's poor as "this naked, hungry mass." Despite a half-century of democracy, steady economic growth and constitutional commitment to welfare goals, India's poor are still naked and hungry. They are also far greater in numbers: by conservative official count the absolutely poor total some 350-400 million, the world's largest concentration of deeply impoverished people.

There is every risk that this immense tragedy will endure for the foreseeable future, perhaps even for the next half-century or more. This is so because over the past decade India's development agenda has been reduced to a single-minded focus on accelerating economic growth. Correspondingly, the needs and interests of the poor, never of much importance, have become more marginal than ever before in independent India's history.

The neo-liberal economic reforms of the past decade -- which are gradually freeing the economy from state intervention and encouraging foreign trade and investment -- have been embraced by most wealthy, upper- and middle-class Indians. They are the primary beneficiaries of the faster economic growth generated by the reforms. And the conservative nature of the reforms signals an end to the threat of pro-poor redistribution that has long been a part of India's political rhetoric.

The proponents of the reforms (notably including the World Bank) maintain that the reforms and the resulting faster economic growth will also cure poverty, quickly and painlessly. Their argument is appealingly straightforward. At a GDP per person of just $350, India has too little to share between too many; a decade or so of rising incomes will raise everyone; and the state needs only to encourage growth as its benefits will automatically "trickle down" through expanded employment opportunities.

But this argument -- beyond the obvious fact that faster growth is unobjectionable -- is dead wrong, both in theory and practice. It ignores Indian realities and misrepresents modern India's history.

India's reality is that 80 percent of the poor live in rural areas, where they are typically bereft of assets (particularly agricultural land), illiterate, malnourished and sick. And only scarcely less than in colonial India, they are deeply oppressed by the landed. The lowest castes remain the most impoverished; brutal violence and ritual discrimination are ubiquitous; and democracy is a fiction at the village level in all the major states except Kerala and West Bengal, where leftist governments have undertaken substantive agrarian reform.

These myriad disabilities bar the poor from participating in economic growth. They also ensure that the poor barely share in the gains of growth: Little or nothing trickles down to them, too often not even higher wages for their labor. Moreover, these disabilities prevent them from translating universal suffrage and their massive numbers into political power. The record of the past half-century has proved all this beyond doubt.

Faced with data confirming that poverty has worsened over the past decade despite record growth rates (a new World Bank report admits that another 40 million Indians have slipped into absolute poverty in these years), some among the reformers are modifying their prescription.

The Bank now makes much of the need for India's government to invest in "human capital" by improving education and health conditions. It has also edged closer to accepting the need for public safety nets, such as schemes for the aged or for unemployed rural laborers. But even this broader agenda cannot achieve significant reductions in India's mass poverty. A critical element is missing.

This critical element is substantive agrarian reform: land redistribution, tenancy reform and labor protections. It is a precondition to India's rural poor ever emerging from poverty. This is so because land redistribution transforms their material conditions by providing them with a productive asset, at the same time emancipating them socially and politically. Only then can India's poor benefit from democracy, from greater public investments in education or health, or from economic growth.

This lesson is evident from the experience of Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan -- all formerly inequitable, land-scarce countries where agrarian reform laid the basis for broadly shared growth. The lesson is as evident within India: Poverty levels have stagnated everywhere except in those areas that began with more egalitarian social systems than the norm (Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and the Himalayan hill states) or that have undergone agrarian reform (Kerala and West Bengal).

The need for agrarian reform as a prerequisite to tackling poverty in India is so obvious that since the 1930s India's leaders have regularly promised to redistribute "land to the tiller." But no Indian government has ever been deeply committed to the poor, and so the reams of agrarian reform legislation have been mild and their implementation bogus. Precisely because so little agrarian reform has been done, there is still extraordinary scope for the poor to benefit if it is undertaken.

Unfortunately, there is little chance that India's politicians or policy elite of today will admit to this need. They are demonstrably uninterested in agrarian reform -- in fact, they are reversing the laws that ban large farms. Their actions condemn several hundred million land-hungry and deeply deprived Indians to unending poverty.

Siddharth Dube is the author of "In the Land of Poverty: Memoirs of an Indian Family, 1947-97."