NEW DELHI - India's first woman president was sworn into office Wednesday and promised to fight for the rights of women and an end to the widespread practice of aborting female fetuses.
Pratibha Patil, 72, also said the country's hundreds of millions of poor should reap the benefit of India's blistering economic growth of over nine percent. 0725 02
"India stands at the threshold of a new era of progress, and it should be a combined endeavor. We must ensure that every section of society are equal partners in the development process," she said.
"Our combined endeavor should be to ensure that the rate of economic growth is sustained and it is socially inclusive," Patil said after taking the oath as India's first woman head of state since independence from the British 60 years ago.
"A developing country of over a billion people should live together and move forward together," she said as she assumed the largely ceremonial position.
Under India's constitution, the prime minister wields executive power but the president plays a role in forming governments at state and federal levels, making the post hotly contested in India's fractured political landscape.
Patil, a diminutive bespectacled figure, was plucked from relative political obscurity by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former premier Rajiv Gandhi and the powerful head of the ruling Congress party.
She was elected by federal and state legislators last week, and replaces missile scientist Abdul Kalam, a 72-year-old respected for his populist style.
But Patil endured a bruising campaign, with the opposition accusing her of protecting her brother in a murder probe, shielding her husband in a suicide scandal and involvement in a slew of financial scams.
Patil, who was governor of the northwestern desert state of Rajasthan, denied all wrongdoing, saying the allegations were politically motivated.
In her speech, Patil promised to use her influence to focus on India's stubborn list of social ills.
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"We must banish malnutrition, social evils, infant mortality and female feticide," said Patil, who was dressed in a white sari with a green border. "We must fight poverty, ignorance and disease."
India loses an average of 7,000 girls every day through abortions because of a traditional preference for sons, according to a UN Children's Fund report last year.
Abortions have also resulted in a severely skewed gender ratio in India, where there are only 927 females for every 1,000 males -- far lower than the worldwide average of 1,050 females.
"I am deeply committed to the cause of education... the empowerment of women is particularly important to me," Patil added in the speech to parliament.
After the ceremony, Patil was driven in a black stretch limousine accompanied by horse-mounted bodyguards to the presidential palace, where she was given a 21-gun salute.
Italian-born Gandhi had said Patil's election would be a historic moment for the world's largest democracy and second-most populous nation, and boost the cause for women in a country where many face massive sexual discrimination.
Analysts, however, said she had been picked because she was a loyalist to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has given India three prime ministers.
The major issue now, said analysts, was whether Patil would be able to resist the pressures of the ruling coalition and act independently with a slew of state polls coming up and a federal election looming in 2009.
"It will be my sincere endeavor to live up to the high expectations of all those who have chosen to elect me, and to serve the best interests of the people of India," Patil said.
"I am fully aware of the great responsibility that has been placed on my humble shoulders."
Copyright © AFP 2007