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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 April 2006, 01:35 GMT 02:35 UK
Is India's rural poverty plan working?

By Jill McGivering
BBC News, Rajasthan

Villagers involved in manual labour in India
This is 'a people's law,' supporters say
Earlier this year, the Indian government launched a bold, multi-million dollar scheme to tackle rural poverty. It guarantees 100 days work a year for every rural household. It's manual work at the minimum wage.

Critics say corruption and bad governance mean it is unlikely to work. So two months after the launch, I travelled in northern India to see if it is working.

The northern state of Rajasthan is a barren land of dust and desert. But in some of its poorest villages the government's new rural employment guarantee scheme is bringing new life.

I came across more than 200 people from the small village of Samota, toiling together in the heat, carving out a village pond.

Everyone had a part to play. The women, decked out in brightly coloured saris, were carrying panniers of earth, balanced on their heads as they processed. The men swung their picks to dig into the rock-hard ground.

Each one of them was being paid a daily wage by the government for doing this - just over a dollar a day. It is modest but, for them, well worth the money.

'Edge of poverty'

When the workers stopped for lunch, one of them, Jagdish, invited me back to his home.

Villagers building a canal in India
We just do not have the delivery mechanisms... But now there are people who doubt whether even 15% reaches the people it is intended to reach.
Gucharan Das, management guru

It was simple mud and thatch with earth floors and an open fire for cooking. Not much space for a family of seven.

Jagdish had been working in the nearby city of Ahmedabad before the scheme started. I asked him why he had come back. Behind us his wife tended a smoky fire, boiling tea.

"The wage is better here than in Ahmedabad," he told me, "and there I had to cook for myself and everything. But here I can work close to the family." He smiled. "We are all together, with the children too."

Their positive story would delight Aruna Roy, a leading campaigner for the rights of the poor and a driving force behind the new law.

I met her in Udaipur in Rajasthan where she was chairing a meeting about how to publicise the new scheme.

"India is still largely very badly off," she said.

"We think that, for the first time, a law that is a people's law has been passed. Because it relates to 60% of India's population which lives either with the constant fear of unemployment on the edge of poverty or with unemployment as a continuing process."

But critics say the fundamental approach is wrong, that public labour programmes simply don't work.

Others support the idea in theory but say widespread corruption means the poor will feel little benefit.


Gucharan Das is a management guru and former chief executive based in Delhi.

A daily wage labourer in northern India
Lack of awareness means local villagers are often cheated

I sat with him in the garden of his home in an affluent Delhi suburb, his words interrupted by the piercing cries of the birds.

"We just do not have the delivery mechanisms," he said. "The thing everyone quotes is what Rajiv Gandhi once said: that only 15% reaches the poor."

He shook his head sadly. "But now there are people who doubt whether even 15% reaches the people it is intended to reach."

Mr Das is not the only person worried about implementation. One of the ironies is that India's poorest states which need the scheme most are generally its worst governed too.

After talking to Mr Das, I travelled overnight to the heart of Uttar Pradesh, a vast state, India's most populous and one of its poorest.

Here too the scheme was introduced at the start of February.

Our journey ended with a bumpy drive along a dirt track to a small, remote village called Kewti.

The non-government worker who took us there had called a meeting with the villagers to discuss the new employment law. But we arrived top find the village in uproar.

It seemed that a much-needed new road was being built but the government has appointed a local contractor to the work.

The contractor had brought in labour from the neighbouring state of Bihar. The villagers said if they had known their rights under new law, they would have insisted that they did the work instead.

Village elder Shyam Dher Mishra told me it was desperately needed: "There are so many unemployed people in the village," he said.

"People are really hungry. So the government should come here, let us do the work and the money could go from the government directly to us."

Good governance

In the next village we visited, Gutiah, we found another story. The villagers showed off with pride their newly dug irrigation channel.

Women labourers work on a village project
For the scheme to succeed there needs to be good governance

They took matters into their own hands, organised themselves into teams to carry out the work on their own and were now lobbying the government to pay them retrospectively.

This way, the say, they cut out the middle-men, the contractors, to try to make sure the payment came directly to the village.

Murli, one of the men who worked on the channel, told me they had decided this was the best approach.

"We heard about this new law but there was no work coming," he said. "So we thought we'd start ourselves.

"We thought if the canal's ready, it will bring water and also give us work. We've seen many contractors in the past but it's all corruption. The work never gets done."

Clearly, even at this early stage, there are problems.

In Delhi, I met the minister in charge of rural development, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh. I asked him why he thought this scheme would succeed when many in the past made little difference. "It's true that so many lapses were there in the field," he said.

"But in this law there is no chance of corruption and misappropriation."

I told him about the villages I had just visited in Uttar Pradesh where the system clearly was not working as planned, if at all.

He replied with confidence.

"In the beginning stage, some problem may be there," he said. "But in three or four months, everyone will know their rights."

Awareness in itself may not be enough.

This scheme also needs good governance, local officials willing to administer the process openly and honestly. And in some states at least, the verdict on that is still to come.

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