Indian village wins freedom with job programme

PIPARI, India – For as long as anyone can remember, the people of Pipari have lived as virtual slaves.

The wealthy, upper-caste landlord forced them to work his fields for almost nothing, gave them loans at impossible interest rates, controlled their access to government welfare and held the police in his pocket.

They were dalits, the lowest caste, with houses made of cattle dung, clothing in tatters and barely enough food for a meal and a half a day. They were trapped below the bottom, serfs in an age-old system of exploitation that few in rural India dared question.

Until, one day, with the help of the world’s largest social welfare programme, they did.

The roots of Pipari’s revolt lie in the latest effort to alleviate the devastating poverty that plagues India, amid an economic boom that brought luxury cars to city streets but left rural villages without running water.

Earlier programmes intended to empower the poor – giving them land and subsidised food, reserving posts for women and lower castes – often ended with upper-caste landlords and corrupt bureaucrats amassing even greater power.

They distributed the cheap food, but kept a cut to sell at market rates. They used front men to obtain land meant for the destitute. Their servants and wives ran for reserved posts on their behalf.

So legions of critics rolled their eyes when the government passed a new law in 2005 guaranteeing every rural family 100 days of work a year at a wage that is now pegged at 100 rupees ($3) a day.

But the law was largely shaped by social activists with deep on-the-ground experience, who designed it as a vehicle for transforming rural India.

The programme – which has given work to more than 52 million families this year – pays the rural poor to build everything from roads to irrigation ponds. It also fights corruption by giving local grassroots groups oversight. It pressures rural employers to raise their wages to compete with the programme’s pay. It reserves one-third of the jobs for women. And, the government hopes, it will stem the flight from farms to cities.

“It’s incredibly ambitious,” said Jean Dreze, a development economist affiliated with the Delhi School of Economics. “Over time, all of this could lead to quite a bit of social change.”

When corrupt officials siphoned off part of the villagers’ wages, the government pushed the program’s 90 million workers to get bank accounts so they could be paid directly – a revolutionary move that suddenly gave much of India’s rural poor access to formal banking for the first time.

When “agents” began gathering at the banks to help workers fill out forms for a hefty fee, the government mandated that all paperwork be taken care of at the job sites.

The programme has had an uneven impact across India. In some places, like Pipari, it has doubled or tripled local incomes and empowered villagers. In many others, villagers do not even know they have the right to request work, or if they do, are simply brushed off by local officials. Some states are barely implementing the program, Dreze said.

And even the programme’s supporters admit it is haemorrhaging money. The cost of 400 billion rupees accounts for nearly 4 per cent of the central government’s budget. Some economists says as much as 30 or 40 per cent of the funds might be pocketed by unscrupulous officials – a relatively good track record for rural India. Programme officials say the percentage of misused funds is far lower.

But the programme has also won accolades from surprising quarters. Political analysts credit it for the Congress Party’s re-election last year. Citigroup says the money it pumped into rural areas helped India weather the global economic downturn.

“There is a huge amount of scope for improvement,” said Himanshu, a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, who goes by one name. But, “it’s working a lot. More than what we had expected.”

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