India's jobs plan goes nationwide
Last week, India's government expanded its ambitious program to provide 100 days of minimum-wage employment per year to millions of poor rural farmers.
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Some economists argue that along with the farm loan waiver, the scheme could widen India's large budget deficit and push up interest rates.Skip to next paragraph
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But by far the biggest criticism is that the NREGS too closely resembles the innumerable poverty-reduction programs of the past, in which huge sums of money bypassed the intended beneficiaries.
"The government has been doing schemes like this since the 1970s – and this one just collapses them all into one," says Surjit Bhalla, an economist.
"None of them has worked, and nor will this. If you want to help the poor, cash transfers are the only way," he says, referring to poverty alleviation programs that provide cash to families on the condition that they meet specified social goals.
But many believe that the NREGS is different from earlier schemes in important ways, and that, rather than scrapping the project, its implementation should be improved.
Reetika Khera, an economist and representative of the global Right to Food Campaign, says that the NREGS ensures greater transparency than earlier schemes.
An important example of this, she says, is the publication of muster rolls at each work site. Read out each morning, these make it difficult for corrupt officials to make false claims.
Where the scheme succeeds most
She adds that the scheme has been much more of a success in states with better governance. "If politicians get interested, there's more motivation for administrators to make a good job of it," she says.
Rajasthan is a striking example of this. Here, in the last year, almost all the households that demanded it were given an average of 85 days of work.
In Jalor, say experts, the scheme has been a success because of the leadership of the district collector – or top official – Rohit Kumar.
Since Jalor joined the scheme in May last year, Mr. Kumar has introduced several innovations that have contributed to its success.
Traditionally, on Indian work sites, laborers work in large groups and all are paid the same irrespective of their contribution. In Jalor, the groups are much smaller, which has exposed slackers and increased productivity, says Kumar.
In addition, Kumar has introduced a rule that a third of the "mates" – site bosses – must be women.
"To even think of a lady being a mate was unthinkable two years ago." says Kumar. "But the men are beginning to get used to it now."
He says that administrators like him have more reason to ensure that this scheme is a success because, unlike previous projects, it is enshrined in a law – the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which was passed in 2005.
Khera says that despite the naysaying of critics, it is too early to judge the overall success of the scheme.
Jalor, at least, stands as an example of how a public works project can improve lives.
Rajesh Harijan's particular status within the dalit caste – the group at the bottom of the Hindu caste system formerly known as untouchables – meant he was the sweeper in his village, a job that paid in bread rather than cash.
But today, he works at the flood defense site, breaking the hard earth with a pickaxe and earning his first ever salary. "I'm getting money and I'm getting respect," he says.