Smart Step to Help India’s Rural Poor

Smart Step to Help India’s Rural Poor


The New York Times

KAKUPPAM, INDIA — A swarm of men and women, mostly women, fills the bed of a dried-out reservoir. They’re armed with shovels and crowbars and pickaxes. They chop at the wild grass and dig at the hardened clay that have choked the reservoir.

It’s a hot day. Many of the men are shirtless; the women cover their heads with folded pieces of cloth. Some crouch in the shade.

The residents of this agricultural village are working under the auspices of the government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or NREGA. The act, passed in 2005, guarantees a hundred days of employment to all rural households that volunteer to work at the minimum wage (at least 60 rupees, or $1.23, a day, but higher in many states).

It’s an ambitious public works program that has provided jobs to almost 30 million households. Across the country, impoverished villagers have built dams, improved roads, strengthened irrigation, and restored ancient water bodies — the act sponsors work in eight areas deemed to be important for rural development.

In Kakuppam, the men and women are desilting the village reservoir so that more rainwater will be collected; the hope is that it will then percolate down to the aquifers that feed the neighboring fields.

Agriculture in this village isn’t what it used to be. The water table has been declining, and the land, abused by chemical fertilizers and pesticides, is turning barren.

Of course NREGA is hardly the government’s first attempt — or promise — to ease poverty. At independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, proclaimed that building the “noble mansion of free India” meant “the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.”

In the 1970s, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, consolidated power for the Congress party with the slogan “garibi hatao” (stop poverty), which was designed to appeal to the voting masses in a country where the majority of the population lived below the poverty line.

At every election, in virtually every speech, Indian politicians pay lip-service to the cause of the poor. By now, their rhetorical commitment invites cynicism.

Indian democracy has failed the poor. In 1950, shortly after independence, India’s per capita income was almost one-and-a-half times China’s; by the turn of the millennium, China’s was 1.8 times India’s.

Rajiv Gandhi, Mr. Nehru’s grandson, and a prime minister in the 1980s, once estimated that 85 percent of public spending on welfare schemes was diverted — a euphemism, of course — on its way to the poor.

Something feels different this time, however. NREGA is but one of a slew of programs and laws passed by the Congress-led coalition since its surprise return to power in 2004, and its re-election earlier this year.

In 2005, Parliament passed a Right to Information Act that has greatly increased transparency in the administration of development programs. The government has also passed a Right to Education Act, waived loans for indebted farmers and discussed a Food Security Act that would ensure that every household receives a basic level of nutrition.

All these initiatives have added up to a real — if still incipient — sense of possibility, especially in the countryside. Over the past few months, as I’ve traveled around the villages and farms in South India, I’ve spoken to farmer after farmer, housewife after housewife, whose life has been touched by one of the government’s programs.

In Kakuppam, the improvement is evident — not dramatic, certainly not revolutionary, but nonetheless palpable.

P. Rajalaxmi, a 32-year-old mother of three, says she and her husband used to keep their family afloat by cultivating their two acres of land. But the land has dried up, the family’s finances are strained, and she’s saving the pay from this job — 80 rupees a day — to send her kids to school.

S. Nagavalli, a 54-year-old widow, worked on construction sites until she fell and injured herself. She was unemployed, dependent on others for food and shelter; now she manages on her own.

P. Sagunthala isn’t sure how old she is. She’s at least 65. She used to live with her grown children, but they threw her out because she wasn’t earning any money. Her eyes are glazed with what look like cataracts, and she moves with the aid of a walking stick. She says the work is tough, but at least it keeps her alive.

NREGA was born from a charmed confluence of political expediency and genuine concern for the poor. In 2004, when the coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, campaigning on a platform aimed at the urban middle classes, unexpectedly lost, the lesson to political strategists was clear: rural voters, and voters who had been left out of India’s economic boom, counted. Politicians ignored the poor at their own peril.

That message was strengthened in the most recent elections, when the Congress, championing the cause of “aam aadmi” (ordinary man), returned to power with a substantially increased majority. Voters seemed to be embracing politicians who had delivered on growth and governance, and rejecting the old identity politics in which votes had swung along religious or caste lines.

Credit should be given, too, to the leaders of the Congress and to the much-maligned Communists, who were instrumental in pushing for laws like NREGA before they quit the government in 2008. Indian politicians really do seem interested this time in doing something about poverty.

NREGA has its share of critics. They cite lingering corruption and waste, and some worry about the fiscal effects of the program (although others argue that the spending has in fact worked as a stimulus that has helped India ride out the global slowdown). Many also say the program should pay higher wages.

Some of the government’s other welfare programs, in particular the loan waiver scheme, have been derided as mere populism.

These are all valid criticisms. But the best is always the enemy of the better, and the line between economic populism and responsive governance is a fine one, especially in a country where economic deprivation is as widespread as India.

Traveling around the countryside these days, driving through village after village like Kakuppam, where men and women labor under the sun and in the rain, it feels like something is really happening. Maybe, just maybe, the relationship between voters and politicians, citizen and government, is starting to change.

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