- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2008

DEOGARH DISTRICT, India | On a recent morning, hundreds of poor villagers - many barefoot and illiterate - crowded closely together under a large tent to relate stories of government corruption and well-heeled state bureaucrats.

Although chauffeur-driven government officials have long listened to the woes of the subcontinent’s subaltern, this was clearly different.

The government representatives in the eastern state of Jharkhand endured seven hours of criticism regarding official venality thanks to a new law that has empowered the most marginalized of India’s low-caste rural workers to speak truth to power.

The plan under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which began all across India in 2006, is one of the largest jobs programs in history. It guarantees the head of each rural household employment at the state minimum wage (typically $2 a day) for 100 days each year. The massive $5.5 billion jobs program, which aims to alleviate poverty for many of India’s 700 million rural residents, has reached 90 million people.

The jobs are typically in construction — building roads, wells or drainage ditches — but can be anything deemed important by a participating community.

At least one-third of the workers must be women.

Most analysts agree that NREGA has the game-changing potential to upend centuries of caste and class discrimination. It not only gives poor people jobs but also gives them the right to demand accountability at any time.

Contractors and middlemen — long symbols of local wealth and corruption — are barred from participation, and public review and inspections of all documents are required at regular intervals.

“It’s not the end of poverty,” said Jean Dreze, a Belgian-born, naturalized Indian citizen and one of India’s most famous social activists. “But it means the kind of extreme insecurity that people live in today is basically not there anymore because you can get work for up to 100 days and at the minimum wage, which is not at all bad.”

The linchpin of the program is public hearings called “social audits” in which villagers review work orders, engineering reports, payment records, work sheets and other official documents. For those who are illiterate, the records are read aloud.

But critics say NREGA also has the potential to become another vehicle for government officials to line their pockets.

Hirya Devi, 45, says she worked on a well construction project for two months but was never paid. She says her foreman pocketed her salary, bought a motorcycle with the money and dared her to file a grievance.

“I’m an old woman. I don’t have money to go run after government officials,” said the woman, who looks at least 10 years older than her age.

Mr. Dreze concedes that such shenanigans occur, saying it’s often villagers of higher castes who are part of a feudal system of patronage and indebtedness in which landless peasants like Hirya Devi work for them or their relatives. In Deogarh district, poverty and illiteracy rates are high, and many are unaware of their rights.

In a recent assembly organized by Mr. Dreze, villager after villager recited stories of corruption, intimidation and embezzlement into a crackling microphone.

Bidya Marande, a frail 65-year-old woman clad in a yellow sari, her arms and chest covered in deep blue tribal tattoos, took the microphone. She spoke with Manchand Rajwar, a 25-year-old man with severe polio. Both said they were surprised to find their names listed as employees of a well project when they are not capable of manual labor. Other villagers complained of paying bribes to receive NREGA job cards or receiving only a fraction of their salaries.

To be sure, denouncing corrupt officials is still risky business in India.

In May, the day before a social audit in Jharkhand, Lalit Mehta, a tireless social activist, was found dead in a shallow grave, his body badly beaten.

After Mr. Mehta’s killing, which is being probed by federal investigators, many Indians began questioning NREGA’s effectiveness.

Amita Sharma, the head of the NREGA program in the federal Ministry of Rural Development in New Delhi, concedes that there are problems but says transparency is the ticket to success. She wants records and names of workers for each project, bank deposits and data on how much the central government spends in each district to be posted online. She says some 50 million NREGA workers are registered online at www.nrega.nic.in.

“Any outside person who wants to do a reality check — all they have to do is pull out the data,” Ms. Sharma said. It “creates a system of checks and balances.”

But for laborers in poor rural areas where Internet penetration and computer literacy are in the low single digits, Web transparency underscores a growing chasm between a wealthy, connected, urban India and its much larger, poorer, rural cousin.

In Deogarh district, for example, most homes lack electricity.

“The whole nexus between the politicians and the contractors and the corrupt bureaucrats is very strong,” said Mr. Dreze, who with a team of economists, college students and farmers recently spent a week in Jharkhand, combing through files, confirming names on work sheets and whether salaries were paid.

“[Corruption] is the root of all the ills and woes afflicting rural governance in India and the execution of NREGA,” said Parshuram Rai, director of the New Delhi-based Center for Environment and Food Security.

“There is a lot of hype about empowerment, but the truth on the ground is very disappointing.”

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