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The largest employment program in human history

For all that I like talking, discussing and analyzing everything in the true tradition of the 21st century, encouraged by millions of 24/7 news channels, Oprah and confessionals, some of the most important events, experiences and beliefs in my life I keep quiet. Mostly because I can get more done if I talk less about them.

Looks like however much India’s improved in marketing itself, and however much Indian politicians, government officials and celebrities have discovered a whole new science to PR, enough to invest money and personal credibility behind public attention (India Shining, The India caucus in Washington, Chandraayan, IPL, Shah Rukh Khan being one of the first actors to endorse products on television, etc.) – we still believe in keeping certain things under wraps. For example, which was the largest employment program in human history? Was it a war? Was it the New Deal? Was it building the Great Wall of China?

India’s New Deal

By Daniel Pepper

On a recent morning in a village in eastern India, Hirya Devi, a rail-thin woman in a tangerine sari, told a crowd of a few hundred poor laborers how she came to participate in the largest employment program in human history.

For two months last year, Devi worked on a government-funded well construction project as part of India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which promises 100 days of employment each year to the head of every rural household. Since the program began in 2006, 90 million Indians have been temporarily put to work, usually on road and well construction projects, earning minimum wages of about $1.60 a day.

The program isn’t simply extraordinary because of its scale—though, incredibly, it could affect nearly 70 percent of India’s 1.1 billion citizens. What makes the program truly exceptional is its transparency. Regular, public reviews of all documents—wage cards and bank records, engineers’ reports and work completion papers, for example—ensure that laborers are being paid fairly. If shady practices occur, villagers like Devi can air their grievances at village meetings.

For many of India’s rural poor, access to regular work is a life-changing development. “It’s not the end of poverty,” says Jean Drèze, one of India’s most famous social activists and a chief architect of the program, “but it means the kind of extreme insecurity that people live in today is basically not there anymore.”
What’s more, the program’s attempts at accountability represent a radical, game-changing agenda in a country where local politicians and businessmen often collude for kickbacks. As such, there has been a fair amount of backlash from local leaders, who contend that public access to documents challenges their authority. Many villagers complain bitterly that the program itself has become corrupt.

That’s what brought Devi to the front of the crowd that morning. After two months of hard work, she had been denied her wages by a thieving contractor. “I’m an old woman,” Devi explained. “I don’t have money to go run after government officials.” Although the top district official listened patiently, Devi likely won’t receive her lost wages. No one expects such a large government program to be free of corruption overnight, but the fact that a chauffeur-driven bureaucrat showed up to listen to poor villagers surely suggests that men and women like Devi are learning they are entitled to more than just a handout.

—Daniel Pepper

I remember hearing and reading about this when in CRY, and I was skeptical at best of how well this would work (I still am), but that it’s lasted this long is an achievement in itself. It can’t possibly have cost too much – at maximum just about $26 billion a year, providing employment to 90 million people to date. Which translates to sustaining 477 million people (standard # of children per mother = 3.5 in India – TBV ==> family size = 5.5), about 49.5% of the population. Stunning. Suddenly this program seems to be more useful, if run right, than any other program my nation may have conceived and executed over the last 60 years of Independence.

How many amongst the employment receivers (heads of household) are women? How many of the beneficiaries are women? How do they figure who the head of the household is?
Not sure if my numbers are right, but I’m a LOT more curious about the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act than I ever was before! Funny how not ONE major Indian paper or website seems interested in picking this up – not even Prannoy’s/Barkha’s NDTV.

Oh, and a not-minor quibble – why do I get my information about India demographics more easily from a US Census site than from http://www.censusindia.net/, where EVERY link tells me I’m not authorized to view the page? What’s up with that? Shame on the “REGISTRAR GENERAL & CENSUS COMMISSIONER” or whoever’s in charge.

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