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Vote-Winning Job Schemes?
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Ram Babu Manjhi is weak with hunger as he stumbles across a field to an irrigation ditch he's been digging for a month in eastern India.
Under a flagship jobs scheme launched by India's ruling Congress party, he was meant to be paid Rs 84 ($1.70) a day. But after grinding work, he was ripped off by contractors.
"I have worked for a month but I have not been given any money," he said, holding a petrol can full of cheap liquor. "The contractor promised to distribute the payments today, but he is not here."
This is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in Bihar, one of India's poorest and most corrupt states. Congress hopes its flagship national scheme, which aims to give employment for a hundred days a year to every rural Indian without a job, will be a vote-winner.
The scheme means tens of millions of some of India's poorest will benefit and could play a huge role in an April-May general election, as Congress battles the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The act won praise from the World Bank and the aid agency ActionAid, whose country director called it "one of the most progressive laws India has ever had".
But the scheme may be a mixed blessing for Congress. Not only is it mired in corruption in some states, but there are signs state governments, including those run by the BJP and its allies, may be getting credit.
In its bid to woo rural voters, roughly two-thirds of the 1.1 billion plus population, the government has allocated 0.6 percent of India's trillion-dollar GDP to the scheme over the next year.
Critics say much of the work done under the scheme is pointless, and call the programme a populist Congress policy that is straining government finances. There are reports of workers digging ditches only to fill them in again.
But across the country some of the poorest villagers can be seen building roads, digging wells, filling potholes. Many are women or from low castes.
"We Get Nothing"
In Bihar, only 1.3 per cent of households worked a full 100 days in 2007. Even those that found work did not always benefit.
"The contractors and the vested interests have various ways of siphoning off the money that's meant for employment," Babu Mathew, the country director of ActionAid, said
One social activist was murdered in the neighbouring state of Jharkhand when he tried to investigate corruption in the scheme last year, Mathew added.
Labourers in Korhar, a village just an hour's drive outside Bihar's state capital Patna, say they have seen most of their wages disappear into the pockets of local officials.
Unpaid labourer Ram Babu Manjhi was reluctant to give Reuters his name. "I will be sent to jail if you find any irregularities here," he said.
Underweight toddlers roam naked in the dirt in Korhar. Paved roads are rare, and the village's only water pump is broken.
Many are angry at how the scheme is implemented. In theory they are meant to be paid directly into a post office account to cut out middlemen, and sign official papers with a thumbprint.
"The officials get our thumbprints and then take all the money. We get nothing," said labourer Tetri Devi.
The people say they are driven away from work sites because there are not enough jobs to go round. "Our family has no work. We sit around all day, and we are starving," said Dalan Devi, another villager.
Whose Job Scheme Is It?
Far from the political wrangling of New Delhi, many people of Korhar have no idea Congress launched the scheme, but think it was their state chief minister, Nitish Kumar, whose party is allied to India's main opposition bloc.
Kumar himself told Reuters he endorsed the act. But his political bete-noire Lalu Prasad, who heads the state's main opposition party and is a member of India's ruling coalition, has attacked Kumar's government for the scheme's flaws.
When India goes to the polls, Congress and the BJP can take credit or dish out blame for the scheme depending on how their parties have implemented it at state level. The media has reported BJP-run states have often managed NREGA better than Congress states.
Take the central state of Madhya Pradesh, run by the BJP. Its population is lower than Bihar's but has given labourers 253,353,000 days of work against Bihar's 88,054,000.
NREGA has pushed up wages, boosted rural demand and even led to labour shortages in some areas where it was a success. Many workers are happy they no longer have to migrate to distant cities to find a job.
"For voters in, say, a state which is ruled by the BJP, if they are better off, will they actually say they are better off because the Congress did it for us or will they say that the state government did it for us?," asked a top government economist, Abhijit Sen.