MANJAPUDOOR, India — A dozen women in this village dig ditches and fill potholes with dirt, each of them earning a little more than $2 a day as part of a government jobs program for the rural poor.
“This work gives me my daily porridge and dignity,” said Eeswari Chinnasami, 42, passing a pan of mud to a row of women in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. “I do not have to go to sleep hungry anymore. And I do not have to beg for low-paying work from the big farm owners anymore.”
(Rama Lakshmi/THE WASHINGTON POST) - Eeswari Chinnasami, 42, (center) passing a pan of mud to a row women as part of the daylong activity of digging a ditch and pouring the dirt into a monsoon puddle to level the road.
Launched six years ago nationwide, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has been credited with rescuing millions of people from destitute poverty by giving 100 days of work to any family that wants to work.
But critics say the program has made workers less productive, compounded a labor shortage in the farming and industrial sectors and thrown away money that could have been invested in activities that boost economic growth. They say India’s transition to an economic powerhouse will be slowed because many working-age Indians in rural areas won’t learn the skills needed for new employment opportunities.
“The jobs program was meant to be a measure of last resort for the poorest. Instead, it has become the preferred work because it is easy money and a little bit of digging here and there,” said S. Baskar Reddy, head of agriculture at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) . “It is de-skilling our people at a time when we should be training them for new skills.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress Party came to power twice on the campaign platform focused on helping the poor harness the benefits of India’s recent economic prosperity. The jobs plan, which promises 100 days of work in a year, is his flagship program and so far has created employment for 193 million families.
But as India also considers a $20 billion program that will guarantee millions of economically and socially vulnerable Indians access to food, some economists are questioning whether the country can continue footing the welfare bill. Between April and September this year, India’s fiscal deficit reached more than $58 billion, double the figure for the same period last year.
Farmers’ and business associations now say that industrial jobs and farm work should also be considered as part of the program. Last month, a FICCI survey said that almost 90 percent of respondents said they were unable to find workers and meet their production targets. India’s real estate developers association also blamed cost overruns on labor shortages caused by the program, and the agriculture ministry requested in July that the program be stopped during the farming season.
Not far from where Chinnasami was digging, Ravi Chandran, a turmeric farmer, stared at his weed-ridden farm. “I have been pleading with the women laborers to come and remove the weeds that are eating up my turmeric plants. They want me to pay them $5 a day. That is too much; I cannot afford it,” he said. “My crop has gone to waste this year because laborers could dig ditches during peak farming season.”