-- Kailash Jagtap, a millet farmer in western India, spends seven hours a day digging soil with a spade and scooping it onto a plate, which his wife then carries away on her head. Twenty other people work alongside them under the scorching sun. Their mission is to build a pond to collect rainwater in hopes of reviving their parched village.

In the process, they are also earning a basic living -- 15 pounds of wheat and 50 cents per day -- under a government public works program that guarantees manual labor jobs to anyone who seeks them in the state of Maharashtra. The program has been so successful that the government hopes to replicate it nationwide.

"The drought in the last two years has crippled our lives," said Jagtap, 38, who owns two dried-out acres but has helped build several other ponds and dirt roads in the past two years. "My farm lies barren and I have sold all my buffaloes and cows. This digging work is all that I have, and it has kept my family away from hunger."

The Maharashtra jobs program, which has been operating ever since a severe drought struck the state in 1972, has been a virtual lifeline for the poor, allowing villagers to demand work from the government if they cannot find any other livelihood.

Now, the Congress Party government in New Delhi hopes to launch a similar job-guarantee scheme across the country. Following up on its 2004 election promise to give a job to every rural family, the government introduced the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill in Parliament in December. To begin with, the bill guarantees 100 days of employment per year to the poorest villagers.

"The aim is to provide livelihood security for millions of poor families. It is a safety net," said Prithviraj Chavan, an official in the prime minister's office. The bill, now under review in Parliament, is likely to be passed in the next two months. "This will put some money in the hands of the poorest in the difficult dry months, so that they don't have to scramble for food. It will also build rural assets like roads, canals and water-harvesting structures," Chavan said.

The program, which will guarantee a "right to work" for the first time across India, may cost around $5.4 billion in the first year.

Many economists have criticized the initiative, calling it a populist welfare dole that will drain the nation's resources. They argue that the best way to create jobs is by expanding the economic reforms program that began in 1991, and achieving higher growth.

The Indian economy has grown at an impressive average of 8 percent in the past two years and the proportion of the population living in absolute poverty has been reduced to 27 percent. Still, voters in the 2004 national elections identified unemployment as their prime concern.

Since India opened its economy to foreign investment in 1991 and began deregulating domestic industry, millions of jobs have been created in private industry, with a great deal of growth in information technology businesses. But the changes have made little dent in the national unemployment rate, which is officially over 9 percent. Among rural homes, the jobless rate is 12 percent.

About 60 percent of the billion-plus people in this nation still depend on agriculture for their livelihood, but nearly 70 percent of Indian farms depend solely on the erratic annual rainfall.

Two years ago, when the rainfall was below normal levels in some districts of Maharashtra, Jagtap and his wife enrolled with the village development officer for manual work. The officer drew up a plan to widen roads, build earthen trenches and water-harvesting ponds, and plant fruit trees in Jejuri.

According to the state law, when 50 villagers get together and demand jobs, the government is legally bound to come up with some kind of public works project within 15 days.

"The wages are not very high, but at least we did not have to migrate to the city in search of work," said Jagtap's wife, Chaya, 34, a shy woman in a blue floral-printed sari.

In the last three decades, the Maharashtra government has created more than 4 billion days of work, and spent about $2 billion on the program.

But like most things in India, charges of flawed implementation and corruption dog the program.

"It is work for the sake of work. Most dirt roads get washed away in the rain. Water-harvesting structures are built without any scientific study," said H.M. Desarda, an agricultural economist who filed a petition in the Bombay High Court in 2003, asking for a review of the program. "Poor people have definitely benefited. But in many places the scheme has been reduced to merely digging a hole and filling it."

Surjit Bhalla, an economic consultant to the World Bank, calls the proposed national program a "masterly scheme for encouraging corruption." In several cases in Maharashtra, corrupt officials and politicians at the local level have entered fake names of laborers and public works into the rolls, then pocketed the money.

"The bulk of unemployed Indians possess some years of education and are unlikely to turn up for manual digging work," Bhalla said.

But a drought is a great leveler, according to Jagtap.

"You may own land; you may be educated. But when there is no rain, everybody in the village is equal," he said as others at the digging site nodded. "You eventually turn up for work in the farm pond with a spade and pickax in your hands."

In the Indian state of Maharashtra, villagers such as Kailash Jagtap and wife Chaya, center, are guaranteed jobs.