India's New Deal

Article excerpt

On a recent morning in a village in eastern India, Hirya Devi, a railthin 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.

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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 Dreze, 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. …