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India Starts Rural Employment Project


India has kicked off an ambitious project aimed at alleviating rural poverty. The country has witnessed high economic growth in recent years, but large parts of the countryside, where a majority of the people live, are still impoverished.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh introduced his "Employment Guarantee Scheme" Thursday in a poor, drought-prone village in southern Andhra Pradesh state.

Under the project, the government will provide 100 days of work each year to one member of about 60 million poor rural households. The workers will earn $1.5 a day working on projects such as building roads.

In addition to providing families with a steady income, the project also aims to stem the migration of rural people into cities in search of work. Prime Minister Singh says the program will focus on what he called "the poorest of the poor."

"It provides a safety net to those who are in need of livelihood and employment security," he said. "It will come to the help of those who maybe under the pressure to migrate elsewhere, thereby reducing distress migration. It will help us get rid of the scourge of poverty, disease, and indebtedness."

The Congress-led government announced the project shortly after sweeping to power nearly two years ago on promises of improving conditions for poor people.

India's runaway economic growth in recent years has created a huge middle class, but the boom is not reflected across the sprawling countryside where millions of farmers grapple with problems such as drought and debt. In Andhra Pradesh state, where the project is being started, scores of farmers have committed suicide in recent years after being driven into debt.

Independent political observer Mahesh Rangarajan says a lack of jobs is one of India's most serious problems. But he questions whether the government will be able to implement the project effectively.

"The famine of work is a very serious phenomenon in India…. Yes, it [the project] is the need of the hour," said Rangarajan. "But it is a very big challenge. Will they be able to do it and do it well? Government in India, particularly rural India, is not very good at getting delivery to the poor."

Skeptics point out that red tape and corruption have riddled similar projects in the past, preventing benefits from reaching those in need.