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One Indian village wins freedom with job program

For as long as anyone can remember, the people of Pipari have lived as virtual slaves.
/ Source: The Associated Press

For as long as anyone can remember, the people of Pipari have lived as virtual slaves.

The wealthy, upper-caste landlord forced them to work his fields for almost nothing, gave them loans at impossible interest rates, controlled their access to government welfare and held the police in his pocket.

They were dalits, the lowest caste, with houses made of cattle dung, clothing in tatters and barely enough food for a meal and a half a day. They were trapped below the bottom, serfs in an age-old system of exploitation that few in rural India dared question.

Until, one day, with the help of the world's largest social welfare program, they did.


The roots of Pipari's revolt lie in the latest effort to alleviate the devastating poverty that plagues India, amid an economic boom that brought luxury cars to city streets but left rural villages without running water.

Earlier programs intended to empower the poor — giving them land and subsidized food, reserving posts for women and lower castes — often ended with upper-caste landlords and corrupt bureaucrats amassing even greater power.

They distributed the cheap food, but kept a cut to sell at market rates. They used front men to obtain land meant for the destitute. Their servants and wives ran for reserved posts on their behalf.

So legions of critics rolled their eyes when the government passed a new law in 2005 guaranteeing every rural family 100 days of work a year at a wage that is now pegged at 100 rupees ($2.10) a day.

But the law was largely shaped by social activists with deep on-the-ground experience, who designed it as a vehicle for transforming rural India.

The program — which has given work to more than 52 million families this year — pays the rural poor to build everything from roads to irrigation ponds. It also fights corruption by giving local grassroots groups oversight. It pressures rural employers to raise their wages to compete with the program's pay. It reserves one-third of the jobs for women. And, the government hopes, it will stem the flight from farms to cities.

"It's incredibly ambitious," said Jean Dreze, a development economist affiliated with the Delhi School of Economics. "Over time, all of this could lead to quite a bit of social change."

When corrupt officials siphoned off part of the villagers' wages, the government pushed the program's 90 million workers to get bank accounts so they could be paid directly — a revolutionary move that suddenly gave much of India's rural poor access to formal banking for the first time.

When "agents" began gathering at the banks to help workers fill out forms for a hefty fee, the government mandated that all paperwork be taken care of at the job sites.

The program has had an uneven impact across India. In some places, like Pipari, it has doubled or tripled local incomes and empowered villagers. In many others, villagers do not even know they have the right to request work, or if they do, are simply brushed off by local officials. Some states are barely implementing the program, Dreze said.

And even the program's supporters admit it is hemorrhaging money. The cost of 400 billion rupees ($8.6 billion) accounts for nearly 4 percent of the central government's budget. Some economists says as much as 30 or 40 percent of the funds might be pocketed by unscrupulous officials — a relatively good track record for rural India. Program officials say the percentage of misused funds is far lower.

But the program has also won accolades from surprising quarters. Political analysts credit it for the Congress Party's re-election last year. Citigroup says the money it pumped into rural areas helped India weather the global economic downturn.

"There is a huge amount of scope for improvement," said Himanshu, a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, who goes by one name. But, "it's working a lot. More than what we had expected."


Pipari is so far at the bottom, its economy runs on cattle manure.

It is mixed with mud to construct brittle homes baked pale yellow in the paralyzing heat. It is cut into logs, laid out to dry and burned as cooking fuel. It is stacked for safekeeping into 8-foot-high mounds scattered everywhere in the village.

There is no electricity, no running water and not a single toilet or outhouse for the 179 families of this village, about 180 kilometers north of Lucknow, the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh.

The villagers are chamars, from the untouchable caste of traditional leather tanners, and pasis, the slightly higher caste of watchmen. Before India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947, they were landless peasants tending farms on behalf of their upper-caste landlords.

After independence, they were given tiny farms of their own. In total, the families have about 60 to 70 acres of sandy, uneven farmland with no irrigation facilities. They eke out one annual harvest of wheat and lentils.

But even in good years, that was never enough to survive. So the men in their threadbare shirts and torn rubber sandals headed off for weeks at a time to the city of Kanpoor, 150 kilometers (90 miles) away, to pedal bicycle rickshaws. And they continued to work the land of the upper castes for a pittance.

Naimish Shukla's family ran this area by fiat for generations. A powerful upper-caste man with more than twice the farmland of all of Pipari, Shukla, 50, is referred to simply as the pradhan — the chieftain.

When women saw him in the market, they would cover their heads with scarves, avert their gaze and hurry away. The men would drop to the ground and touch his feet. When he needed work done in his fields, he would give a command and the villagers would come.

"We were all afraid of him. When he spoke to us, he never used our real names, he used diminutive nicknames or insulting names," said Mahavir, a villager who goes by only one name.

The villagers made a pittance, some just more than $100 a year, and were forced to turn to Shukla for loans for fertilizer, train fare to Kanpoor, weddings, cholera medicine and food. In return, he charged interest rates that could turn a 500 rupee ($10.50) loan into a 1,000 rupee ($21) debt in months, villagers said.

Some sold their precious silver jewelry to pay him. Others sold parts of their tiny farms for a pittance to men they suspected were agents of the upper castes. Nearly all were forced to work his fields for three days a month in lieu of the interest on their never-ending loans, they said. Shukla also was the mayor — or technically his wife was — and they needed his help in gaining access to government welfare programs.

"We were his slaves," said Om Prakash, 35, one of more than a dozen villagers who spoke at length about the situation.

Defiance against the Shuklas was so rare, the villagers still talk about the only other time it happened.

A man dug a trench through the family's fields to a river to stop flooding that had devastated Pipari, said Mansa Ram, the man's grandson. In retaliation, the family accused him of theft, but a sympathetic policeman refused to pursue the case, Ram said.

That was in 1960.


Half a century later, the villagers recount their own rebellion.

It began in late 2006, when they asked Shukla for work under the new law.

Many local officials — fearing an erosion of their power — refused to register families who applied, refused to give work to those who registered and refused to pay those who worked. Shukla told the villagers there were no jobs, even though the law requires they be given work within 15 days or paid unemployment.

But the people of Pipari were at the breaking point. Everyone had a loan they couldn't pay off. Men were forced to spend more time peddling rickshaws in Kanpoor, leaving the women alone with the children and the fields, which produced ever less food.

"We had a hunger in our stomachs, and we had no choice," said Prakash.

A community group, Sangateen, brought some of them to the nearby city of Sitapur for a large protest that forced regional officials to comply with the jobs law.

In December, the villagers were given work for five days digging a pond and another seven days digging a canal. Shukla paid them half their wages and told them they would get the rest soon, the villagers said.

They didn't.

By February, with the harvest still two months away, Pipari was desperate.

Fifty-three men walked to Shukla's home to ask for their money. He brushed them off. So they marched to a nearby government office and were promised payment the next day, they said.

They went back to Shukla's house the following morning, but were told it would take one more day. On the third day, they gathered at 10 a.m., but he was gone. They called him on his mobile phone and he promised to bring the money, they said.

Over the next five hours, the men sat in the dirt of his yard and stewed. They reminisced about the recent protest in Sitapur, which forced much more powerful officials than their pradhan to cave in.

At 3 p.m., they called back. He yelled at them over a speakerphone and told them to leave immediately.

Amid the anger, the humiliation and their desperate need, something inside the men snapped.

"We stopped being afraid of him," said Santosh Kumar, 31.

"There were so many of us, I didn't feel any fear," said Kishori Lal, 50.

They refused to leave. Even more, they demanded he return immediately with their money. They threatened to riot and to loot the nearby ration shop. When they spotted sacks of grain intended for a school feeding program, they demanded them as collateral for their salaries.

"No one had ever done that before," Prakash said.

Shukla told his terrified staff to give the villagers the grain. Soon after, he paid their wages.

The villagers were stunned. They had defied their pradhan, threatened him even, and they had won.

So they did it again.

They camped at his house every day for 10 days until he gave them all their job cards. When he refused to let women work, 37 turned up at a job site anyway and prevailed, to cheers. They rallied when he wouldn't sign papers for them to open bank accounts, and then protested when the bank demanded 100 rupees ($2.10) to open the accounts.

"After that first protest, there was no going back," Prakash said.

Shukla denies everything, from the usurious loans to the ceaseless confrontations with the villagers.

"There has never been any conflict with the workers," he said, sitting on a woven day bed in the anteroom of his house, as he prepared to preside over a government meeting in his wife's stead.

But one of his servants, Ram Pyari, shook her head and reminded her boss of that time three years ago when the Pipari villagers arrived en masse and demanded their money.


The seemingly unbreakable power structure has crumbled.

With more money in their pockets from the jobs program, the villagers are taking far fewer loans from Shukla. They refuse to toil in his fields for meager pay, and he complains that he has had to nearly double his wages to attract workers.

Prakash's income shot from 6,000 rupees ($127) a year to 16,500 rupees ($350). Instead of bread and salt, his family eats a full dinner, and he pays 50 rupees ($1) a month to send his daughter to private school.

The men don't pedal rickshaws in Kanpoor anymore, but stay home with their families and their fields. The women are earning money of their own for the first time. The villagers are even discussing taking on the next most powerful person in the area, the man who runs the government food shop, whom they accuse of stealing their subsidized sugar ration.

As for Shukla, they still defer to him, but rebel in small ways. When he tells them to do work for him, they do what is convenient and ignore the rest, they said. And they have stopped touching his feet, giving him a little salute instead.

"He still acts like a king, but we don't consider him a king anymore," said Harpal Gautam, 37. "His rights and our rights are equal."