Unable to find work in the fields, M. Sakkubai in India's southern Andhra Pradesh state contemplated like many others in her village of migrating to the city in search of livelihood. Now, a new government poverty-alleviation scheme guaranteeing employment has given her economic sustenance and the security to go on living at home.
India's National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) came into effect on Feb 2, 2006, across 200 of India's poorest districts in 27 states, assuring 100 days of unskilled manual work in a year to one adult member of every rural household.
In the first 10 months, more than 13 million families in the country were provided employment and more than Rs.500 million (approx $11 million) pumped into the rural economy. According to central government estimates, the scheme has already generated 440 million mandays of employment.
Andhra Pradesh and the eastern state of Orissa, with some of the poorest pockets in the land, leads in the implementation of the scheme, launched by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Andhra Pradesh's Bandlapalli village.
About 4.5 million people in Andhra Pradesh have been issued job cards and employment has been provided to over 1.2 million labourers covering 846,000 households. While 744 projects have been completed, 55,899 are in progress involving an expenditure of Rs.1.27 billion (approx $28 million).
In Orissa, the programme is being implemented in 19 districts, including the three impoverished districts of Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput known as India's hunger zone.
"Preliminary trends indicate that at least 15 to 20 percent of the people who migrate every year have not gone out this year. This is because of the NREGA," Bolangir district labour officer P.K. Bhoi.
Envisaged and passed in far away New Delhi, the act has wrought profound changes in the lives of many millions of people in the country. Like Sakkubai, who has been saved from becoming one more faceless migrant labourer and today earns more than what she would have earned as a construction worker in the city.
In the last eight years, successive droughts in Sakkubai's village Turkapally has led to large scale migration of workers to urban areas in the state and even to neighbouring states.
The NREGA has come as a godsend for the 45-year-old woman, among the 204 villagers who have registered themselves under the scheme. If the concerned authorities fail to provide them work, they are entitled to a daily unemployment allowance.
Engaged in desilting the local tank and digging pits for biodiesel plantations, Sakkubai earns anywhere between Rs.60 to Rs.80 (about $1.5 to $2) a day. Those who put in more than seven hours can earn about double. The scheme has not only recognised her worth as a woman, giving her equal wages for equal work, but also gives her almost double the money she would have made as a construction worker in the city.
B. Ramulu, an agriculture labourer, was all praise for the scheme saying it particularly benefited the old. "We were sitting idle in the past but now we are getting work," said the 60-year-old, who owns an acre of land but gets no income from it.
In Kamraipalli village, 100 km from the state capital Hyderabad, K. Yadaiah and his wife K. Renuka have got job cards. "Unlike previous schemes, when officials and politicians were siphoning funds meant for the poor, this scheme prevents any corruption as we directly get the money from post offices," said Yadaiah, displaying his post office passbook.
He said they were not covered by any insurance or health scheme while working as agricultural labourers.
"Here, officials will bear the expenditure for treatment if we are injured while working on any project."
NREGA beneficiaries enjoy other benefits too - clean drinking water and a woman caretaker appointed to look after children of labourers while on duty.
Social auditing, which is compulsory under the scheme, ensures transparency and public accountability in implementing the scheme. Two computer operators appointed for each sector record every minute detail of the works taken up.
"EGS software developed by Tata Consultancy Services helps simplifying complex activities like the issue of job cards to rural households, identification of work to be undertaken, generation of work estimates, work execution and wage payment," said Manohar Chari, an official associated with the scheme in Hyderabad.
Andhra Pradesh claims to be the first to implement automated solutions and has recently bagged the best software award from Microsoft for it.
In neighbouring Orissa, NREGA implementation is being monitored through NREGAsoft, which has been developed by the National Informatics Centre (NIC).
Changes are being felt in Orissa as well. Like Sakkubai, 40-year-old Narayan Bag is happy that he doesn't need to go looking for a job outside his home in Gedabanji village, 14 km from the district headquarters of Bolangir.
Bag has found work in the Rs.300,000 ($6,700) 1,200 m road project, which started in March this year. That's about the time of the year when Bag and dozens of other villagers from Gedabanji leave for at least a couple of months to find work, mostly in brick kilns.
Bag has already worked on the road for 25 days.
"Who doesn't want to stay at home? We hardly had jobs last year and had to move around other cities," said Bag, who lives in an government scheme house in his village of 296 people, mostly Gond tribals.
The NREGA has helped an estimated two million people like him in the state stay at home instead of going to Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh in search of work every summer.
It's a basic bread and butter issue, but also one that allows for rare luxuries like a new dress.
By working on the village road, Jasoda Kumra, a 20-year-old tribal girl in Gendabanji, has for the first time in her life saved enough to buy two goats and a dress for herself.
Officials estimate that more 12,000 people in Bolangir district migrate every year.
Till Oct 23 this year, 81,156 people in the district were engaged in 2,222 projects.
There are some complaints about the implementation of the scheme and some of corruption.
But these are early days yet. Notwithstanding the complaints, the NREGA has the potential to change lives for millions of India's forgotten poor - some of that has already begun.