Tirupati (Andhra Pradesh): What is common between a small farmer whose son is studying medicine, a smuggler of valuable wood who gave up the illegal activity and an agricultural labourer who raised a loan to buy a buffalo?
All of them are the beneficiaries of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), which is bringing a silent revolution to the countryside in Andhra Pradesh by turning wage seekers into farmers and entrepreneurs.
The scheme, which assures 100 days` employment to each household every year, has not only checked village to town migration and helped address the problem of extremism in some areas but has also brought a degree of economic empowerment to the beneficiaries.
The state is showing the way by creating durable assets through dry land horticulture near this temple town and other parts of Chittoor district in the drought-prone Rayalaseema region.
Andhra Pradesh, which has emerged as a model in the scheme`s implementation, launched several innovative measures like social audit, payment of wages through individual accounts in post offices and banks and now through biometric cards and uploading of live data.
M Ravindranath Reddy, a small farmer, and his wife Chettamma are busy watering the mango plants in their five-acre plot in Bodevandlapalli village in the Yerravaripalem mandal, about 60 km from here.
"The scheme has come as a boon for us. We could not even afford to send our children to school by bus but today our sons are pursuing higher education," Reddy, one of the beneficiaries of dry land horticulture taken up on 70,000 acres in Chittoor district, told a visiting correspondent.
His son Venugopal Reddy, 23, is a second-year student at PES Medical College in Kuppam town in the same district.
M. Srinivasulu, 31, had no idea what to do with his barren three-acre plot near a hillock. The man, who was a small businessman earlier and was struggling to look after his four-member family, has now turned a farmer.
"Without this scheme it would have remain barren land," he said as some men and women were busy watering plants in the backdrop of the Eastern Ghats including the famous Tirumala Hills.
Under the MGNREGS, the plants are maintained for three years at a cost of Rs.24,000 per acre, including watering cost. They will be watered 20 times from February to June.
"Each acre of land has 70 mango plants, which will bear fruits from the fourth year. Each farmer is expected to earn Rs.10,000 per acre from the fourth year," an official told agency.
"We choose mango because of favourable climatic conditions, low investment, easy maintenance and easy marketing," said Nagarjuna Reddy, assistant project director, MGNREGS, Pileru cluster, comprising five mandals.
"The scheme has put a full stop to Maoist activities and red sand smuggling in this region," said B. Gopichand, project director, Chittoor district.
C Tirpal was a smuggler of valuable sandalwood and was also involved in illegal trade of liquor but today he is using all his energy to take care of the mango plantation on his five-acre plot. "I get Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000 every year for working in my own field and I am using this money to send my children to school," he said.
In Payabandavaka Kunta, a small hamlet in the Digovapalli gram panchayat of the Madanapalle mandal, 110 km from here, the construction of check dams has stopped migration and provided livelihood to 10 tribal families.
"We used to go to Chennai to buy items used for removing evil eye and used to sell the same in other places but we have now found employment here," said Parvatamma, who is now growing vegetables on her two-acre plot.
In neighbouring Anantapur district, one of the most backward and drought-prone districts in the country, the authorities are concentrating on building check dams and percolation tanks to raise the water table and check soil erosion due to water runoff.
One aim of the rural job scheme is to make vast stretches of barren land belonging to the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and backward classes cultivable by removing boulders and clearing bushes.
One can see similar works being undertaken at Bandlapalli, a sleepy village where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi launched the national scheme on Feb 2, 2006.
The scheme has checked migration from the village, located 40 km from Anantapur town. "Whenever I failed to get work here, I used to go to other villages and towns," said V. Gangamma, 47, a farm labourer who used to earn only Rs.30 per day. Today she earns Rs.80 per day and has also taken up sheep rearing.
L Akamma, a widow, is paying back Rs.501 every month towards a Rs.20,000 loan she took this February to buy a buffalo. She availed herself of a state government scheme under which loans are provided at 0.25 percent interest.
The state has so far spent about Rs.8,000 crore since the launch of the scheme, providing over 70 billion mandays of employment, benefiting about 11.9 million households. About 27.5 million adult members have the job cards issued to households.