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Food-for-work program begins in India

Job-creation plan targets farmers in poorest districts

HYDERABAD, India -- India's government launched an ambitious food-for-work program yesterday aimed at moving millions of poor farmers back from the brink of starvation by helping them feed themselves.

The national food-for-work program is planned to create employment in 150 of the poorest districts suffering from drought, floods, and other natural disasters.

''This is a first step toward the eradication of rural unemployment and ensuring that nobody goes without food," said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who kicked off the nationwide effort with a brief ceremony in Aloor, a village in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

Under the program, workers would earn 11 pounds of food grain for a day's work, with at least 25 percent of their wages paid in cash. The federal government would provide additional food grain and funds to the states.

Singh said the program would help accelerate rural development and boost farm production by building irrigation canals and roads and bridges.

''We will move faster to develop roads and other infrastructure in rural areas," Singh said.

Harvansh Prasad Singh, a federal minister who attended the program's launch, said the federal government had allotted $450 million for the plan.

Creating jobs for millions of unemployed small farmers, many of them devastated by drought and the failure of the monsoon rains, was a major campaign promise by Singh's Congress Party during its surprise win in May's national elections.

India's agriculture is largely dependent on seasonal monsoon rains. Scanty rainfall this year has forced many farmers to sell off their lands or take loans from money lenders at exorbitant interest rates. Local newspapers in recent months have reported at least a dozen suicides by impoverished farmers unable to repay loans.

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