On a recent morning in India's eastern state of Jharkhand, hundreds of villagers - many barefoot and illiterate - crowded together under a large red and white tent to deliver complaints of endemic corruption to well-heeled state bureaucrats. Across rural India, chauffeur-driven officials of state and central governments have long listened to the woes of the subcontinent's poor. But this was different. The officials endured seven hours' criticism thanks to an employment programme that has empowered the most marginalised low-caste rural workers to speak the truth, and empower themselves. The US$5.5 billion National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, rolled out two years ago, is described by its supporters as one of the largest job-creation programmes in history. It guarantees the head of each rural household employment at state minimum wage levels (typically US$2 a day) for 100 days every year. The goal of the effort is to give India's 700 million rural residents the tools to question their leaders and demand accountability and transparency, a rarity on the plains of India's poor, feudal countryside. It has already provided jobs to 90 million people. While the jury is still out on whether the programme is a countrywide success, almost everyone agrees it has the potential to upend centuries of class-based discrimination while giving a hand up - not just a handout - to India's poor. 'It's not the end of poverty,' said Jean Dreze, a Belgian-born, naturalised Indian citizen, and one of India's best known social activists. 'But it means the kind of extreme insecurity that people live in today is basically not there anymore because you can get work for up to 100 days and at the minimum wage, which is not at all bad.' The lynchpin of the programme are public hearings, or 'social audits', in which villagers review work job orders, engineers' reports, payment records, work sheets and other official documents. For those who are illiterate, the records are read aloud. The jobs are typically in construction - of roads, wells or drainage ditches - but the community can pursue any project it deems important, as long as no more than 40 per cent of the central government funds are spent on materials. The remainder must go on wages. The projects must be on public land, except in cases involving 'scheduled castes' or 'scheduled tribes' - people at the bottom of India's social order. A third of the employees must be women. Despite its success in employing millions, participants like Hirya Devi say the programme has fallen far short. Ms Devi worked on a well construction project for two months but was never paid. She said her foreman pocketed her salary, bought a motorcycle with the money and dared her to file a grievance. 'I'm an old woman. I don't have money to go run after government officials,' said Ms Devi, who despite being only 45 looks closer to 60. Corrupt officials are often villagers from higher castes, Dr Dreze said. They have created a feudal-style system of patronage and indebtedness with landless peasants like Ms Devi who often work for them or their relatives. Ms Devi is representative of the many villagers who are enthusiastic about signing up for jobs but know nothing about their rights to demand copies of the documentation the programme requires. Critics of the programme allege that a greater investment must be made at the village level - India's more than 600,000 villages constitute the basic unit of local government - in order to drive the beneficiaries to demand accountability. And, with the economic downturn more politicians, public intellectuals and community leaders are calling daily for the programme to be beefed up. They want to make sure there is an employment safety net for the masses. But the architects of the act don't want to upend the marketplace for labour. Rohit Singh, a young man who grows spices, rice and other crops on 20 hectares he owns in Jharkhand, complains that the price of labour has doubled to US$2 since the act was introduced. 'Earlier, we were getting cheap labour,' Mr Singh said. 'It's not justified - they are not skilled.' India has long wrestled with what to do with its largely uneducated population. In places like the district of Deogarh, the problem is that villagers - although aware the act is aimed at creating jobs - are ignorant of its safeguards to ensure transparency. Poverty rates there are some of the worst in the country, and people are content to get any work at all. Social audits are rare, so corrupt officials can get away with ignoring the law. In the wealthier, more developed states, where community participation in the democratic process is strong, a common complaint might be that a medical kit - a requisite at every worksite under the act- is missing a particular medicine or antiseptic. For labourers in places like Jharkhand, that is the least of their concerns. A frail 65-year-old woman, Bidya Marande, clad in a yellow sari, her arms and chest covered in deep blue tribal tattoos, and Manchand Rajwar, a 25-year-old man with severe polio, each said they were surprised to find their names listed as employees of a well project. They complained of being listed on worker rolls but never employed at the site. Others said they had to pay bribes for jobs, or that they did not get paid what they were owed. When Dr Dreze and his colleagues, many of whom travelled the 1,400km from New Delhi, recently organised a social audit in Jharkhand, villager after villager recited stories about corruption, intimidation and embezzlement. Standing up and accusing corrupt officials of malfeasance doesn't come without certain risks. In May, a day before a social audit in Jharkhand, the body of a social activist, Lalit Mehta, was found in a shallow grave, his body badly beaten. A federal investigation is ongoing. After that, many Indians began questioning the act's effectiveness. Amita Sharma, the head of the programme at New Delhi's Ministry of Rural Development, wants online records for each project's workers, bank deposits and spending by the central government. Of the 90 million job cards, some 50 million have already been registered in an online database. 'If an outside person wants to do a check - all they have to do is pull out the data,' Ms Sharma said. 'It creates a system of checks and balances.' Such scrutiny functions well in richer states, but for labourers in poorer regions like Jharkhand, where internet penetration and computer literacy is in the low single digits, it is much more difficult. In Deogarh, for example, most homes lack electricity. Over the years, the central government has divested many responsibilities to the village governments. But, because of illiteracy, discrimination and a lack of education, villagers go begging to higher authorities who hold the purse strings to government programmes. 'The whole nexus between the politicians and the contractors and the corrupt bureaucrats is very strong,' said Dr Dreze. Together with a team of other economists, college students and farmers, he spent a week before the public meeting combing through files and visiting villages to confirm names listed on worksheets and that people were being paid what they were owed. The idea isn't to bring justice to the workers who have been cheated. That would entail going through the court system, which many regard as so clogged up and slow that it's virtually useless. Rather, the act is aimed at creating a critical mass of pressure on government officials to prevent the problems affecting rural communities from occurring again. Fake names on worksheets mean money for project leaders, as long as there is someone at the bank willing to collude with them. 'This is the root of all the ills and woes afflicting rural governance in India and the execution of the act,' said Parshuram Rai, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Environment and Food Security. 'There is a lot of hype about the empowerment of [elected village administrations] but the truth on the ground is very disappointing.'