Economic growth in India has failed to reduce extreme income poverty or provide decent jobs as effectively as growth has done in East Asia. Mindful of a political threat from the labouring poor, successive governments have offered India's ‘surplus populations’ guaranteed work, first through the Employment Assurance Scheme (EAS) and more recently under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). This paper uses ethnographic and large-n datasets to examine how the EAS worked in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh; it also utilizes a preliminary dataset for NREGA in Madhya Pradesh. We show that understandings of the EAS were poor among intended beneficiaries in both states. We also show that the EAS did not work better for the rural poor in Madhya Pradesh than in Bihar, notwithstanding the existence of functioning panchayati Raj institutions in the former. Importantly, this calls into question aspects of a conventional decentralization agenda. Most significantly, the paper suggests that geographies of EAS fund flows illuminate the nature and workings of the local state. Distribution of EAS funds within districts and blocks is most uneven where allocative power is effectively monopolized by a regional political boss and/or is unchallenged by bureaucratic oversight mechanisms. We discuss how far the same problems might affect NREGA schemes notwithstanding the more effective information flows and accountability mechanisms that surround the
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