The government says it wants to develop the countryside in order to create jobs and income [AFP]

Underneath the blazing midday sun, Kusum Thakur stands on her small patch of land and points her finger angrily down toward the earth.

"This land is like my mother, I can't sell it, what else would I do? I've worked on it day and night, it's my life and soul."

She is a formidable woman, passionate and loud. Her family has grown rice here for generations but now she is being offered money by the government to sell the land for a proposed industrial scheme.

Special report

The area her land is on, in Maharashtra state in western India, has been earmarked by the government for inclusion in one of the Special Economic Zones (Sez), where companies are given financial incentives to build factories and other infrastructure.

The government argues that this will create jobs and generate income in areas which lie beyond the cities, but Thakur sees it differently.

She says that other farmers have sold their land, sometimes under pressure, only to spend the money on alcohol or a car, which subsequently breaks down.

"So how do they survive now?" she asks.

Thakur's passionate objections are being echoed in hundreds of villages and towns across rural India, where other Sez are being established.

The ongoing debate illustrates the gap in perceptions between urban and rural India.

Left behind

India's economy has boomed in the past 15 years, but in many parts of the countryside that has made little difference.

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India's rural-urban divide
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In the cities, the manufacturing and services industries have grown by about 10 per cent a year in recent years, whereas agriculture has lagged far behind with a growth rate of just over 2 per cent.

Of course, it is difficult to generalise about a country as diverse as India, and there are some signs of new rural prosperity, such as increased sales of mobile phones.

But, in many places, villagers still feel they have been left behind.

Urban-rural divide

A number of economists, concerned by this growing gulf between city and countryside, have urged successive Indian governments to remove water, electricity, fertiliser, wheat and rice subsidies in rural areas.

They argue that these subsidies tend to only benefit wealthier farmers, and that the whole system has been corrupted.

However, and contrary to the advice of most free-market experts, the current government (led by the Indian National Congress Party) enacted a flagship piece of legislation in an attempt to reduce poverty by increasing government spending.

The legislation, known as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) of 2005, is staggering in its ambition. It guarantees every rural household at least 100 days of work a year, and is intended to apply to the whole country by the end of 2009.

Al Jazeera travelled to the parched tribal lands of the Thane district, north of Mumbai, to see NREGA in action.

We came across dozens of men and women building stone walls along the contour line of a hill under the supervision of a forest ranger. The project is intended to stop soil erosion once the monsoon rains hit this area.

Rural vote

Many villagers say they only see politicians at election time
Atmaram Janu paused from this tiring work to say that he was grateful for his job.

Like so many rural Indians, he owns a tiny patch of land, so the extra cash he earns here (equivalent to between $1 and $2 a day) makes all the difference. 

But Atmaram remains deeply suspicious of politicians.

"What do I think of them?" he asks rhetorically.

"Nothing! They come here and they say, 'come vote, come vote!' and they hand out money; 500 rupees ($10), 200, 100, and then they go away again. I don't want to see their cars here anymore, they don't really care about us."

It is perhaps too early to draw conclusions about NREGA.

Critics say that it is already providing opportunities for yet more corruption, and that many of the new projects are a pointless drain on public finances. 

The Congress Party hopes it will convince many rural Indians to vote for it.  

It is one of the great paradoxes of modern India; some two-thirds of the population lives in the countryside, and nobody can win an election without massive rural support. 

Yet, so many so many in rural India are seeing no benefits, even as their country moves forward.

Source: Al Jazeera