AHMADABAD, India, Feb. 6 (AP)--With shovels, pickaxes and their bare hands, homeless villagers in western India will help rebuild their quake-ravaged countryside in an extensive food-for-work program.

Authorities fear a mass exodus from the region if relief measures are not put in place soon. Free food being distributed to more than 30 million affected people was likely to end soon.

"After one more round of free grain distribution, there will be a food-for-work program," said P.K. Lahiri, principal secretary to Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel of Gujarat, the state worst affected by the earthquake.

"For now, the people are dazed since their trauma was so enormous. But we have to start offering whatever community work they want to do," Lahiri told The Associated Press on Tuesday. He did not say when the food-for-work-program would begin.

The 7.7-magnitude temblor has killed more than 17,000 people, and the officials expect the toll to rise to 30,000.

Food-for-work programs were organized after a devastating cyclone that tore into the eastern coastal state of Orissa in 1999, and a severe drought in the western desert state of Rajasthan last summer. More than 10,000 died in the cyclone, and millions were affected by the drought.

But such programs have not always been successful. Asked to cart and cremate bloated corpses for money in the Orissa cyclone zone, many villagers said they would rather go hungry. Many refused because they believed the dead belonged to Hindu castes lower than theirs and were therefore unclean.

During the drought, tens of thousands of villagers dug wells in the scorching sun in Rajasthan in a work-for-food program. They complained that few got their money.

It was not clear if villagers in Gujarat's disaster zone would also be asked to clear bodies and help in cremations and burials.

Authorities have ambitious plans to relocate thousands of people from devastated villages to new settlements, selecting sites and lining up material and equipment needed for the massive project. If this does not happen soon, villagers will flee the region, Lahiri said.

Construction of houses will begin in April.

Lahiri said the federal government promised to provide Gujarat with 100,000 tons of wheat, which would be sold to villagers at 5 cents per pound--a quarter the normal price--if they took part in the food-for-work program.

"Right now, it's free food. In the next stage, as we try to provide short and midterm solutions, it will be heavily subsidized food," Lahiri said.

Local newspapers ran front-page reports of government inefficiency in getting relief to far-flung areas. They said bureaucratic hassles were preventing foreign donors from transporting relief supplies from the airport in Ahmadabad, the state's largest city, to the disaster areas.

In the worst affected areas of Bhuj, Anjar and Bhachau, the town centers were flush with relief supplies and tens of thousands of people were being fed in makeshift tent homes. But in the hinterland, thousands waited in desperation for food, clothes and medical relief 11 days after the quake struck.

The U.N. World Food Program announced Tuesday it has launched a $4 million, four-month effort to help feed 300,000 people--mostly pregnant women, nursing mothers and children.

More than 600,000 homeless need food, clothing and sanitary facilities. The injured numbered 66,758, said state officials, who estimate that 34 million of the state's 45 million people have been affected by the earthquake.

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