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Technology causes friction between NREGA workers and Govt

Is NREGA, the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme whose underlying act assures 100 days of work a year to a household, being choked to death as it enters the 16th year?

It would seem so from the declamations at the protest site in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, where batches of NREGA workers from various states take weekly turns to denounce two technological interventions and the slash in budget outlay. That message is amplified on Twitter, at press conferences and in sittings with sympathetic lawyers and lawmakers.

The protesters are particularly disapproving of the National Mobile Monitoring System, a smartphone app to upload photographs of workers from geo-tagged worksites twice a day as proof of attendance. It has been made mandatory for all NREGA worksites from this year. It is, according to a researcher who has studied the evolution of NREGA since inception, a solution in search of a problem. The app is said to be so unnecessary.

Poor connectivity in rural settings makes uploading of photos very difficult. If photos are not transmitted, attendance is not marked, and workers are not paid. Workers can live with delayed payments but wage denial will kill demand for NREGA work. Is that the government’s intention?

Suspicion is hard to avoid when the budget outlay has been slashed to Rs 60,000 crore, which is 67% of last year’s revised estimate. A slowing economy and a likely rainfall deficit this monsoon season will need a larger outlay for NREGA, not a cut. Though spending on NREGA under the NDA government has been more than during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second term, this government has declared it is less enthusiastic.

A couple of workers from Chhattisgarh told me, when I visited them on the 48th day of the agitation, they had suffered because of the mobile app. There are more such examples on @NREGA_Sangharsh, the Twitter handle of the front that coordinates the protests. Job cards are preferred because it’s all laid out on paper: the work done and the payment due. In any case, NREGA work is paid according to a schedule of piece rates. It’s the output that matters, not time spent on a task.

Amit Kataria, former collector and district magistrate of Bastar and joint secretary (Rural Employment) in the Ministry of Rural Development accepts that it is humanly impossible to vet the daily torrent of photographs that are sent from NREGA worksites across the country. Their purpose is to record, for reference in case of disputes or contestations. But software is being developed to match photos with Aadhaar IDs. The app is meant to quicken payments as the presence of workers at worksites is established instantaneously. It’s not to delay or deny wages. The app will prevent Rozgar Sevaks and mates from adding ghost workers. It will disallow the deployment of JCBs or earth-moving machines in place of manual work. If connectivity is interrupted, the photos will be transmitted when the network link is established. In exceptional circumstances, the collector, who is also the district programme coordinator, can permit attendance details to be fed manually into the NREGA Soft portal. That’s the official stance.

The app, it is said, will deter women workers. The share of women in total person-days worked was 57% last year, which is more than the Act requires—a third. NREGA work is low paying, so men opt out when they can trade up. Another reason for the higher share of women in NREGA work is flexibility. They can report to a NREGA site early in the morning, do their task and return to household chores or say, vegetable vending during the rest of the day. But with attendance to be marked twice a day, their participation will suffer.

Kataria’s response is that those who wish to multitask can still report for work early. The window for marking attendance is wide: from 6 a.m. to 12 noon, and again four hours later.

The other point of friction between workers and social activists on the one side and the government on the other, is the linking of bank accounts with Aadhaar. Biometric identification and mobile internet have transformed banking. There is no need for branch visits to open a bank or stock trading account. Small payments for daily necessities via smartphones are the norm in cities. This is apparently a deterrent for NREGA workers because they lack the documentation for Aadhaar IDs or they get worn out by KYC (Know Your Client) procedures. Mismatches between bank accounts and Aadhar IDs are said to be rampant.

But as per the scheme’s dashboard, 74% of the active workers (135.75 million) are enabled for Aadhaar-based payments. There will be teething troubles but that’s no reason to discard a procedure that ensures money goes into the right accounts.

Anxiety about corruption has accompanied NREGA even as it has expanded from a Rs 20,000 crore programme in FY09 to Rs 1.11 lakh crore in FY21 (last year’s revised budget estimate was Rs 89,400 crore).

Corruption is inevitable in a programme that employed 87.6 million persons last year across 22 million works. Initially, it was believed that workers would blow the whistle on corrupt officials If they were armed with the right to information, muster rolls were available in gram panchayats for the public to check, and project details were painted on the walls of public buildings. But there are instances of workers and officials colluding and splitting the difference.

Technology is supposed to cut that nexus. Social audits also help. Activists grouse that social audits are underfunded, and most gram panchayats were not audited last year. Kataria admits the pace flagged because of Covid. The aim this year is for all gram panchayats to be social audited. About 0.5% of NREGA funds have been earmarked for this purpose.

For all the criticism, NREGA has created durable assets to store rainwater, recharge aquifers, stop seawater ingress, prevent soil erosion and connect farms to main roads with dirt tracks. These have, to some extent, helped in making agriculture less vulnerable to weather shocks. There is concern that the emphasis on building toilets and low-cost housing will skew spending towards materials at the expense of labour. That tilt should be avoided. NREGA has set a floor for rural wages and provided a cushion in distress situations like Covid-linked economic disruptions, when migrants employed in cities returned to villages. The architecture that has been built over the years should not be allowed to wither away. BQ Prime

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