Centre Using Online Transparency Mechanism to Undercut MNREGA, Say Activists

By making “insidious” changes to the system, the rural development ministry is trying to curb workers’ rights, says People’s Action for Employment Guarantee.

Women work at a dry pond under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) in a village on the outskirts of Kolkata, 11 February 2014. Credit: Reuters

Women work at a dry pond under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) in a village on the outskirts of Kolkata, 11 February 2014. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: The Management Information System (MIS) of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) was put in place as a digital accountability mechanism, so that spending, number of workdays allotted and number of job cards issued under the scheme could be kept track of. However, activists have alleged that the much celebrated transparency tool is now being manipulated by the Ministry of Rural Development to “influence the programme in insidious ways”.

People’s Action for Employment Guarantee, a conglomerate of more than 150 civil society groups, has issued a statement that says the ministry has made several changes to the system that benefit the government at the cost of workers. For instance, states are no longer allowed to reopen closed schemes in the MIS. This means that if there are pending payments after work on the scheme is over and is closed in the MIS due to pressure from the ministry to report completed schemes, it becomes very difficult to demand or make those payments.

In addition, for several days in 2016, the ministry did not allow states to allot work to households for which a photograph has not been uploaded to the MIS. A photograph of at least one household member is one of the steps needed to “verify” a job card and it is the duty of the authorities to upload it. Not having a photograph in the MIS means households can lose out on work for no fault of their own.

The ministry also blocked the option for material payments on schemes in MIS at times when MNREGA demand was high, to try and cut expenditure. “This not only caused widespread delays in completion of works but also caused many wells to collapse as they could not be completed before the rains because of the absence of material,” the activists have said.

The government has also made changes within the statement that lower accountability standards, the statement says. Reports on unemployment allowance have been removed from the system, making it difficult to monitor payments. In addition, the report on compensation for delays in wage payment has been modified such that the reasons for refusal of compensation no longer need to be specified. (Workers are entitled to 0.05% of the wage owed per day of delay if they are not paid within 15 days of doing work.) It is them impossible to hold anyone accountable for such rejections, which may be done for arbitrary and unfair reasons.

All of these changes, the activists have alleged, are made without any prior disclosures to state governments or the public. “This violates the rights of MNREGA workers and amounts to backdoor amendments in some cases,” the activists have said. In light of this, People’s Action for Employment Guarantee have demanded that MIS modifications be made through formal notifications on the MNREGA website, the ministry remove all restrictions from the MIS (such as on material payments) and any changes in the MIS (and therefore the rights granted by the MNREGA) be made only after consulting stakeholders.