Modi Government’s Tech Fetish is Diluting MGNREGA’s Accountability

Most technocratic interventions introduced in MGNREGA appear to be designed to aid administrators rather than for actually helping workers.

Technological interventions in the MGNREGA scheme are not helping workers. Credit: Reuters/Files

In his 2017-18 Budget speech, finance minister Arun Jaitley asserted with great conviction that the ruling dispensation’s “initiative to geo-tag all MGNREGA assets” to put them “in public domain has established greater transparency”.

In 2016-17, the rural development ministry started an initiative called ‘GeoMGNREGA’, under which it was proposed that all assets created under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) were to be tagged with their respective geospatial locations. To a technologically-savvy individual the online Management Information System (MIS) of MGNREGA, GeoMGNREGA – as envisaged by the rural development ministry – will allow access to photographs and geospatial locations for lakhs of MGNREGA assets constructed across the country.

But is this idea – which sounds quite impressive – actually helping in making the programme more transparent for those who it affects the most – the workers employed under this scheme?

The claim of “greater transparency” stands in stark contrast with growing evidence from Jharkhand, of how the recent technological interventions being imposed by the ministry of rural development are making the programme more opaque and cumbersome for  workers.

Over the last few years, the implementation of MGNREGA has progressively been linked with the MIS. Every process related to providing employment and wages to workers, be it registering the demand for work, allocating work, generating muster rolls for starting the scheme, or issuing orders paying wages and material etc, has been linked with the MIS through the real-time transaction-based electronic fund management system (eFMS).

Even though measures for decentralised planning, implementation and monitoring of the schemes are ingrained in the MGNREGA, there is a growing tendency within the ministry to play ‘Big Brother’ and use the MIS to control the implementation of the programme from New Delhi. It is no surprise that most technocratic interventions introduced in MGNREGA over the last few years – electronic muster rolls, eFMS, GeoMGNREGA – appear to be designed more for aiding the administrators than for actually helping workers.

Ground reports from Jharkhand suggest that these new technical systems are disempowering workers and severely diluting transparency and accountability in MGNREGA.

Excessive dependence on technology

Linking the implementation of MGNREGA with the MIS has made the programme dependent on digital infrastructure and internet connectivity. Now, work can only be allocated to a worker if an electronic job-card of her family has been created in the MIS and if her name has been added in the electronic job-card. For allocating work on a particular scheme, electronic muster rolls, auto-filled with names of workers for that scheme, are to be issued and printed through the MIS. These muster rolls should have names of all the workers who are supposed to work on that scheme.

Based on the period of work for which the muster rolls have been issued, the muster rolls must reach the worksite before the date of commencement of work. The attendance marked on the electronic muster roll at the end of the work-week is to be entered in the MIS to generate wage-lists and fund transfer orders for making payment of wages to the workers. Once fund transfer orders are approved, payment is made electronically to the bank account seeded with the worker’s electronic job-card in the MIS or to the bank account number linked with her Aadhaar number (also seeded in her electronic job-card).

Getting work on demand and wages in time has always been a challenge for workers in Jharkhand. But linking the implementation of MGNREGA with the MIS has spelled disaster for them. Absence of adequate digital infrastructure and internet connectivity in most blocks and gram panchayats of the state and a lack of adequate number of trained frontline functionaries directly affects the implementation of MGNREGA. At times, it takes multiple visits by the workers to the block office just to get their names added or to get their electronic job-cards created in the MIS.

Similarly, issuing muster rolls on time and getting them delivered to the worksite remains a significant challenge. As muster rolls reach most worksites days after the work starts on the schemes, it is not surprising that at almost every worksite in the state, there are some workers who do not find a mention in the muster roll.  As names of workers cannot be manually added to the electronic muster roll at the worksite, it is likely that wages of such workers remain unpaid.

The Jharkhand experience also suggests that large-scale discrepancies in the details of bank accounts and Aadhaar numbers seeded in the MIS, and the bank accounts mapped with the Aadhaar numbers are leading to non-payment of wages to many workers across the state. Cases of fund transfer orders getting rejected because of incorrect bank account and Aadhaar numbers or, wages getting transferred to someone else’s bank account are common in the state. More than four lakh transactions through the MIS to bank and post office accounts in 2016-17 still stand rejected. Resolving these discrepancies often needs digital approvals of district and state officials; resolutions also take their own sweet time, even if issues are flagged by workers on time. As a result, the uncertainty of getting wages on time remains extremely high amongst workers.

These are just a few examples of how linking implementation of MGNREGA with the MIS in the name of ushering in “greater transparency” has actually ended in creating barriers for individuals seeking work under the scheme. The MIS’s inability to cope up with the vast amount of data is also becoming a serious issue. Instances of fund transfer orders not getting generated, and reports not opening etc in the MIS due to “hardware and server issues” are becoming increasingly common.

As workers do not have access to the MIS, they are often not aware of the technical discrepancies nor do they know of the officials and functionaries responsible for these discrepancies. Now, it is easy for the local functionaries to shrug off their responsibility by blaming the MIS for the violations of the rights. It is no surprise that one of the most commonly used phrases by frontline functionaries and officers, across the state, to justify the violation of entitlements of workers is “MIS nahi ho raha hai (MIS is not working)”.

The rural development ministry is turning a blind eye to the growing evidence on how technocratic interventions imposed by it are disempowering workers and diluting mechanisms for decentralised transparency and accountability in the programme.

The geo-tagging of MGNREGA assets seems to be more of a surveillance device. Representational image. Credit: Reuters/Files

Using MIS to play Big Brother

Dependence of the programme on the MIS has made it a cakewalk for administrators sitting in the national capital and managing the MIS application, to also control the implementation of MGNREGA projects. Tweaks in the MIS by the ministry, without issuing any formal notification, are becoming increasingly common.

A tweak in the module for allocating work in the MIS in the latter half of the 2016-17 fiscal restricted the entry of demand for work of households beyond a hundred days. As demand for work does not necessarily result in allocation of work, many households could not access their full entitlement of a hundred days of work in 2016-17. This action was also a violation of the Act since the Schedules (of the Act) clearly mention that households can demand work for as many days as they wish.

Similarly, a tweak by the ministry in 2016-17 to not allow allocation of work to workers whose photographs were not uploaded on their electronic job-cards resulted in the violation of workers’ right to get work across the country.

Another instance of how manipulation in the MIS by the ministry resulted in violation of rights of workers was the blocking of the option for states to reopen closed schemes in the MIS towards the final quarter of the 2016-17 fiscal to ensure higher completion rate in the MIS. Once schemes are closed in the MIS, electronic muster rolls cannot be issued in them. In Jharkhand, thousands of schemes were closed in the MIS in the last financial year without completing payment of wages to workers, as there was immense pressure from the ministry to increase the ratio of completed schemes. Complaints about pending payments in such schemes made the state request the Union ministry to resume the option of reopening schemes in the MIS. Payment of materials in ongoing schemes was also blocked by the ministry in the MIS multiple times in 2016-17.

Tweaking the MIS without issuing any notification points towards a lack of transparency and accountability in the functioning of the ministry and belies the claim of “greater transparency” being ensured in MGNREGA implementation through technological interventions.

Enhancing transparency and accountability

There is a need to re-evaluate the utility of linking the implementation of MGNREGA with the MIS. Before the era of eFMS, blank muster rolls were issued by the block programme officers and names of workers were filled in them at the worksite itself. There is a need to revert from electronic muster rolls to blank paper muster rolls to reduce barriers for workers seeking work. The MIS needs to be treated as a reporting tool rather than an application for implementing MGNREGA.

In a state like Jharkhand that has a severe lack of frontline functionaries, the wisdom of burdening the limited number of functionaries with technocratic interventions such as geo-tagging assets under GeoMGNREGA also needs to be re-looked at.

A well-defined framework for transparency and accountability has been laid out in the act and the schedules of the MGNREGA. There have been some attempts by the rural development ministry to enforce this framework such as institutionalising regular social audits by a cadre of local social auditors, but more needs to be done to enhance transparency and accountability in the programme. According to a recent circular by the ministry, more than two-third of the positions for ombudsmen are lying vacant across the country while ten states are yet to even frame their grievance redressal rules.

MGNREGA entitles a worker to unemployment allowance and compensation if she does not get work or her wages in fifteen days. Provisions for recovering the amount for unemployment allowance and compensation from officials and functionaries responsible for the violation are inherent mechanisms of the act for making the local administration more accountable towards ensuring the rights of workers.  A penalty of up to Rs 10,00 can also be imposed under Section 25 of the Act on anyone who is responsible for contravention of the provisions of the Act. But these provisions remain a distant dream for the workers.

Payment of only 2.5% of the total compensation due to workers for delay in payment of their wages in 2016-17 shows a lack of seriousness on part of the ministry to make the administration accountable towards workers. As the ministry has removed the report on unemployment allowance from the MIS, there is no way to find out or compare the unemployment allowance due to workers and the amount actually paid.

There is also no report on the MIS to monitor the imposing of fines and their payments, as mandated under Section 25. Activating these provisions and ensuring their compliance can be a step towards making the local administration more accountable towards the workers.

Learning can be drawn from some recent attempts of the Jharkhand’s department of rural development to make the local administration more responsive and accountable. In 2016-17, local administrations of a few blocks were made to pay unemployment allowance to workers by the state department. Reports from those blocks indicate that functionaries have become more responsive since then.

Drawing inspiration from some block-level NREGA Sahayata Kendras set up by civil society activists to help workers file their grievances and claim their entitlements, the department has decided to expand this initiative across the state. The state has also notified guidelines to institutionalise decentralised monitoring of the implementation of schemes to counter the centralisation being imposed through the MIS. For example, ward members are to now verify filled muster rolls and the gram panchayats are to review the status of the programme every month with the help of MIS reports. Cluster facilitation teams, set up by civil society organisations under the NRLM-MGNREGA-CFT pilot project of the ministry in 76 blocks of the state, are also being encouraged by the department to help workers to track their issues in the MIS and file their grievances.

If the prime minister is serious about his commitment to make governance transparent, accountable and responsive, ensuring rights of workers in MGNREGA can be a good start. And for that, the central government needs to shed its technology fetish when it comes to managing the implementation of MGNREGA.

Siraj Dutta is based in Jharkhand and has been working on the MNREGA for the last six years. 

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