From NREGA Job Card Deletions to Complex Aadhaar Mechanism, Tech Solutions Are Not the Answer

In FY23, over 5.2 crore workers were deleted from the MGNREGA system – a 247% increase in deletions compared to previous years.

New Delhi: The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in India, which guarantees 100 days of work to rural households, has seen a significant issue of worker deletions from its database. In the fiscal year 2022-23, over 5.2 crore workers were deleted from the system, representing a 247% increase in deletions compared to previous years, Economic and Political Weekly reported, citing Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) data.

While deletion and issuance of new job cards are routine practices, the scale of recent deletions has caused alarm. Job cards of deceased or migrated workers get deleted and new workers seeking employment have to get their names added or get a new job card made.

According to the report, the primary reason behind these deletions is the implementation of the Aadhaar-based Payment System (ABPS), which has added complexity to the system.

In January 2023, MoRD mandated the use of ABPS for processing all wage payments in MGNREGA, starting from February 1, 2023. However, at the time of the mandate, only 43% of MGNREGA workers were eligible for ABPS payments.

The pressure from MoRD to achieve 100% Aadhaar seeding (the process of workers submitting their Aadhaar details to be linked to their job cards) and authentication in a short period led to a significant increase in worker deletions from the MGNREGA database.

Local officials, lacking training and understanding of the Aadhaar process, resorted to deleting ABPS-ineligible workers from the roster as an easier way to meet targets, the report says.

Also read: Making Aadhaar-Based Payments Compulsory for Nrega Wages Is a Recipe for Disaster

EPW explains why deleting workers – without following due process – was easier for local officials. It explains three technical processes which need to be understood.

1) Previously, workers had the option of linking their Aadhaar details to their job cards but it was not mandatory. Now, workers need an Aadhaar card to avail of MGNREGA.

As of August 15, more than 6 crore workers across the country did not complete Aadhaar seeding. These workers can no longer work under the MGNREGA.

2) Aadhaar authentication involves the automatic verification of workers’ details as registered in their job cards against their details in the Aadhaar database, including name, gender, and demographic details. If any discrepancies are found, the authentication fails.

Moreover, officials face challenges because they have not received guidelines for the resolution of mismatched cases.

To understand this issue, LibTech India filed an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act with MoRD to inquire about the provisions or guidelines for worker deletions. They were provided with only a partial excerpt from the MGNREGA Annual Master Circular. It contained broad principles for deletions but lacked the detailed guidelines LibTech India had sought.

“We found that across states, block data entry operators were rarely able to even locate lists of workers without Aadhaar seeding or authentication, let alone have knowledge of resolution procedures, especially during the beginning of the Aadhaar enforcement. This confusion is not restricted to block officers; we have encountered significant misinformation about Aadhaar processes even with state-level officers,” it said.

3) Previously, MGNREGA wage payments could transferred via NEFT, but now ABPS is mandatory.

“Aadhaar-based payments use only the Aadhaar number as the financial address for where the payment goes. For ABPS, three linkages must be complete: first, a worker’s Aadhaar number must be seeded to her job card. Second, her Aadhaar must be seeded to her bank account via eKYC. Third, the worker’s Aadhaar must be linked to her bank’s Institutional Identification Number (IIN) in a ‘mapper” (or database) created by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), which acts as the Union government’s payments clearing house.”

“Only if all of these links are completed, will a worker’s wage payment be processed. With mandatory ABPS, even if a worker has worked under the MGNREGA, and if she is not eligible for ABPS, she cannot receive her wages,” the EPW report explained.

These interventions appear to be complicated, and therefore, the government’s approach should focus on strengthening infrastructure, better network coverage, and providing proper information and training for technical processes rather than hastily adopting complex interventions.

Also read: Aadhaar in MGNREGA Is Likely to Be Hugely Disruptive for Workers

Using the “ultimatum method” to mandate Aadhaar seeding/authentication and ABPS in the MGNREGA programme has led to a dramatic 247% increase in job card deletions in the fiscal year 2022-23 – with a drastic 2,700% reported in Telangana.

While it’s unclear how many of these deletions involve genuine or “fake” workers, extensive fieldwork reveals that a significant number of vulnerable, real workers are being deprived of their right to work and livelihood. Both authentication and ABPS create complex issues that are difficult to resolve, and the actual costs of addressing these issues often go unnoticed.

Many MGNREGA workers end up forgoing multiple days of work and spending money on food and travel as they navigate the bureaucracy, which can be financially burdensome. These real-world costs should be considered when evaluating the effectiveness of such interventions.

Moreover, several questions have been raised on the lack of transparency and problematic execution of the Aadhaar-implemented mechanisms in MGNREGA.

In addition, the National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS) app, which was launched without consulting MGNREGA workers, has faced numerous issues.

“The app was launched after a pilot in one single district, and with zero worker consultation,” the report said.

Both NMMS and Aadhaar seeding/authentication were intended to combat corruption in MGNREGA, but their implementation lacks evidence of success and has made workers suffer.

“While implementing digital measures to address problems may be tempting, it is important to not reduce policymaking to techno-solutionism. Policy design for technical interventions must be consultative, properly piloted, and designed keeping the workers in mind.”