For Vanthala Rasmo, 50, a single woman from a ‘particularly vulnerable tribal group’ in the Alluri Sitarama Raju district of Andhra Pradesh, consistent income from the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is crucial for her sustenance.
This is especially important for Rasmo during summers when other livelihood options are scarce. Apart from the wages from MGNREGA, she relies on a meagre social security pension of Rs 3,000 provided by the state government and cultivates turmeric on her one-acre forest land.
However, she contemplates quitting MGNREGA work despite her financial constraints, due to the arduous wage collection process.
Her village is located deep in the Eastern Ghats, requiring her to trek three km to reach the nearest disbursement agency, and possibly an additional five km if a shared auto-rickshaw is unavailable. The journey involves climbing hillocks, traversing valleys and crossing crocodile-infested streams. She needs to put in all these efforts only to collect her MGNREGA payment.
Her struggle reflects a broader issue plaguing the cash collection process in Andhra Pradesh’s tribal areas.
Such struggles are often exacerbated by the scarcity of bank branches and the dearth of business correspondents or customer service points with limited internet access.
Business correspondents or customer service points are intermediaries designated by banks to provide basic services in areas where full-fledged bank branches are not feasible.
MGNREGA workers who have completed their e-KYC at their bank branch can collect cash at these customer service points by presenting their Aadhaar card and biometrics. They can also approach business correspondents for the same purpose.
However, people belonging to the Adivasi community face several challenges, such as disparities in the payment channels and their toilsome wage-collection journeys, in accessing MGNREGA payments.
As Rasmo’s story shows, there’s a need for an accessible and accountable system, empowering labourers.
The cost to access wages
In the Paderu Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) area, the average number of people served by each bank branch stands at 34,000 for Adivasis and 7,000 for non-Adivasis, per a study conducted by LibTech India, a research organisation in the town.
The study says that nearly 85% of the Adivasis in the Paderu ITDA receive their wages through business correspondents or customer service points, while only 12.5% have access to banks, and a mere 2.5% use ATMs. This disparity is understandable, given the scarcity of bank branches in hilly regions. However, even when these are accessible, the MGNREGA workers are redirected to business correspondents or customer service points.
Rasmo’s case shows how Adivasis face significant challenges as they need to travel long distances to reach the disbursement agencies.
LibTech’s study shows that approximately 37% of the workers have to commute more than 10 kilometers to access their wages, with even higher percentages observed for bank branches (48%) and ATMs (58%).
Traversing such distances incurs transport and food expenses, with 50% of workers spending over Rs 200 and 10% of them spending over Rs 400 during a single visit. This leads to many compromising their MGNREGA wages for the corresponding number of days spent collecting them.
Rasmo’s situation is not unique. As per the study, about 75% of the workers miss work due to their visits to the disbursement agency. Over 90% of them miss at least one day of work and 25% miss at least two days of work. As a result, 95% of those who miss work sacrifice more than Rs 100, and 75% of them forego Rs 200 or more.
A lack of reliable information
Due to the lack of reliable information on wage credit, Rasmo also faces difficulty in determining when to collect her wages.
Around one-third of the workers make multiple visits to the disbursement agencies due to this issue. Less than half of them receive updates through official channels or SMS notifications, leading to conflicting information and confusion. These challenges are coupled with other issues such as overcrowding, network failures, and cash shortages at disbursement agencies.
Over-reliance on business correspondents and customer service points creates additional hurdles for these workers when it comes to accessing their funds.
Several fraudulent cases have also occurred, raising serious concerns.
One such case is of Gollori Juruko, an unlettered Adivasi NREGA worker, who discovered missing wages from his bank account due to alleged fraudulent actions by the local customer service point. The worker reported the issue to the local officials; however, they were unsure of the appropriate action, and only suggested him to file a police case.
The study recommends expanding bank branches, ATMs, and moving business correspondents and customer service points closer to MGNREGA workers. A strong infrastructure, including electricity, internet connectivity, and offline capabilities, is also vital for smoother wage disbursement.
Additionally, social audits should observe the performance of business correspondents and customer service points, and customers should receive a copy of their rights in their local language. The state must share comprehensive information with the community regarding the work-payment cycle in MGNREGA.
The successful door-to-door delivery of social security pensions by the Government of Andhra Pradesh shows that efficient cash delivery is possible. Workers must have the choice to decide how and where they can access their wages, empowering them to align their decisions with their needs, enhancing convenience and accessibility.
The challenges highlighted in the report regarding wage payments under MGNREGA in Paderu ITDA likely extend to other tribal areas and cash transfer programmes due to consistent engagement between Adivasis and disbursement agencies.
Ensuring funds reach the people promptly is crucial. The concerned ministries should involve local elected bodies to oversee fund transfers, especially in the scheduled areas where the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 mandates the involvement of gram sabhas in decision-making.
The stories of Rasmo and Juruko serve as poignant reminders of the hardships Adivasis endure in accessing MGNREGA wages and banking services. To alleviate these hardships, we must address disparities in payment channels, reduce travel burden, strengthen the monitoring of business correspondents and customer service points, and enhance information dissemination.
Placing local communities at the centre of decision-making can help in an inclusive and empowering system, eradicating unnecessary hardships and supporting their rightful quest for a better life.
E.A.S. Sarma is a former secretary at the Government of India and Chakradhar Buddha is affiliated with LibTech India.