India is rapidly digitising. There are good things and bad, speed-bumps on the way and caveats to be mindful of. The weekly column Terminal focuses on all that is connected and is not – on digital issues, policy, ideas and themes dominating the conversation in India and the world.
At Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, NREGA workers are on an indefinite protest. A major reason behind their agitation is the use of the new National Mobile Monitoring Software (NMMS) App, which has become mandatory for “attendance” for the workers since January 1. All NREGA workers are required to upload two geo-tagged photos every day on this app. Failure to upload the photos and mark attendance means they will not be paid that day.
A decade after Aadhaar, the government is once again introducing a new system to “fix welfare” and “weed out corruption” – but with no tangible progress. Software has been always touted as a solution to fix things but has created more problems. There is no evidence of how Aadhaar has weeded out duplicate beneficiaries. In fact, numerous cases show that it has become a roadblock to accessing welfare.
Now, the NMMS app has become another barrier – clearly disrupting the existing setup of attendance and work management under NREGA. The tyranny of the app is that it determines whether workers are paid for their work or perform free labour for the government.
There is no reason to believe this application will stop corruption, the same way Aadhaar did not address fraud. In fact, digitisation has made all welfare delivery invisible and secretive, making it hard for people on the ground to do social audits. The NMMS promises to use photographs to identify duplication and address alleged corruption. Whether it will address the issue of corruption or not, the process of uploading photo itself has become a barrier for genuine NREGA workers.
Protesting women workers at Jantar Mantar under the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha banner. Today is the 7th day of the indefinite protest. Protest mobilisation is from 10 AM to 4 PM everyday. pic.twitter.com/O0r1EmTFNm
— NREGA Sangharsh (@NREGA_Sangharsh) February 19, 2023
The Ministry of Rural Development is unwilling to accept there are any software issues at present – even as several workers are protesting because of them. Ideally, in case of software development, testing is an important component to ensure the software functions as intended.
There is an entire department of the Government of India called “Standardisation Testing and Quality Certification (STQC)”, whose entire mandate is to ensure testing and quality certification. However, it appears there is neither any quality nor software testing being carried out.
The NMMS application, like any new software, will have errors and failures that make it challenging to use. The errors are fixed and the functionality is usually improved over time with iterative development and testing. But the government wants to make the application mandatory and is unwilling to listen to the concerns expressed by the NREGA workers.
— Road Scholarz (@roadscholarz) February 10, 2023
There is also the question of how computer servers are being employed to scale the application smoothly for all NREGA workers. On the ground, the officials of the Ministry of Rural Development admit the challenges that have cropped up because of this new system. Yet, the ministry at large does not want to acknowledge this issue.
Problems beyond technical issues
Beyond the technical issues caused by software design, the digital divide of lack of smartphones and internet coverage in rural areas creates further challenges. Several NREGA mates narrate stories of apps working in government offices, but not in the work site – potentially due to network coverage issues.
NREGA workers are at the mercy of an unreliable photo-attendance App (NMMS). If their photo is not uploaded on time, they are not paid for the day. Deepak, a worksite supervisor (“mate”) in Muzaffarpur, explains.@MoRD_GoI pic.twitter.com/dvFDEHrBUc
— Road Scholarz (@roadscholarz) February 10, 2023
These stories are not new. Bureaucrats and software engineers who are responsible for developing these systems have been made aware of them several times. Yet, the government continues to force technology as a panacea that will fix all the problems Indians face.
While the challenges in efficient software development exist, the issue extends beyond it: this is a policy decision of the government to decrease funding to all welfare schemes. These software issues will be fixed over time as technology advances, but the problem of unpaid wages is not being addressed by the ministry, leading to these protests.
This phenomenon of pushing applications for real-time monitoring and data collection is not unique to NREGA and is being extended across all government schemes. The idea of real-time governance means the government would be unwilling to withdraw the NMMS application. A temporary moratorium may be expected, but the applications are here to stay until there is a policy change inside the government towards welfare delivery.
Beyond the NMMS application, the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha that is leading the protests is demanding their wage payments should not be linked to the Aadhaar Based Payment System (ABPS). Jean Drèze explains the rationale for this demand as only 43% of workers have seeded their Aadhaar with the NPCI bank mapper and are eligible for ABPS. This means a large section of NREGA workers are now required to somehow figure out Aadhaar-based banking procedures before they are paid their wages.
Srinivas Kodali is a researcher on digitisation and hacktivist.
Edited by Amrit B.L.S.