By Suresh Kumar Mohapatra
Rayagada, March 28 (IANS/ 101Reporters): In a post-budget statement by the Peoples' Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG) and NREGA Sangharsh Morcha (NSM), activists and academics hit out against the low allocation for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) this year.
"Instead of adequately funding the programme, the Union government has repeatedly resorted to needless technical tinkering. The National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS) application for capturing workers' attendance, mandated in the current FY, is one such anti-worker intervention," they said.
The latest digitisation efforts, ostensibly to weed out corruption and ensure fiscal transparency, have deviated from the primary objective of the scheme - to provide guaranteed 100 days of employment to adult members of rural households in every financial year.
The procedure to get work under the MGNREGA itself is a bit complex. Those who want work should raise their demand with the gram panchayat, after which an acknowledgement form (C2) with details of the number of workers for a given work (from a pre-approved list of works) and the muster roll is generated.
The MGNREGA mate has to take this muster roll to the worksite and record attendance on the NMMS application. Once the work is done, a Bare Foot Technician (BFT) or junior engineer will measure the progress of the work. Subsequently, the bill for the muster roll is approved and sent for payment.
Work-snatcher NMMS app
After a brief pilot phase, and even before any independent evaluation of its efficacy had been carried out, the Ministry of Rural Development made the use of NMMS compulsory for capturing workers' attendance under the MGNREGA from January 1.
During its pilot phase since May last year, individual works (in private lands of registered beneficiaries) like land development were excluded from digital attendance. Manual attendance was also allowed when the number of labourers was less than 20.
All that has changed with the NMMS, in which two time-stamped and geotagged photographs of the workers should be uploaded on a given day. The first shows the worker during the 6 to 11 a.m. schedule and the second during the 2 to 6 p.m. schedule.
"Due to technical issues, the attendance taken in the morning does not get registered in the app. We are eligible for payment only if the attendance is captured in the app twice daily," Majhi Sabar, a jobseeker from Akhusingi gram panchayat in Padmapur block in Odisha's Rayagada district, told 101Reporters.
"When real-time attendance is missed once, we turn out to be absentees after applying for that work. Consequently, a day of work is cut from the 100 man-days allotted in that financial year."
"At the end of the day, the labourers seem to have wasted a day without work or pay. You know, they cannot instantly go looking for some other work when they are already at the MGNREGA site," said Kailash Majhi, a job seeker from Titiribandha village.
If the work is carried out under the individual beneficiary scheme, the beneficiary himself should take workers' attendance. However, there is no clarity on how this is possible as the NMMS app is only meant for mates.
Even mates have issues when it comes to accessing NMMS. Some of them do not have the money to purchase mobile phones. So they end up using the devices of relatives/acquaintances to get the work done. This also is a violation of the guidelines.
ABPS and non-linking
The ministry has also made Aadhaar-based Payment System (ABPS) mandatory. In simple terms, it means linking both bank accounts and job cards with Aadhaar numbers, which is done at the block level. However, the problem arises when the MGNREGA website uses an automated process to identify and reject job seekers based on the Aadhaar linkage. Sometimes, it rejects those whose bank accounts are already seeded with Aadhaar!
To make matters worse, the MGNREGA guidelines stipulate that any muster roll with even a single non-ABPS request is not eligible for payment. In fact, the system will not generate the wage list in such a circumstance.
In the Management Information System (MIS) of the MGNREGA website, there is no special provision to identify those without Aadhaar-linked accounts. So, if such a labourer is allotted work in a muster roll for a few days, that person is set to lapse all those man-days from his/her 100-day quota. Also, once it becomes clear that this person's bank account is not suitable for ABPS, no work will henceforth be provided to him/her.
According to official sources, Aadhaar seeding was done a couple of years ago by organising mega Aadhaar camps. "The problem here is quite unique. The MGNREGA website itself identifies those with Aadhaar-linked accounts through an automated process. At times, it rejects even genuine cases."
Social worker and former chairperson of Padmapur block Kailash Kraska told 101Reporters that guidelines and technical errors were depriving people of their right to seek work and get wages. "Sometimes, during wage list generation, an error shows up which results in zero muster roll attendance," he informed. Workers have no recourse in such cases and can't even approach the district's MGNREGA ombudsperson who only looks at human-induced irregularities.
Setting limits on work
Existing guidelines do not allow more than 20 ongoing projects in a gram panchayat at any given time, whether they are community or individual beneficiary-related works. This has a direct effect on asset creation in gram panchayats in light of the technical glitches.
"If payment under any head is pending in connection with a work, it cannot be listed as complete in the MIS. When it stays in the system as a pending project, the prospect of adding new work gets affected due to the guideline related to the number of projects. It is a procedural pain to get a nod for more than 20 projects. The MGNREGA is no longer a people-oriented scheme, it is a technically suicidal programme. However, what people really need is work and on-time payment," Akhusingi's naib sarpanch Devasis Mohapatra told 101Reporters.
For preparing detailed project reports of MGNREGA works, a secure web-based application is used. "It takes over a month to get a project approved. Around 70 per cent of the projects submitted are rejected due to a mismatch in wage-material ratio and other technical procedures. As a result, the works approved by gram sabhas taking into account the demands raised by people are put on the back burner," said Chita Ranjan Sabar, a former samiti member of Gudia Bandha gram panchayat in Padmapur block.
"The MGNREGA has narrowed down into a set of guidelines and procedures, where the wages and right to work are sacrificed," he noted.
Instead of learning from and building on the potential that MGNREGA demonstrated during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, the government is determined to slowly kill the programme, says Rajendran Narayanan, Assistant Professor at the Azim Premji University. "NMMS is an unnecessary and irrelevant intervention that is being used to discourage worker participation. It doesn't address the root causes of corruption in the scheme like the use of machines to co-opt work, lack of adequate junior engineers to verify work done in the field and the defunding of social audit infrastructure at the local level," he observes.
A situation that is bound to become worse with the reduced funding for the scheme. The budgeted allocation for MGNREGA has been reduced from Rs 73,000 crore in 2022-23 to Rs 60,000 crore in 2023-24 fiscal. In 2021-22 fiscal, the allocation was Rs 98,000 crore.
Bidika Anusuya from Akhusingi Gram Panchayat worked under the MGNREGA for 14 days from December to February for a daily wage of Rs 221, but is yet to be paid due to lack of funds. Gudaria Sabar, a migrant labour from Soura Ambakhola village in Padmapur block, said he also did not get wages for the last four months due to non-availability of Central funds.
"Life is difficult. I do not even have the money to pay off my debts to the shopkeeper," said Gudaria, who along with a few other labourers have decided to migrate to other states in search of work.
"There are guidelines regarding attendance and other things, but there are no provisions to penalise the Central government when lack of funds puts rural livelihoods in jeopardy," said Akhusingi-based Congress leader Parsuram Panigrahy.
All this ultimately is leading to lower demand and work days under MGNREGA. The MIS data for Padmapur block show the total expenditure during 2021-22 fiscal was Rs 9.56 crore, while the number of man-days was 4.44 lakh. In comparison, the expenditure for the current fiscal up to February 2023 was only Rs 4.67 crore against 2.10 lakh man-days, which is only around half of the previous year.