MGNREGA: Choking it to a slow death

Workers from across the country have been protesting in Delhi for a month now, demanding adequate budgetary allocations for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)

MGNREGA: Choking it to a slow death

Siraj Dutta

Workers from across the country have been protesting in Delhi for a month now, demanding adequate budgetary allocations for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and withdrawal of inappropriate technologies being used to run the programme, which lead to the denial of work and wages. Despite the rising food prices, continuing high rural unemployment rates and the recent fall in MGNREGA employment, the BJP government at the Centre is yet to take any measure to address workers’ grievances. With just a year to go for the general elections, this clearly indicates the ruling party’s political priorities for 2024 and beyond.

The MGNREGA entitles every rural household 100 days of manual work in a year and payment within 15 days. There is no dearth of government and independent studies on the positive impact of MGNREGA in alleviating poverty and on the rural economy. It continues to be a lifeline for the rural poor, especially women who comprise more than half the number of workers in the programme.

The ruling dispensation’s disdain for MGNREGA was exposed in 2014 itself when the government imposed a cap on the expenditure incurred by states and planned to restrict the geographical coverage of the Act. The public outcry made the government step back at the time but attempts to weaken the Act continued. For workers dependent on the programme, as also people’s organisations fighting for their rights, the past nine years have been a continuous battle against violations of MGNREGA entitlements. The budget cut for 2023-24 is another unveiled declaration of government intent and the imposition of the national mobile monitoring system (NMMS) and the Aadhaar-based payment system (ABPS), both now mandatory features of the programme, another way to legitimise financial exclusion.

Underfunding MGNREGA

The allocation of Rs 60,000 crore for MGNREGA for 2023-24 is a third less than the 2022-23 budget. It is also the lowest allocation for the programme ever, when measured as a proportion of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. MGNREGA has remained grossly underfunded by the Modi government since its first year. In the past five years, about a fifth of the budget was used just to clear arrears.

Responding to the public criticism on the cut in the budget, the central government claimed in Parliament and the media that the budget estimate does not matter as additional funds can be allocated later as per the demand of the states.

What the government did not mention, however, was that in the past, only a fraction of the total requirement of funds was met with additional allocations, that too after much pleading by the state governments and agitation by workers’ groups. As states wait for months to receive additional funds from the Centre, wage payments stop and frontline functionaries are discouraged to open new works.

Contrary to the spirit of the Act, there is also a growing trend of harassing Opposition-ruled states. The central government has stopped MGNREGA funds for West Bengal since December 2021 as punishment for alleged corruption. It smells of political vendetta as no action has been taken by the central government against any official for the alleged corruption. Rather, the workers are being made to suffer as wages worth Rs 2,744 crore remain pending. Recently, the Union rural development minister also threatened Bihar with similar action.

The reduction in budget is not limited to MGNREGA. Since Narendra Modi took charge in 2014, most of the social security schemes have taken a hit. The Integrated Child Development Scheme and mid-day meal budgets have reduced by 38 per cent and 48 per cent, respectively, in real terms since then. Old age pensions have stagnated at a measly Rs 200 per month since 2006. The budget, in real terms, for social security pension schemes is on a steady decline.

Weakening rights with technology

The protesting workers in Delhi are demanding the immediate withdrawal of the NMMS and ABPS. These are the latest examples in a long list of ill-suited digital interventions in MGNREGA that have weakened workers’ rights over the years. It started under the UPA-2 government but has got far worse under the Modi dispensation and its ‘Digital India’ rhetoric.

NMMS was made mandatory from this year. Geotagged and time-stamped photographs of workers and online attendance are to be taken twice a day at the worksite through a phone-based app. The stated objective is to check for fake attendance.

However, now even if workers finish their work for the day, they have to be present at the worksite until their photograph is taken. Poor internet connectivity and technical glitches directly affect the online capture of attendance. For example, recently workers who worked for several days on an irrigation canal in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district remained unpaid for months as sometimes the app did not open and at times, the photos could not be uploaded. The local administration eventually marked their attendance as zero, thus denying them their wages.

MGNREGA: Choking it to a slow death

NMMS is based on an absurd premise that officials will actually verify photos of hundreds of workers taken at worksites with photos on their jobcards or through physical inspection. The central government has imposed this on workers, without taking any cues, drawing any lessons from the failure of similar technologies in the past. For example, ‘GeoMGNREGA’ was introduced a few years ago to monitor the physical progress of projects. It made geotagging and timestamped photography of worksites mandatory before starting, during implementation and after completion of the project. It failed to serve its intended purpose as officials rarely match photos and worksites.

The ABPS was introduced in MGNREGA a few years ago. Under ABPS, the financial address of a worker is her Aadhaar i.e. wages are sent through Aadhaar to the account linked with it. In the non-ABPS system, the wages are sent directly to her bank account. For ABPS to work, the Aadhaar of a worker is to be seeded with her job card and her functional bank account and the Aadhaar and account details are to be electronically mapped at National Payment Corporation of India (through which the payment transaction is done).

Since the introduction of ABPS, a large number of workers have faced delays in wage payments for reasons such as transfer of wages to incorrect bank account linked with Aadhaar and rejection of payment due to technical glitches. However, the government has now made ABPS mandatory without addressing these issues.

As per government data, only 48 per cent workers are currently ABPS enabled. There are several reports of denial of work and wages to workers who are not on the ABPS. In fact, the wages of a set of workers cannot be electronically processed anymore if there is even one worker among them who is not ABPS-enabled. The impact of NMMS and ABPS is hard to miss. The MGNREGA employment generated in January–February 2023 is a quarter less than that generated in these months last year. It is also the lowest since 2018-19.

In the past decade, the implementation of the MGNREGA has become excessively centralised. Earlier, funds were decentralised till the panchayat level and the implementation of the programme was largely manual. Most of the implementation issues related to allocation of work and delays in payment could be resolved locally. But over the years, the funds were centralised at the national level.

The implementation is now inseparably linked with a real-time online system that has further centralised the functioning of the programme. Various inappropriate digital interventions were introduced with the stated objectives of checking corruption and reducing wage delays. But rather than redressing the issues, these have introduced digital hassles for workers and worsened the uncertainty of timely wages.

Nails in MGNREGA’s coffin

The measly wage rate further adds to the woes of the workers. MGNREGA wage rates have stagnated in real terms for a decade. It is less than the minimum agricultural wage rate of most states. All these tech-induced hassles in receiving their legitimate wages for work that is not even assured is alienating workers from MGNREGA—and that, of course, fits this government’s grand design.

In Jharkhand where I work, there is growing disenchantment among workers with the programme. In the absence of adequate local employment opportunities, lakhs of workers regularly migrate to other states. Among those who stay back and are unable to get guaranteed work and timely wages under MGNREGA, some opt for local work at lower but assured wages and some prefer to rent out their bank accounts to contractors for a hassle-free cut from MGNREGA funds.

It’s hard to miss the government’s intention to force these workers, sickened by all these hassles, to migrate to cities for work in the industry sector, but with no assurance of guaranteed dignified work or wages.

It seems the BJP, counting on Modi’s popularity, the polarising politics of Hindutva, its propaganda machinery and its own pet schemes— toilets, houses, gas cylinders et al—is confident this distress will not hurt its electoral prospects in 2024. And it may even be right, unless the Opposition is able to rally these rural workers to hit the streets and say: enough is enough.

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