Lack of access to technology will discourage workers, drive them to work for cheaper wages outside of scheme
The central government has mandated digitally capturing the attendance of all workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Labourers and activist groups have pointed out several loopholes and issues in the move.
National Mobile Monitoring System, which came into effect on January 1, 2023, was launched with claims of bringing transparency and eliminating corruption at ground level. The pilot tests for it began May 2021 at sites with 20 or more workers.
There are several stumbling blocks to its implementation, the biggest one being the lack of access to technology like smartphones and the internet.
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The move will scrap workers of their fundamental rights, discourage them and eventually kill the scheme that works as a lifeline for the rural population across India, claim activists. The system was not even tested in states like Bihar, they added.
The digital attendance system demands uploading of stamped and geotagged photographs twice a day for the workers, said Ashish Jha, coordinator for national platform of workers’ collectives, NREGA Sangharsh Morcha.
“The requirement for smartphones is the biggest issue. Workers are poor and cannot afford technologically advanced phones. Also, they are not savvy like their urban counterparts,” Jha said.
Even if some of the workers manage to get a smartphone, internet connectivity in remote rural areas becomes another hurdle, he pointed out.
“If the workers do not own smartphones, the responsibility is entrusted to the Panchayat Rojgar Sahayak (PRS). It is practically difficult to travel to several sites every day to register attendance,” he said.
With the earlier system of muster rolls, the workers owned the right to register their attendance.
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“Now, the workers would not know whether their attendance has been registered and probably earn less. It also allowed them to register the attendance on the second day, but the digital process demands registration on the same day. Moreover, there is no agency to address their grievances,” Jha said.
The activist also questioned the lack of transparency behind not disclosing the survey outcome for the pilot study. “The only reason to push the digital system is to prevent corruption, as cited by the government. But the process punishes the poor for the failures of institutional mechanisms to control graft in the labour force,” he told Down To Earth.
The decision will affect the women’s workforce the most. “The women often do not own smartphones and many may drop out from the employment scheme,” Jha said.
Women participation in 2021-22 for the scheme was recorded to be 54.54 per cent, according to the Union Ministry of Rural Development.
Compulsory digital attendance is discouraging workers, concurred another MGNREGS coordinator from Uttar Pradesh, Suresh Rathaur. “The patchy internet compels the workers to wait for hours to register their attendance. It demotivates them, as it means losing time and eventually money for daily wages,” he said.
There is no alternative platform for registering attendance if the PRS fails to register the same, Rathaur said. Block development officers and other officials concerned often do not respond to the workers’ grievances either, he added.
“The government should increase labour working days and reimbursement costs, but instead, the new move aims to destroy the flagship scheme,” the coordinator said.
The delayed payments from the scheme were already discouraging the workers, he said.
Read more: MGNREGA: Workers across 13 states protest to demand unpaid wages
“Even workers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency are struggling to get work for 5-10 days. Many have chosen to work for Rs 150 a day instead of Rs 213 offered by the government for labour jobs due to the technology issues made compulsory by the government,” he said.
The labourers’ willingness to work at low wages and abstaining from MGNREGS will only benefit large corporations that want cheap labour. The government efforts are inadequate to tackle corruption in the MGNREGS, Rathaur added.
“Social audits can reveal that higher officials are the corrupt ones, not the workers. But the government has stopped funding for social audits,” he added.
The move ensures that MGNREGS is killed, alleged Rathaur. “Compulsory digital attendance will be another nail in the scheme’s coffin,” he added.
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