Bhilwara/Rajsamand, Rajasthan: For nine days in May 2022, Lakshmi Devi, 22, toiled under a broiling sun, hoping to earn Rs 231 per day, joining others like her, desperate for work, in digging a pond, a job offered to them as an economic safety net under India’s national jobs-for-work programme.
Lakshmi Devi needed the job and money, and so she enrolled under the scheme and currently walks 4 kms daily to reach her work site at 6 am, working for the next 6 hours. Since the pandemic struck in 2020, her husband, a private construction worker who earned Rs 300 per day, had been in and out of work. The money would help her run her household and care for her two-year-old daughter.
“She needs milk everyday and I need oil [to cook], it has become so expensive now,” she said.
In her village of Kukar Khera in the southern Rajasthan district of Rajsamand, over 300 km south of the capital Jaipur, she worked under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 between 1 and 15 May. A muster roll, which is essentially a list of names of workers at a specific site put together to mark their attendance was prepared and Lakshmi Devi’s name was included in it.
When pay day came, Lakshmi Devi was shocked: she was paid Rs 920 instead of Rs 2079, payment for four days of work, not nine.
Distraught, she approached the “mate” or the site supervisor who registered the attendance of the workers on the National Mobile Monitoring System App using her smartphone. It is compulsory for mates across the country to register the attendance of 15 crore active NREGA workers through the app, a new feature introduced by the Centre in May this year.
“I asked her why she cut my attendance, but she showed me the [physical] muster roll where she marked it,” said Lakshmi Devi.
While the physical copy of the muster roll recorded her presence for all nine days, her attendance online showed that she worked only for four days. The mismatch was obvious and the mate, Parvati Devi, alleged that the NMMS app did not function on the exact days that were not recorded online.
“It did not upload the attendance every time I pressed submit,” said Parvati Devi. Along with the workers, she reached the site at 6 am daily to record the attendance on the app.
The NREGA, always an important safety net in rural India, has become more vital than ever after the pandemic, as over seven million lost jobs and many returned to villages nationwide. The loss of income has reduced food availability, with families and migrant workers reporting that they were not only eating less, but also eating less nutritious food.
For instance, during October and December 2020, at least 60% of households said they were eating lesser than before the lockdown, according to a survey by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at the Azim Premji University.
At such a fraught time, the central government of the Bharatiya Janata Party ordered in May that the NMMS app be mandatory to mark the presence of MNREGA workers at sites nationwide.
‘I Will Never Get My Money Back’
The app to capture attendance was introduced as a pilot last year to bring in more “transparency” and “increase citizen oversight” in the implementation of the scheme, according to an order issued by the ministry of rural development on May 13.
The order states that manual muster rolls used to mark attendance shall be discontinued in the country. Attendance is captured twice in a day, morning and afternoon, and with geo-tagged photos uploaded as proof of the number of workers present.
The NREGA website shows that this year, a total of 385,483 mobile phones have been registered with the NMMS app out of which 80% currently record the attendance with it. Over the past months, the attendance captured at worksites with more than 20 workers through the app has seen an increase from an average of 28.5% in April across the country to 45.9% in June this year.
However, its implementation, which lies on the state government, has been riddled with several challenges as Article 14 found while reporting from Rajasthan, that is currently being ruled by the Congress under Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot.
Mates at NREGA worksites in Bhilwara and Rajsamand districts said they have to shoulder an additional burden by navigating their way around the app while dealing with poor connectivity in rural areas.
But for workers like Lakshmi Devi, technical faults have resulted in the loss of wages of Rs 231 per day for the days she worked. “Those five days of mine are gone,” she said. “I will never get the money back…I can only buy half of everything I use in the kitchen.”
‘Transparency’ Is Affecting India’s Poorest Workers
MNREGA is a demand-driven scheme that was launched in 2006 under the United Progressive Alliance-led government, and provides at least a 100 days of work to rural households in India. The work, generally done by unskilled labourers, has led to the creation of rural road infrastructure, shelters, anganwadis, wells and water harvesting structures over the years.
The scheme has seen large-scale participation from women and individuals belonging to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. Over the years, the scheme was scrutinised for delayed payments to workers, incomplete works, poor quality assets and fabrication of job cards. The insistence of the government to link workers’ payments with their Aadhaar seeded bank accounts and the deletion of job cards added more complexities to the implementation of the scheme.
When the scheme was enacted in 2005, its technological backbone NREGASoft was especially designed to work online and offline to track the work being done at all levels and store information like muster rolls used for attendance, job card registrations and other receipts. Shortly after, electronic muster rolls or EMRs were introduced with the intention of doing away with a physical register, and generated printed muster rolls from names entered on to NREGASoft. This was followed by more centralised systems to process payments along with the integration of Aadhaar with workers’ bank accounts.
Most of these initiatives were classified by researchers as technocratic approaches that created far more confusion and paperwork for NREGA officials and for workers without weeding out corruption, noted development economist Reetika Khera in 2016.
Now, with the introduction of the NMMS app, workers and mates at worksites have to deal with a fresh wave of confusion. “Imagine living in fear of not getting attendance, of being a minute late,” said Nikhil Shenoy of Rajasthan Asangathit Mazdoor Union. “No one has a clue what is happening.”
It remains unclear why the union government made the app mandatory as it has not disclosed the results of the pilot exercise it undertook in states last year and questions Article 14 sent to multiple officials at the Ministry of Rural Development went unanswered.
KM Dhuria, additional commissioner of the Rural Development and Panchayat Raj department, Rajasthan government, told Article 14 that states had conveyed the issues they faced with the NMMS app to the Centre. He refused to comment on specific questions this reporter asked on the implications of making the app mandatory at worksites with poor digital access.
How The App Works
Once the app is downloaded, a login id is created by the panchayat samiti through which mates can access muster rolls of sites in their block. Mates have to first download the muster roll everyday, and then put a mark against the names of the workers present. After this, they have to upload a group photo of all the workers present and finally click submit.
Usually, attendance is taken between 6 am to 7 am every morning for the first time and again after the work has ended around late afternoon. On the ground however, capturing attendance is much more complicated as Article 14 witnessed at the NREGA worksites situated in Bhilwara and Rajsamand districts in Rajasthan where there are 7.2 lakh and 2.9 lakh active workers.
On the morning of June 16, more than 20 workers dug trenches and balanced heaps of earth on their heads as they created a pond at a worksite situated behind a patchwork of bushes and a rocky hill at Thana village in Bhilwara. The mate of the site, Pooja Kumar Shalvi eagerly waited for a social worker to come and mark the attendance of the workers because she was unable to use the app on her mobile phone.
The social worker, Neha Shalvi arrives and gathers all the workers in groups to click their photos and upload them. For the past eight months, she has been visiting at least six sites within Thana panchayat every morning to assist other mates without smartphones to mark the attendance of workers, and spends Rs 300 per month from her savings to recharge her mobile phone.
“In most of these sites either the mate does not have a mobile phone or they do not have the login id from the panchayat samiti,” said Neha Shalvi, who worked as a mate in the village last year and became familiar with the functioning of the NMMS app. “If the app ends up working then it is fine, otherwise there are too many issues. It does not upload,” she said.
Pooja Kumar Shalvi still maintains a physical copy of the muster roll on a daily basis as “evidence” for when the app malfunctions. “Who will give money for the days the app does not work but the workers are present?” she asked. The 20-year old is a student at Samrat Prithviraj Chouhan Government College in Bhim and has been working as a mate for two years to support her studies.
Poor network connectivity and lack of smartphones seem to be persistent problems across states, according to what activists told Article 14. “Jharkhand is a critical state [for NREGA] but there is no electricity to charge phones and most do not have smartphones,” said James Herenj of Jharkhand NREGA Watch.
In the rural areas of Odisha, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, not many have smartphones either. If they do, then the process of marking the attendance through the NMMS app is a tedious one.
“Workers are finding this [app] absurd because they are being told to stay back in the heat after their work hours so mates can click their photos and upload them,” said Sameet Panda of the Right to Food campaign in Odisha. He added that districts situated in the south of Odisha were worse off because of poor mobile connectivity there. “Many mates are asking the state government to make a provision for them to buy phones, otherwise these issues will persist,” he said.
Loans For Smartphones
In Rajasthan, some said they were unwilling to continue working as mates because of the confusion the app was creating in addition to their delayed wages. On the other hand, those who worked as mates earlier were no longer eligible because they did not have smartphones, but some went the extra mile to purchase one.
The sole breadwinner of her house, Pratibha Vyas took a loan of Rs 18,000 from the village self-help group to purchase a smartphone in April and continues to pay back the amount in instalments of Rs 360 per month. In April, she participated in a training held for mates at the panchayat where she learned how to use the app. Even then, the technical glitches and network errors are so frequent that workers at her site often spent hours under the sun, waiting for the attendance to get uploaded, after they completed their task for the day.
“App bekaar hai, aur samajh se bahar hai (the app is pointless and it is beyond my understanding),” said Vyas who works as a mate in Thana village and has not been paid for her work as a mate for seven months. She supplements her income by cooking at weddings and sewing cloth bags.
Vyas had three days left till she completed her duration as a mate when Article 14 interviewed her on June 16. She was hesitant to continue working as one given the delayed payments, and the newly introduced technical aspect along with the challenges that come with it.
“I would prefer to be a labourer than a mate. At least I will not have the tension of taking attendance,” she said. “I constantly have to assure workers that I am noting down their attendance on the physical muster roll also.”
“There Is Still A Lot Of Corruption Online”
It is also unclear if the app was working with its intended purpose of bringing more transparency. “There is still a lot of corruption online [on the app],” alleged Shiv Lal, the sarpanch of Thana village. “The reason is that many still take the same labourers and click different photos with them to show that there are more workers,” he claimed. “Or they make women click multiple photos with their ghoonghat.”
An app would not be able to entirely fix the problem of corruption, said activists. “Corruption cannot stop with an app just the way it did not stop with a POS machine,” said Rupesh, an activist with the Right to Food campaign in Bihar.
Electronic Point of Sale machines were touted as the way to a corruption-free Public Distribution System but it led to further exclusion as several cases documented how the machines failed to recognise thumb impressions of beneficiaries which fade out because of rigorous labour work.
“We are not anti-technology but there has to be an easy access for those it is intended for,” Rupesh said.
A safety net
The political aversion of the current dispensation towards NREGA is not unknown. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called it a glorified ditch-digging scheme and a “living monument” of the UPA government’s failures.
But the growing demand for work under NREGA tells a different story. During the nationwide lockdown in 2020, demand soared as the number of households that worked during 2019-2020 increased from 5.48 crore to 7.55 crore in 2020-2021, the MGNREGA website shows. In the same duration, the number of person days jumped from 265 days to 389 days.
Additionally, the funds released by the Centre every year under the scheme have only grown with the demand. For instance, the Centre released Rs 71,020 crore in 2019-2020, and this number rapidly rose to Rs 1,09,810 crore in 2020-2021. In the next fiscal year, it released over 97,000 crore. Presently, there may be a marginal decrease in the demand for work and the number of households engaged, but the levels are still higher than what they were before the pandemic.
In Rajasthan, those who spoke to Article 14 considered the scheme as their safety net that kept their families fed during the first lockdown imposed in 2020 to curb the spread of Covid-19. During that time, thousands of migrant workers made arduous journeys from cities back to their homes in villages across states. With no income to sustain the household, many women enrolled for NREGA work within their villages.
“I was able to pay my child’s school fees with the money I got,” said Kanchan Devi, a 28-year old resident of Kalaliya village in Rajsamand district. Her husband worked in a mehendi manufacturing unit in Pali district until he returned during the lockdown in 2020 and stayed back for nearly two years.
Lakshmi Devi also started working in 2020 after husband, a construction worker at a private site in Bhim, returned home to Kukar Khera village. “We would die of hunger if there was no NREGA,” she said. “We would eat only once or twice a day.”
The loss of her wages because of the technical glitches in the NMMS App has also resulted in her husband urging her to stop working. “He says what is the point of me going and not getting my attendance,” Lakshmi Devi said. “But when the money was coming in he did not say anything, then he would stay home with the children.”
(Vijayta Lalwani is an independent journalist covering politics, labour rights, polarisation and political violence.)