New Delhi: In November 2021, Rifaat Bibi*, a domestic worker in her thirties, tried to enrol in the first national database of unorganised workers through the e-Shram portal, launched in August 2021 by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to provide social security measures for India’s estimated 380 million unorganised workers.
Among the benefits promised were accident insurance of Rs 200,000; welfare entitlements that may be accessed by workers anywhere in India; and their names and locations on a database for union and state governments to deliver relief during a crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bibi had moved with her husband and two children a decade ago from West Bengal to Delhi in search of a better life but lost her home and belongings in a fire that razed her slum colony almost as soon as they got there.
The e-Shram portal offered, for the first time, hope of direct government assistance.
“Sab bolte hai kuch labh milega, registration karao jaldi” (Everyone says it will lead to some benefits, register soon),” said Bibi, who was unaware of what those benefits might be.
To register on the e-Shram portal, however, she needed her original Aadhaar-linked phone number, which would now be linked to the workers’ database. That phone was lost to the fire, and so many years later, she couldn’t remember the number.
“Ab itne saalon baad, woh wala phone number kaise yaad karu? (How do I remember that phone number from so many years ago?)” she asked. “We anyway find it difficult to remember numbers.”
She almost gave up on e-Shram, when she was told that the Aadhaar-linked phone number was a mandatory requirement to get the one-time password (OTP) for registering as a worker on the database.
On 26 August 2021, when minister for labour and employment Bhupender Yadav, launched the portal, he said it was a historical first, a database for “the nation builders of India”, workers aged 16 to 59 years and engaged in the unorganised sector. The database would be seeded within the Aadhaar system, and would include details such as the worker’s name, occupation, address, educational qualification, skill types and family details, the minister said.
Experts were unanimous that the e-Shram was a good start, but flagged a series of problems. Making Aadhaar mandatory for registering left millions of the most vulnerable unorganised workers out of the system; there were technology-related problems that stymied efforts to register the large numbers of workers; and these technical and language barriers led to over-reliance on the Common Service Centers (CSCs) and unofficial middle-persons who were reported to be over-charging workers to help them register.
Additionally, in the absence of clearly defined social security measures to be rolled out to this database of workers, researchers said this collection of data of extremely marginalised people risked being misused. The e-Shram registration should support a rights-based discourse of welfare measures, not populist misuse by governments, they said.
By 22 December, according to the e-Shram dashboard, about 13 crore workers had registered, but even those who registered were not clear what the benefits would be.
Arya, a Delhi-based activist with the Sangraami Gharelu Kamgaar Union (SGU), a campaign for domestic workers’ rights, said there is no clarity around the e-Shram identification card and its benefits, while unorganised workers face challenges while trying to register. Arya, who helped Bibi link her Aadhaar to complete her e-Shram registration, said apart from accident insurance, the other social and welfare benefits were not specified, nor was there an implementation plan. “Where are the details?”
Overdue: Registering Workers For Social Security
The setting up of e-Shram was necessitated by a Supreme Court order in June 2021, in response to a petition on the migrant workers crisis during the national lockdown imposed during the first wave of Covid-19, but the demand for registering and enumerating informal workers was officially acknowledged well over a decade ago.
The national commission for enterprises in the unorganised sector (constituted in 2004 by the United Progressive Alliance government and dissolved in 2013) compiled multiple reports (here and here) on social security measures for informal workers, emphasising the need to enumerate and measure the informal sector’s contribution.
The working group on migration, a panel of experts, researchers and academicians instituted by the ministry of housing and urban poverty alleviation (later subsumed into the ministry of housing and urban affairs), recommended in its 2017 report that states establish mechanisms for unorganised workers to register themselves for social security benefits.
In 2018, the apex court directed the chief secretaries of all states to start registering India’s unorganised workers, in response to a petition dating back to 2012.
Yet, a day before Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to stall the spread of Covid-19 cases, the government told Parliament in response to a member’s question on whether the government has a record of migrant workers, unskilled and agricultural labourers in the country, that “no such register” was maintained.
In its June 2021 order, the Supreme Court said the delay in setting up this portal was “unpardonable” and reflected a “lackadaisical attitude” by the ministry of labour and employment.
Upon the launch of the e-Shram portal in August, the Working People’s Charter (WPC), a coalition of organisations working on issues related to labour, issued a statement welcoming the move. The database would give informal workers an identity, and it could “prove to be effective in providing informal workers with much-needed social security entitlements,” it noted.
Chandan Kumar, the organising secretary of the WPC, said the enumeration and identification of unorganised workers was long overdue. “The government needs to have proper, reliable data on the size of this workforce that really runs our economy,” Kumar told Article 14.
Kumar said their estimates indicated India’s unorganised workforce to be much larger than the government’s conservative target for e-Shram registrations. According to the Azim Premji University's State of Working India Report 2021, the pandemic increased informality of workers, and pegged their numbers around 415 million.
Such a database could have prevented the tragedy that unfolded for workers stranded hundreds of kilometres from home when the first lockdown was announced, said researchers.
According to a response in Parliament by the union minister of state for labour and employment in February 2021, 11.4 million workers headed towards their home districts under extremely arduous conditions. Rough estimates suggest that at least 971 workers died of causes other than Covid-19 during this period, including 96 who died on trains.
Gayatri Singh, a senior advocate in the Bombay High Court and a member of the executive committee of the WPC network, said e-Shram was a welcome move because it could counter the absence of data that severely hampered workers’ chances of accessing state relief measures during the pandemic.
“But the process of official identification mechanisms and registrations into a database should not be seen in a vacuum,” said Singh, cautioning that this process must be supplemented by urgent social security measures for workers.
No Clarity On Welfare Measures To Be Rolled Out
Advocate Maitreyi Krishnan, a Karnataka state committee member of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), said previous laws and policy measures also touched upon the idea of identification and registration of workers.
For example, the Inter State Migrant Workmen Act (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, promised identification and registration of all employees engaged with an establishment where five or more inter-state migrant workers were employed, a measure that was never implemented.
“The plight of unorganised workers is created by non-compliance with existing laws,” Krishnan told Article 14, “and even decimation of labour laws by successive governments.”
She said the informal workers’ plight was a problem arising from policy. “So, to now applaud the government for launching something like e-Shram is almost like thanking them for giving a band-aid to someone they themselves injured brutally.”
One concern that workers’ groups and experts were unanimous about was that neither the ministry nor the portal has attempted to list out clearly the benefits to accrue from registering workers.
Shreya Ghosh, an activist with the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network (MWSN), a nationwide network that came together in 2020 to address the problems of stranded migrant workers, said e-Shram’s promise of an official identity held value because it could counter the image of migrant workers as “helpless subjects or recipients of charity” but while the government projected this as a crucial database, only some insurance provisions were mentioned. The remaining ‘social security measures’ were kept ambiguous. “... no one knows what the worker will actually get,” Ghosh said.
Shaik Salauddin, founder and state president of the Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union, said gig and platform workers continued to be unrecognised even after the introduction of e-Shram.
For a few months after the portal was launched, there was an option for workers to self-identify as gig and platform workers, and then provide details of their occupation. That option has now been replaced with an exhaustive set of categories to choose from: drivers, rickshaw pullers, delivery agents, and so on.
In December 2021, the ministry of labour and employment told Parliament that over 700,000 gig and platform workers had registered on the e-Shram portal. But, in absence of that self-identification option as a gig and platform worker, Salauddin said it was unclear how the government had or maintained a record of this large and diverse group.
“Especially in the current context with the private players in the market exploiting them routinely, this lack of definition of gig and platform workers is worrisome,”Salauddin said. “What is the reason for not clarifying who these workers are?”
Despite their frustration, Salauddin’s teams helped more than 38,000 gig workers register on the portal, assisting with document creation, updation and Aadhaar linkage.
H R Jadeja*, a hawker in Delhi in his fifties, said he had been lured or coerced to make several such identification cards in the past, and one more card did not seem particularly exciting.
“Can you just imagine that I once had a toy store outside Appu Ghar in Delhi?” he said, explaining that he had been working for almost 30 years. He was glad to be included in the union government’s registers, he said, but worried this too may be only empty assurances. “Kaun jaane? ( Who knows?)”
Exclusions Built Into System Of Aadhaar-Linked Registration
For Bibi, resolving the problems with linking her Aadhaar and defunct phone number with her e-Shram registration application meant standing in long queues at the post office, losing out on working hours and wages. “How will a domestic worker make time for all this?” she said, admitting that she had almost given up on the process.
It was the ‘didi log’ (sisters) of SGU who insisted on helping her get the e-Shram card, and she eventually managed to complete her registration in December.
Her husband, who operates a small clothes-pressing stall, has been unable to register because of the same problem that Bibi encountered, his Aadhaar-linked mobile number is no longer in use. With some Covid-related restrictions still in place, the possibility of him getting it done anytime soon seemed remote, Bibi said.
Salauddin observed that many workers faced problems because of typographical errors in their Aadhaar card and mismatches with their bank account details. One case, he recalled, saw a worker’s e-Shram card recording a different name from that on her Aadhaar card.
The e-Shram portal has a system that auto-fills details such as name and address once the Aadhaar number is entered, followed by an option to edit or correct errors. Often, the option to correct auto-fill errors does not work, he said. "Everyone says these are technical glitches, but how will workers go about correcting these errors and mismatches in their documents?" he said
The WPC suggested that the e-Shram portal permit registration without linking the Aadhaar card, for better inclusivity and because finding documentation errors in the Aadhaar system was not rare.
According to the 2019 State Of Aadhaar report—a national study capturing the experiences of over 167,000 households across India—only 39% of respondents had the correct mobile phone number linked to their Aadhaar. With 8 % of respondents not having an Aadhaar card, this meant 102 million people were left out. One in five respondents did not succeed in updating their data, and most found updating to be the hardest part of the Aadhaar process.
“People with little or no education encountered Aadhaar related problems more often than others did,” the report said.
Srinivas Kodali, a data governance researcher with Free Software Movement of India, said the real number of people facing issues with Aadhaar could be much higher. “These numbers in the State of Aadhaar report could be an underestimate and not reflective of a pan-India reality,” Kodali said.
Workers on the move rarely have the same phone number over several years, said Ghosh. She said most workers they encountered carried basic feature phones, they changed numbers frequently, and now struggled to register on e-Shram.
Making an Aadhaar-linked phone mandatory also discriminated against women, said researchers. Data from the National Family Health Survey, 2019-21, (NFHS-5) showed that 69.4% of women in urban India and 46.6% in rural India used a phone of their own; 81% of women in urban India and 77.4% in rural India owned a bank account that they operated themselves. This was an improvement from the NFHS-4 numbers, but was revealing of women’s lack of access to mobile phones and bank accounts.
“Some of these women do not have an individual bank account, but they have a post office savings account because it was more easily available and had a higher interest rate.” added Arya. The e-Shram system did not take cognisance of these issues.
‘We Do Not Have The Technical Infrastructure Required’
By September-October 2021, workers and collectives began to find registrations routinely impeded by technical hurdles. The website’s server was often down. At some times, registration was possible only at night, or for only a few hours during the day, they said.
Narayan Kandeyang, an activist based in a village in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district, had to make multiple visits to the CSC to get his own e-Shram card. On his first attempt, the portal page failed to load on the computer. The second time he went to the CSC, he managed to get the one-time password on his mobile phone, but the portal crashed before he could continue.
“I finally managed to get it done the next day,” said Kandeyang, about his third attempt. These problems with the portal persisted until at least November, he said.
Out of work during the lockdown, Kandeyang, a political science student who used to work part-time, began to volunteer as a ‘shram mitra’ with the Jharkhand government’s labour department, assisting workers in getting identity cards issued by the state’s Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board, which also promises a slew of benefits such as cash transfers for purchasing safety kits, scholarships for children, maternity entitlements and even pension.
Government officials have begun to ask volunteers like Kandeyang to also register workers on the e-Shram portal. “But we do not have that kind of technical infrastructure to do this,” he said, “not enough computers, not enough information on benefits, and I think it also needs fingerprint scans.”
For workers, the technical glitches and inadequate technical infrastructure made the process cumbersome, involving loss of working hours and wages, and additional travel expenses.
Bibi and Kandeyang said middlepersons and CSCs also fleeced workers on the pretext of a commission for registration or as printing charges. They said these costs ranged from Rs 50 to Rs 400 per worker.
Dharmendra Kumar, secretary of Jan Pahal, a Delhi-based collective working with informal workers and low income families on issues of livelihood, housing and social security, said those who operate the CSCs were unhappy too.
The government had promised to pay a service charge of Rs 20 per registration on the portal to a CSC that helped the worker to self-register, but many CSCs have failed to receive their complete dues so far.
Jan Pahal also runs a CSC in Lakshmi Nagar, East Delhi, which registered around 10,000 workers, but received no payment from the government for rendering this service.
A record of the history of all digital work for citizens undertaken at their CSC skipped any mention of the e-Shram registrations, Dharmedra Kumar said. “When the system does not maintain such a record at the CSC level, how will the government pay us?” he said.
The official dashboard of the e-Shram portal has been dysfunctional since at least January 2022.
Kumar of Jan Pahal believed it could be “just a technical glitch” but said the task of registering workers was far from complete. When they last checked the dashboard, about 30,000 street vendors had registered in Delhi, but the state government survey had pegged their number at 72,000. “Estimates by collectives and unions will obviously give you a higher number. All of this only confirmed that a lot needed to be done,” he said.
The e-Shram portal requires self-registration by workers, but experts said the government should take a more proactive role, through awareness drives, mobile vans for registrations and offline registration desks.
Kumar suggested roping in workers’ groups and unions. Without political will, he said, “people without computers or smartphones, residents of rural and slum areas, and members of marginalised communities will be left behind.”
Krishnan said employers too must be made to share the responsibility, not unlike how Provident Fund and Employee State Insurance are employers’ responsibilities.
Fears Around Collection, Protection And Misuse Of Workers’ Data
Just before the model code of conduct was enforced ahead of the state legislative assembly elections in January 2022, the government of chief minister Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh transferred Rs 1,000 as a ‘maintenance allowance’ to the bank accounts of 15 million workers of the state who had registered on the e-Shram portal
“Such cash transfers before elections indicate the rights-based discourse being replaced by just a populist idea,” said Ghosh.
Krishnan argued that in the absence of clear, reliable and enforceable mechanisms for labour rights protection and data privacy, such moves will be not just about handing out a one-time dole that is itself inadequate, but also an indicator of how workers’ data may be misused to bypass electoral propriety. “Who knows how else they will use this data?” she said.
“The government is collecting data, but without answers on who is going to access this data and how,” she warned. Without data protection laws, the safeguards to prevent misuse of e-Shram data do not exist.
On 20 January 2022, with the looming threat of Omicron and the renewed imposition of restrictions on movement and work, groups including WPC, Jan Pahal and MWSN wrote to the Delhi state government on the fear that workers’ vulnerabilities may rise. Asking the government to initiate an immediate cash transfer to workers registered on the e-Shram portal, their letter said “all available databases” must be immediately mobilised for income support.
Unlike UP’s pre-election cash transfer, Ghosh argued, this demand for a crisis-time cash transfer was rooted in the idea of upholding workers’ rights. The e-Shram system should facilitate such assistance as a universal right, just like the idea of pension support for all workers, she said.
“It should not be a pathway merely to occasional benefits or ‘gifts’ in the name of a prime minister or chief minister whenever they please to do so for electoral gains or other such logic,” said Ghosh.
By all accounts, the identification of workers through the e-Shram exercise is a step in the right direction, but experts and workers’ collectives agreed, however, that a database is no panacea for the informal workers’ challenges, especially in the face of policies that dilute old labour protection norms in the unorganised sector.
Krishnan cited the Industrial Relations Code, 2020, which all but does away with workers’ rights to unionise and strike, by penalising these actions. “The push to the unorganised sector is, then, a conscious government decision,” she said.
“Worker logon ka adhikaar aur izzat ka jo sab dikkat hai, kaunsi card isko badal degi? (What card can solve the problems of rights and respect for the worker?)” Jadeja said. “We have mostly lost in this fight, but let’s see what happens next.”
*Names changed on request
(Sweta Dash is an independent researcher and journalist.)