Latehar, Delhi, Bengaluru: On a sweltering April afternoon, Hari Oraon, 51, was sitting outside his home in Latehar’s Ahirpur village of Mahuadanr block, nearly 200 km northwest of Ranchi. He was worried. Owing to pending wages--he had not been paid for seven days--Hari Oraon had not gone to work for the last two days.

“I do not know why this happened, and I am not sure if I will receive it,” said Hari, a father of five whose two sons are also labourers. A member of Jharkhand’s Oraon tribe, Hari has worked under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) for the past two years. Although there have been delays, he would usually be informed by site supervisors that it would get resolved. But this time it seems different, he said.

Philomena Toppo, an MGNREGS work mate who supervises a worksite in Ahirpur, knew why Oraon was facing problems. Payments were pending for the last 18 days, she told IndiaSpend, because there is no network on her phone to upload the attendance of workers on the National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS) app that the Union government made mandatory from January 1.

“When I talked to the Panchayat [elected village government] representatives,” Toppo said, “they said that they didn’t know, but higher officials would, whether the payment will be provided after recording the attendance through the new app system.”

According to the Union government, the NMMS attendance application was made mandatory to increase “citizen oversight of the programme and ease of governance”. But the intervention has raised several concerns for MGNREGS workers, many of whom went on a 100-day protest in Delhi demanding the scrapping of the app.

Workers who were protesting in Delhi and others in Latehar told IndiaSpend that they were facing problems receiving wages, because the NMMS was not working well in remote areas without a phone network, in addition to the existing problem of chronic wage delays. Meanwhile, worksite supervisors, or mates, are having to invest in a smartphone to accommodate the government’s orders to upload pictures to prove attendance.

Experts told IndiaSpend that the new app is “pointless” and only creates further problems for MGNREGS, which has already seen a fund crunch due to an 18% reduction in the 2023-24 budget that will impact the demand for work. In addition, the Aadhaar-Based Payment System [ABPS or the Aadhaar Payment Bridge System (APBS)] too has been made mandatory from July, which is expected to further complicate timely payments for workers.

Attendance was a requirement since inception

The demand-based MGNREGS guarantees at least 100 days of unskilled work to every rural household with adult members who volunteer for work. The programme has a total of 270 million workers and 142 million “active workers”. Before the introduction of the NMMS, the workers' attendance was physically marked by mates on paper muster rolls.

Hari Oraon had wages pending from the government’s national jobs programme and said he was worried if he would receive the wages. Photo from Ahirpur, Jharkhand, April 2023.

According to a 2020-21 government circular, a Gram Rozgar Sevak or village employment guarantee assistant is responsible, among others tasks, for the “recording of attendance of labour every day, either himself/herself or through the mate, in the prescribed Muster Rolls at the worksite”.

Usually, attendance was marked on physical muster rolls that records the number of workers at a work site. Under the new regulations, however, the NMMS requires two time-stamped and geo-tagged photographs taken at the worksite to mark the attendance of each worker.

The NMMS was launched after a “field visit to the Alwar district of Rajasthan was made for pilot testing of NMMS App”.

The objective of the app is flawed because it looks to measure attendance and not output, said Nikhil Dey, social activist and founder member, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and National Campaign For People's Right to Information. “Even if people attend on all days, without work output workers will not get paid. So the app is pointless.”

It is important to clarify that the requirement to mark attendance at the MGNREGS worksite has existed since its inception in 2006, said Reetika Khera, professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. “..not only did workers mark attendance (twice a day), in most states their wage rate was linked to the work done, what is called ‘piece rate’ work (work which is supposed to be measured at the end of the week)”.

In a February 2023 response to IndiaSpend on the NMMS initiative, the Ministry of Rural Development said that “as such no major issue has been reported in its implementation”. As recently as March 29, more than a month after the workers' protest started, the Union government said that “so far, no issue regarding holding 100 days dharna in Delhi against NMMS App has been reported to the Ministry”.

IndiaSpend has asked the Ministry of Rural Development on its plans for the continued use of the NMMS app and its impact on social audits, workers' concerns about payment delays due to the new attendance app, and the Aadhaar-based payment system. We will update this story when we receive a response.

Added burden on mates

Chandan Kumar, a Rozgar Sevak in Chainpur panchayat, Jharkhand, told IndiaSpend that the introduction of the new app system has led to around 30 people not coming to work. “There is a grave issue of both power and network in our area, which is why the attendance is not getting recorded,” he said, explaining why wages were being delayed leading to no-show by the workers.

MGNREGS data show that only half the gram panchayats registered for NMMS are using it, and only around 80,200 of the nearly 400,000 registered mates were using the app. In Jharkhand, the number of mates registered for NMMS was 15,472, while only one in eight were using it.

Alma Kindo, a MGNREGS mate in Garbudni panchayat, around 12 km from Hari Oraon’s Ahirpur, had bought a new mobile phone after borrowing nearly Rs 7,000. She was told the NMMS app would work on the new phone. “Now people are saying that the mobile only supports 2G network (and can’t support the app).”

Alma Kindo, an MGNREGS mate, had to borrow money to buy a smartphone to accommodate the NMMS app requirements for attendance.

The Union government said that it was “providing training to the states and UTs to ensure smooth transitioning to the NMMS app as and when requested by the States/UTs”.

But in Kindo’s case, someone from the village was helping with the app to mark attendance each morning and evening. “The payment for the last 24 days is due,” she said. When Kindo enquired with block officials, she was told that they themselves did not know when payment would happen.

“This app needs to be scrapped. We are not anti-technology,” said Dey of MKSS. “Nobody is denying there is corruption. But technology has to be appropriate, but the burden now is on the worker.” Workers not getting due wages after having done the work is “unconstitutional”, he said.

Earlier, the system allowed the worker to come at any time to work, and once they had completed the allotted task, they could go for other non-MGNREGS works, said Chandan. “But now it is mandatory to stay from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. because the attendance has to be marked within that time.”

“Since there is no back-end authentication mechanism to match a worker with their photograph, the app fails to meet the very aim of curbing corruption for which it was purportedly introduced,” said Rajendran Narayanan, faculty at Azim Premji University, in an April 29, 2023 Economic and Political Weekly report.

Chandan Kumar added that mates are not able to record attendance in many areas, so Rozgar Sevaks like him visit four or five villages between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m., the stipulated time frame, in the morning to click pictures and update the app after going to the block office.

The issue here is that it is mandatory to record the attendance for both times, which means that the same procedure has to be followed in the afternoon as well. “If the attendance is not recorded for either session, then the attendance for the overall day will not be considered,” he said.

Amrang Dang, Block Development Officer of Mahuadanr block, however says there is no issue of network and that the use of NMMS has reduced the problem of fake attendance. “The Rozgar Sevak is responsible for the attendance, and workers will receive their wages if it has been registered,” said Dang. “If there is a problem in registering attendance due to a technical problem, they can take a screenshot and inform the block headquarters for resolution.” But Dang did not say how workers could be compensated if their attendance was not registered due to network or technical error.

Impact audits

As one of the minimum features of the rural jobs programme, the Act already allowed inspection of works, including checking of muster rolls. A copy of the muster rolls of each project is supposed to be made available in the offices of the Gram Panchayat and the programme officer for inspection by any interested person on paying a specified fee. This was expected to ensure a fair social audit.

But rigidity in technological interventions pose various barriers for workers including checking their names on the muster roll, experts say.

In 2017-18, as a part of an earlier technological intervention, the government introduced the use of electronic muster rolls (e-MR), according to Rajendran Narayanan’s report. This practice still continues. The e-Muster system was introduced to avoid “bogus attendance” and to check instances of tampering and misuse of muster rolls.

For a worker to be able to inspect the muster roll, a physical roll should be easily available at the Panchayat level. But, according Narayanan’s report, “an e-MR in some states could only be generated at the panchayat, but permissions to print them were only given to block administrators.”

In addition, because of the use of the new NMMS app, which they cannot check, some workers that IndiaSpend spoke to in Delhi said that sometimes they do not know if their names are on the muster roll, and that this forces them to lose a day’s wage.

Following the pandemic, many workers were struggling to find adequate work, IndiaSpend had reported. While MGNREGS was a lifeline in rural areas that saw return migration from urban work destinations, there was not enough work going around. On average, households received 48 days of work in 2022-23, less than half of the scheme guarantee.

With the new order mandating NMMS, “social audits will be affected because it relies on the physical muster roll filled by a mate”, said Dey. “...a social audit is very localised, which helps us see misuse. Today, how do we know if anyone is looking at millions of photos to see whether someone has worked?” According to the May 5 MGNREGS MIS data, 37 million photos have been captured in the morning sessions alone.

Instead of being “mule-headed about using NMMS”, the government could be using technology smartly to solve this problem, said Khera, highlighting the process of sending SMS by mates in Tamil Nadu and random site visits to check fake attendance. “...most mates have a smart or dumb phone and could be asked to send an SMS with the names of workers present that day,” she said.

Using simple transparency measures such as keeping muster rolls at the worksite (available for genuine workers to inspect) can get rid of the problem of fake workers being added to the muster rolls, she added.

Aadhaar-Based Payment System complicates timely payments

In addition to the NMMS application for attendance, the government has now made the Aadhaar-Based Payment System mandatory for workers. A March 28 government response said that ABPS has been made mandatory from February 2023, but based on the request made by several state governments, it has been decided by the Ministry to suspend its use till March 31, 2023.

According to an April 18 report in The Hindu, the Union government has decided to further extend the deadline for workers to use the ABPS for receiving wages by three months, till June 30.

An October 2021 report by LibTech India, a transparency and accountability project, said that in ABPS, a worker’s Aadhaar number must be seeded to their job card and bank account, and the Aadhaar number must be mapped correctly with a mapper created by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI).

The government, in a monosyllabic response in Parliament on March 14, confirmed that not only must the worker’s job card and bank account be seeded with Aadhaar, but the account also has to be connected to the NPCI.

If the Aadhaar-mapping with NPCI fails, payments get rejected and wages get routed to the last Aadhaar-seeded account, which is a problem for those with multiple accounts, said the Lib Tech India report. “The APBS architecture is opaque. It has made it nearly impossible for workers to track which account their payment has been deposited in. The local administration is often unaware or not equipped to rectify errors that are extremely technical or difficult to decode.”

The NMMS and APBS are examples of the government’s techno-centric approach to MGNREGS--instead of placing workers at the centre of the programme, technology is the focus of the government’s attention, said Khera. “APBS has little to do with improving implementation, either for the government or for NREGA workers.”

Dey added that the government seems to want the employment scheme to shut down, considering the lower budgetary allocation this year and the consequent lower worker turnout, mostly “because of this troublesome and inappropriate use of technology that is preventing workers from getting work and wages”.

The protest in Delhi was suspended after 60 continuous days because the union government was not responding, according to NREGA Sangharsh Morcha. Now, the workers are protesting in 18 states to put pressure on the respective state governments. According to The Indian Express, the union government held talks with civil society organisations on the issues raised on May 2.

(Priyank Nagpal and Ritika Chadda, interns at IndiaSpend, contributed to this story.)

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