Sugrib Naik (29) and Singi Majhi (59) are a generation apart and have never met. They have nothing in common except, recently, both their names were struck out of the beneficiary list under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), which provides at least 100 days of paid work annually to at least adult member of a family.
In both the cases, there is a mismatch between their names on the MNREGS jobcards and their Aadhaar card. A missing letter, a differently spelt name is enough to push both to a common destiny — migration to earn a living.
By an order on January 30, the Union Rural Development Ministry made it mandatory that the payment of MGNREGA wages will be Aadhaar-linked. The initial deadline was set for February 1, which, after two extensions is now set for June 30. As States rush to meet this deadline, the number of deletions is spiralling.
By June 23 this year, 61 lakh registered workers had been deleted citing various reasons ranging from unwillingness to work to fake job cards, amounting to net deletion of 1.16%. This amounts to 2.26% of the total registered workers. According to an analysis by research group Lib Tech, financial year 2022-23 saw a 244.3% hike in the number of deleted workers. From 1.49 crore deletions in 2021-22 with net deletion of 1.8%, it climbed to 5.13 crore in 2022-23 with net deletion rate of 14.28%. The government claims this is a routine exercise to weed out corruption.
The Hindu’s field visit to Kashipur Block in Rayagada district of Odisha shows that many genuine beneficiaries have been binned in this process. Kashipur Block has a significant Adivasi population and has reported one of the highest MGNREGA deletion rates in the country. In village after village, the coincidence of a mismatch between Aadhaar and job card details repeats in the case of deleted job cards.
Mr. Naik, a tribal from Dangehskal village in Kashipur Block, while looking for work recently discovered that his job card was no longer in the system. Out of 547 registered MGNREGA workers in Mr. Naik’s village, 90 have been deleted. Like Mr. Naik’s case, 33 workers’ names have been removed citing the reason “not willing to work.”
“Who told them that I am not willing to work? No one came to ask me whether I want or do not want to work,” Mr. Naik said. The family’s land provides enough to keep the family fed, but that’s all it does. For the other basic needs like clothes, education for his two daughters aged eight and four years, medical care for his ageing parents, and for the meagre luxuries to which he aspires, he needs additional income. MGNREGA doesn’t entirely fill the gap, yet it is preferred because it provides him employment at his home. The only other option is migration.
The painful memories of his last trip to Kerala to work on a pineapple farm near Ernakulam haven’t faded. He remembers sleeping alongside 30 men in a hall, rigid work days beginning at 7 a.m. and ending at 5 p.m. Between weeding, watering, spraying pesticides, harvesting and loading the fruit, it was back breaking work. He momentarily stares at his hand, reminded of the lacerations they had from working with the pineapples as ill-trained labour. “It stung sharply, especially when we used to spray pesticides, even if a stray droplet fell on the wound,” he said, wincing at the memory. He didn’t last a month on the job and it is an experience he isn’t too eager to relive. MGNREGA was his social security net, but now, that too is lost. In his Aadhaar card, his name is spelt ‘Sugrib Naik’ and in the job card ‘Sugriba Naik’. The additional “a” makes all the difference.
In Tikirapadar village, Singi Majhi, a tribal has a similar story. The village is nearly three kilometres away from the main road, surrounded by verdant mountains, nearly isolated from everyday life. In his job card, Mr. Majhi’s name has been spelt as ‘Singa Majhi’ while the Aadhaar card records it as ‘Singi Majhi’. He stands staring at each document by turn in dismay. The reason for the deletion of his name, according to the Union government’s website, is “incorrect job card”, the logic of which is beyond his comprehension.
The other two family members, his son and wife, also find themselves thrown out. With no credible livelihood option available, his son Bhishanta, who got married just four months back, left for Kerala, leaving his 20-year-old bride Abita behind. Abita met her husband on the day of the wedding and they barely had two months together before life intervened.
“There is no money here, what can he do? He had to leave for Kerala. He says he will come back in January,” she said, fiddling with a necklace of antique coins on her neck. Some of the coins date back to the British era. Her cellphone is the only connection between them. But with no mobile connectivity in the village, she has to trek two kilometres each way to catch the signal for their daily conversations.
When The Hindu reached out to the Block-level officials, they conceded there were issues, but expressed helplessness. “There is nothing that we can do. We don’t have the editing rights. Even if we know it is the same person, we cannot edit their names on the job cards to match that with the Aadhaar card,” a Block-level official said.
Academicians and activists working in the field also acknowledge the issue. “Our research indicates two trends in MGNREGA’s mandatory Aadhaar requirement. Certain States face workers’ unresolved Aadhaar issues, leading to work denial or payment delays. States with fewer issues experience higher deletion rates. Lower-level officials lack training to address challenges, often resorting to deleting names as a quick solution to meet targets. Mistakenly marking living workers as deceased has occurred as well. Absence of clear local standard operating procedures and limited accountability exacerbate the problem,” Chakradhar Budhha, a senior researcher at LibTech India, said.
In an indirect admission of the problem, the Union Rural Development Ministry’s press note on June 3 on the Aadhaar-Based Payment System (ABPS) urged States to hold camps to complete the Aadhaar seeding. But at the same time, it warned that no worker should be refused work in the absence of it. “Job cards cannot be deleted on the basis that the worker is not eligible for ABPS,” it noted.
Once a beneficiary’s job card is deleted, he or she cannot apply for a fresh one and the process of reviving a deleted job card is complicated. The aggrieved worker has to submit a fresh set of documents to the village level officer, the Gram Rozgaar Sahayak, who will then forward it to the Block, which will then go to the district administration, and finally to the State government. Of the total of 81,232 deletions during the 2022-23 period in Kashipur, according to Block-level officials, the number of revivals are in the 100s.