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All about means and ends

transparency: “There has been a digitisation of all the processes in MGNREGA — from a worker registering demand for work, to work allotment, to getting wages for completed works.” MGNREGA work in Srikakulam district in A.P. Photo: Basheer

transparency: “There has been a digitisation of all the processes in MGNREGA — from a worker registering demand for work, to work allotment, to getting wages for completed works.” MGNREGA work in Srikakulam district in A.P. Photo: Basheer  

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is not only a pioneering livelihood security programme but also a great example of proactive disclosure of information through its Management Information System (MIS). It is the first transaction-based real-time system for any public works programme in the country that is available in the public domain. There has been a digitisation of all the processes in MGNREGA — right from a worker registering demand for work, to work allotment, to finally getting wages for completed works. Another notable feature of the MIS is the availability of information through online reports at various levels of disaggregation. This has enabled any citizen to monitor the implementation of the programme and has consequently charted a new paradigm of transparency since the enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The sheer scale of information available on implementation is also no mean achievement. Individual worker details from around 2.5 lakh gram panchayats are available in the MGNREGA MIS.

While this system is certainly a great feather in the cap of a transparent democracy, it is critical to understand its current shortcomings and possible ways to improve its functioning.

Shortcomings

To begin with, the MIS is accessible only from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Indian Standard Time. This is a huge impediment for collaborative work across time zones.

Second, it does not provide any data dictionary. A data dictionary is a repository of all the names of variables/columns used in various reports, containing a brief explanation of its meanings. Such a dictionary is crucial so that any citizen accessing the online reports can understand the content in them. As things stand, unless somebody has spent a lot of time in rural areas, it is difficult to comprehend the details of many reports.

Third, the nomenclature of the column names in the online reports is not consistent. The same column name is labelled differently in different reports. For instance, what is referred to as the Payment Date in the report of weekly works (‘Mustroll Report’) is known as the Second Signatory Date in a report titled ‘FTO Second Signatory’. Payment Date is also a misnomer as it does not refer to the date on which a worker gets paid. Although obfuscation of the column names may not be intentional, it nevertheless becomes excruciating for any citizen or researcher to make meaningful sense of the reports.

Fourth, some obvious worker-centric links in the data structure are missing. For example, every household that does MGNREGA work has a unique job card number. This number is crucial to get work. Upon completion of a work week, a Funds Transfer Order (FTO) is generated containing the details of each job card holder’s earned wages. On the MIS, there is no clear link between these two crucial pieces. As such it becomes difficult to follow the trail of each job card holder from the time of work demanded to getting the wages.

Passing the baton of accountability

While computerisation of all transactions is a welcome move, officials are passing the baton of accountability. One should be mindful that an information system doesn’t end up controlling the legal rights. There are several situations when a written request for work by a worker is not entered in the MIS till funds for work allocation are made available from the Centre. This is illegal as the Act mandates provision of work within a stipulated time of requesting for it. Similarly, the generation of the FTO is withheld till funds for wage payments are released. There are other instances when the FTO is not generated if a worker fails to furnish his or her Aadhaar number. Some are harder to locate as there is no paper trail or stated intention but realised only retrospectively once the workers are affected. There are other such examples illustrating how the IT infrastructure becomes a tool prioritising administrative needs as opposed to being a programme enabler. In this regard, it is instructive to recall the phrase “code is law” popularised by the Harvard Law professor, Lawrence Lessig. Code, as in software, and code, as in law, can both be instruments of social control. To quote him: “We can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to protect values that we believe are fundamental. Or we can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to allow those values to disappear. There is no middle ground. Code is never found; it is only ever made, and only ever made by us.”

Technological architecture can also be used to perpetuate falsehoods. For instance, consider the flawed mechanism of the calculation of delay compensation when wages are not paid on time. Ideally, the compensation should be calculated from the 16th day of completion of a work week till the day on which the workers actually receive their wages. However, the compensation is computed based on the payment date, which, as we have mentioned, is not the date on which the wages get credited into the workers’ accounts. The difference of the two calculation methods run into crores of rupees that rightfully belong to the workers. While the automated calculation is a progressive measure, its basis must be correct and transparent. The fact that even with the flawed calculation no compensation has been paid corroborates that technology can be a strong aid but not a replacement for accountability.

The MIS is a powerful mechanism to have an evidence-based discourse for monitoring basic services. But a governance framework for the MIS needs to be put in place that lays out the minimum standards and accountability of the Ministry managing the system. Such a framework must be built in consultation with all concerned parties and should follow the provisions of the law (both MGNREGA and RTI). The system design choices should reflect the values of the worker-centric programme and hence principles need to be followed for compassionate design. Otherwise, we fear that technology is dictating administrative choices, akin to the phrase “architecture is politics”.

Sakina Dhorajiwala is a student of Public Policy at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. Rajendran teaches at Ashoka University, Sonepat. The views expressed are personal and don’t reflect their respective institutions’ perspectives.

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