Comment

The advent of ‘app-solute’ chaos in NREGA

In Palakkad, Kerala

In Palakkad, Kerala | Photo Credit: K.K. MUSTAFAH

In May 2021, the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) launched the National Mobile Monitoring Software (NMMS) app, a new application meant for “improving citizen oversight and increasing transparency” in National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) works. It is to be deployed by NREGA Mates, local women at the panchayat level who are selected and trained to monitor NREGA worksites. The main feature of the app is the real-time, photographed, geo-tagged attendance of every worker to be taken once in each half of the day. We spoke to Mates, NREGA workers, and activists across multiple States to understand their experience of the app.

Conditions affecting workers

While such an app may be useful in monitoring the attendance of workers who have fixed work timings, in most States, NREGA wages are calculated based on the amount of work done each day, and workers do not need to commit to fixed hours. This flexibility has been key to NREGA’s widespread demand. However, marking attendance on the app mandates that workers are at the worksite the entire day. This causes significant difficulty for NREGA workers.

Priya Devi from Rajasthan finishes her NREGA work by 9 a.m., and then sets up a stall in the local haat to sell the produce she grows in her kitchen garden. Since the introduction of the NMMS app, she either needs to be present at the worksite all day or travel twice to mark her attendance. Ms. Devi expressed concern about losing customers at her stall in her absence. Another worker from Andhra Pradesh said her daughter was now missing school frequently because she had to take over some of her mother’s chores.

NREGA has historically had a higher proportion of women workers (54.7% in FY 2021-22) and has been pivotal in changing working conditions for women in rural areas. Due to the traditional burden of household chores and care work on women, the app is likely to disproportionately affect women workers. The conditions for registering NREGA attendance on the app put them in a dilemma where they may end up foregoing NREGA work. Such a sentiment was echoed (to us) by many women workers across the country. Priya Devi, for instance, is afraid she will have to choose between the two — committing to NREGA work that occupies her full day, or staying at the market.

Other challenges

There are challenges of implementation with the NMMS as well. A stable network is a must for real-time monitoring; unfortunately, it remains patchy in much of rural India. This could lead to workers not being able to mark their attendance, and consequently lose a day of wages. Workers in Kerala and Jharkhand are already facing problems in uploading their attendance on the app due to network problems. Further, a recent NewsClick report has also highlighted the problems faced by differently-abled NREGA workers from Tamil Nadu in marking their attendance on the app.

The app has adversely impacted NREGA Mates as well. The role of a Mate was conceptualised as an opportunity to empower local women to manage attendance and work measurement in their panchayat. But now, to be a Mate, one needs to have a smartphone. This new condition disqualifies thousands of women who do not own smartphones from becoming Mates. Already women from Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh have reported being passed over for selection as Mates for this very reason. Now, smartphone-owning men are likely to be given preference as Mates. Alternatively, women could become proxy Mates — officially registered, but deferring to men who work and get paid. Many selected Mates also reported that they had not been given proper training in using the app. This could lead to errors in recording workers’ attendance, that ultimately results in delayed or non-payments.

Errors in pilot process

The app had been launched on a pilot basis last year, with States using it voluntarily. Officials and activists confirmed these implementation errors had been evident throughout the pilot process. However, there is no information available publicly about the errors found and measures taken to address them. Our Right To Information applications have also not yielded any satisfactory responses. Despite the persistent errors, on May 13, 2022, the MoRD released a circular announcing that NMMS would now be mandatory for all NREGA worksites employing more than 20 workers, with no option for manual attendance other than in exceptional circumstances. Within a week of the mandate, many States submitted complaints and reports of the same errors that were seen during the pilot stage. The MoRD is yet to offer any solutions, reassurances, or even a response.

No physical records

Beyond the problems in implementation, the intended purpose of such an application, and its effectiveness remain unclear. The app claims to “increase citizen oversight” by “bringing more transparency and ensuring proper monitoring of the schemes, besides potentially enabling processing payments faster”. However, it appears to be doing exactly the opposite. With no physical attendance records signed by workers anymore, workers have no proof of their attendance and work done. In the district of West Singhbhum, Jharkhand, workers reported having worked on a NREGA project, the attendance records of which do not exist on the NREGA website. Since there are no physical records the workers can use as evidence, they have no way of proving their attendance, and will consequently lose out on pay for two full weeks of work. This is a clear erosion of the transparency and citizen oversight the app claims to improve.

Corruption has been a rising problem in NREGA, with funds being siphoned off by faking attendance records. While ostensibly the NMMS’s focus on real-time, geo-tagged attendance could be one way of addressing this corruption, the MoRD has not provided much clarity on either the magnitude of this corruption or the manner in which the NMMS addresses it. There are no parameters established to assess the app’s performance, either on transparency, or on quicker processed payments.

Strengthen social audits

Instead of focusing on this app or introducing other complex technological reforms, we strongly believe social audits must be strengthened. Social audits are citizen-centric institutions, where the citizens of the panchayat have a direct role and say in how NREGA functions in their panchayat. Audits have worked well in the past, allowing the local rights holders to be invested in decisions, and hold the administration accountable themselves. But instead of strengthening citizen-centric institutions such as social audit units and gram sabhas, the MoRD seems keener on introducing technological reforms that can be complex to understand and fundamentally inaccessible for workers.

It seems ironic that an application meant to improve citizen oversight and transparency was implemented with no consultation and discussion with NREGA workers, functionaries, or government field officials. The NMMS is consequently blind to the actual functioning of NREGA on the ground. The MoRD’s habit of passing reforms with no stakeholder consultation does not fall in line with the principles of transparency and citizen-participation enshrined in NREGA. The NMMS has very clear problems that will make it increasingly difficult for workers to continue working under NREGA, eroding the right to work that underwrites the NREGA Act.

Chakradhar Buddha and Laavanya Tamang are affiliated with LibTech India


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Printable version | Jun 25, 2022 1:00:48 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-advent-of-app-solute-chaos-in-nrega/article65561536.ece