Workers, not tech, should be state’s priority

The objective of MGNREGS is not to offer a playing field for technological interventions, but to provide deprived households a sense of work security, facilitated by digital technology

Updated - April 01, 2024 08:23 am IST

Published - April 01, 2024 01:56 am IST

Women work at a MGNREGS project site at Umachagi village in Hubballi taluk, Karnataka

Women work at a MGNREGS project site at Umachagi village in Hubballi taluk, Karnataka | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The Aadhaar-Based Payment System (ABPS) has been accorded sufficient attention, mostly on account of the myriad issues plaguing it. This begs critical attention because the state, through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), is legally mandated to offer up to 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a financial year to every rural household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. Additionally, there has been a notable increase this year in the budgetary allocation to MGNREGS to nearly ₹86,000 crore. Numerous commentators have pointed out challenges in the project of linking rural employment guarantees to digitised individual identification systems. These include Internet connectivity, fingerprint recognition issues, difficulties faced by the disabled, unrecorded working days, name duplication, lack of awareness, errors in linking, authentication, elimination of names, discrepancy in name spellings, and issues in seeding — mostly where the workers are little at fault. Research shows that there are more than 26 crore workers registered with MGNREGS. Of them, as many as 5.2 crore workers were deleted from the database in 2022-23. An article in The Hindu noted that 34.8% of job card holders remain ineligible for ABPS. Other commentators have laid bare how, for those who are enrolled, there are just too many faulty moving parts to the payment system.

Sidelining the beneficiaries

At the foundation of these drawbacks is the fact that workers have been placed at the mercy of technology, contrary to the idealised notion of them being its beneficiaries. As much as it urgently calls for attention to dimensions of technological infrastructure, we must introspect how the state conceives of and understands technology and the worker. Clearly, technology has taken precedence. Employment security seems less a priority and the worker seems even further down the scale.

The manner in which the ABPS has been designed, structured, and deployed has ended up in an outcome where the worker appears to sit as one part of the state-supported technological programme, instead of the technology being an enabler for the worker in the state-supported livelihood guarantee scheme. The rural employment guarantee system has ended up packing too much technology into the worker’s life, wherein the notorious legacy of sluggishness and overcomplexity in government-managed development processes is not a relic of the past but still alive and functioning, albeit now within a digital setting. This brings forth the question of whether the state wants an empowering, modern, transparent, and efficient digital economy, or whether it seeks technology for technology’s sake. Have we put too much spotlight on techno-solutionism, often sidelining the actual beneficiary?

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The objective of these employment guarantee schemes is not to offer a playing field for technological interventions, but to provide socio-economically deprived households a sense of work security, facilitated by digital technology. Schemes such as MGNREGS are rooted in ideals such as inclusion in the development process and mitigation of inequality and socioeconomic distress, which have even been internationally recognised (such as by the United Nations Development Programme) as contributing to a productive, equitable, and connected society. When the state is guided by techno-solutionism in the management of such schemes, it runs the risk of being counterproductive to its own ideals. A scholarly study in World Development has shown how these schemes lead to higher nutritional intake in the households that participate in them, empower women and pay them on a par with men, serve as insurance substitutes, offer pronounced benefits to marginalised communities including Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and to households with disabled workers, and contribute to ensuring political transparency. These principles must not be eclipsed by enthusiasm in technological intervention. Lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic regarding the counterproductive nature of technological interventions for deprived communities are still in living memory.

Potential of technology

Technological interventions have, globally and historically, demonstrated the potential to serve progressive principles. Technology sits at the heart of all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the rural employment guarantee schemes in India have proven themselves as effective pathways to serving several of the SDGs, directly and indirectly. The substantial budgetary allocation to MGNREGS must be channeled through a system free of technological maladies, for which technological and non-technological rectifications have been analysed, but for which some fundamental techno-developmental imaginaries also need a re-look. The state’s conception of the worker as an active participant in these goals and in the country-specific development concerns must not be overshadowed by its overzealous technological imaginary.

In an era of increasing socioeconomic inequality, intensifying precarity in work, diminishing social security, and rural distress, technology can play a vital role, but it cannot be the state’s favoured child. The priority has to always remain the workers and their livelihood security.

Anant Kamath is Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. Views are personal; Neethi P. is Senior Researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru, and an advisory member to the Karnataka Labour Policy Committee. Views are personal

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