No place for tech: How digital interventions in NREGA are undermining rural social security

Mandatory digital ‘solutions’ introduced in the NREGA scheme by union and state governments, like Aadhaar-based payments, mobile monitoring apps, facial authentication and surveillance tools, are impinging on workers’ statutory rights and poking holes in the rural social security net.

20 February, 2024
8 min read

tl;dr

In recent years, attempts by India’s union and state governments to introduce digital interventions in NREGA, including biometric-based payment, attendance and worker verification systems, or worker site surveillance, have had a direct and adverse effect on rural workers and their constitutionally guaranteed right to equality, employment, fair wage, dignity, and privacy. They are leading to large-scale disempowerment and exclusion of workers across Indian states. This blog critically examines the digital interventions and their place in the scheme, and reiterates arguments made by workers against their integration into the NREGA framework.

Background

February 02, 2024 marked 18 years since the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (“NREGA”) was enacted. For 18 years, it has employed rural populations in unskilled labour in exchange for a guaranteed minimum wage and the protection of their constitutional rights to a livelihood and to live life with dignity. Though the statutory safetynet has been breached by socio-economic externalities and funding crises a few times in these 18 years, the programme has been able to amass a labour force of 250 million registered workers who continue to reap protections set in stone by the 2005 Act. But now, new and unmet challenges emerge. 

Since January 2023, India’s union and state governments have set out to integrate digital technologies into the programme, including biometric-based payment, attendance and worker verification systems, as well as worker site surveillance. The digitisation of a programme built for the welfare of economically disenfranchised and low-literacy populations has a direct and adverse effect on the workers and their constitutionally guaranteed right to employment, fair wage, dignity, and privacy. The digital technologies, explored in detail below, disrupt the law-policy framework of India’s rural employment guarantee scheme and set back the clock on community-led reform that has propelled NREGA to the successes it has been able to achieve. 

Digital interventions of this nature, which have now come to form the basis of the  implementation of the NREGA programme, seem ignorant to the Indian digital divide and fail to meet the objectives of the Act – including its foundational promise of guaranteeing social security to rural populations.

No place for technology

NREGA, deemed the largest public works programme in the world, is a watershed social security legislation that has provided a safetynet to economically underprivileged families in India for nearly two decades. The Act and supplementing schemes are founded in public advocacy and civil society efforts – demands were made loud and clear for rural employment opportunities to be provided by the union, along with complete transparency and assurance of wage payments. As a result, the legislation is a community-led charter of workers’ rights and entitlements with a strong basis in equitable social security, which empowers a large demographic of the country to claim employment and benefits as a constitutional right. 

However, in recent times, its robust framework is being undermined at a rapid pace due to the introduction of programmatic digital interventions. Since the union Ministry of Rural Development (“MoRD”, “Ministry”) has started rolling technological “solutions” to the scheme, issues around inaccess, inaccuracy, exclusion and disenfranchisement have instantaneously become visible, as explored in more detail in the sections below. 

Aadhaar-based Payment System

On January 01, 2024, MoRD made the use of Aadhaar-Based Payment System (“ABPS”) mandatory for the payment of wages to rural workers under NREGA. The new notification mandates workers to link their Aadhar with their NREGA job cards, and as MoRD announced, non-compliance will be met with penalties. This move was met with pushback from workers and statements of concerns by local leaders

This is not the first time the Ministry has made a move to make aadhaar mandatory – on January 30, 2023, it asked state governments to achieve 100% aadhaar seeding for NREGA cards by the end of the financial year. By August 2023 itself, 6 Crore workers had fallen out of the scheme for not linking their aadhaars. According to a statement by NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, as the MoRD began steps to make ABPS mandatory between 2022-23, NREGA account deletions shot up. Workers whose bank accounts are not linked with their Aadhaar cards continue to be deleted from the central NREGA system, and forced to drop out of the scheme. Reportedly, while job cards of 4.74% of the total workers were deleted in 2021-22, this number reached nearly 19% in 2022-23 and 7.72% in 2023-24. In less than two years, 7.6 crore job cards have been deleted from the system. 

But how does the system work? ABPS uses a worker’s aadhaar number as their financial address for where their wage payment goes. It needs three linkages to initiate and process the payment. This article from Economic and Political Weekly breaks it down best: 

First, a worker’s Aadhaar number must be seeded to her job card. Second, her Aadhaar must be seeded to her bank account via eKYC. Third, the worker’s Aadhaar must be linked to her bank’s Institutional Identification Number (IIN) in a “mapper” (or database) created by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), which acts as the union government’s payments clearing house. 
In the case of multiple accounts for the same person, the ABPS automatically sends money to the latest NPCI-mapped account. Only if all of these links are completed, will a worker’s wage payment be processed. With mandatory ABPS, even if a worker has worked under the MGNREGA, and if she is not eligible for ABPS, she cannot receive her wages.

The probabilities of failure at any point of this transaction is high, as is evidenced by the large fallout numbers. Even if workers go to banks to get their payments authenticated, field studies have shown that bank officials are often in a rush and under pressure to meet aadhaar seeding targets, leading them to making data entry errors and flouting consent norms. Reports show that NCPI’s mapper software frequently runs errors and misdirects payments, which are near impossible to resolve at the local level, because the nodal aadhaar body, Unique Identification Authority of India, has no dedicated grievance redress or social audit mechanisms for workers. Mandatory ABPS continues to have a grave impact on the NREGA framework. These frequent and pervasive payment failures have even discouraged workers from applying for work under the Act. 

MoRD introduced this scheme with an intention to eliminate duplicate workers’ accounts and reduce wage payment delays. To date, there has been little evidence in the form of public audits or annual reports from the Ministry to show that these targets have been met. Instead, reports of exclusion and widening social unsecurity are far and wide. When the delivery of a statutory right depends on whether an individual has linked their aadhaar information to their entitlement, the exclusion becomes grave and potentially unconstitutional. Section 3 of the Act guarantees every person who has done the work given to them under the Act wages at the wage rate for each day of work. Because of externalities outside the control of the workers, such as technical failures, their basic right under Section 3 is not being met.

Not only exclusion, but ABPS raises alarms for cyber fraud vulnerabilities among workers by virtue of aadhaar data being vulnerable to cloning and data leaks. The pitfalls of ABPS far outweigh the benefits (if any). So one still wonders why ABPS was brought in in 2023, and why, even after noting its tremendous failure, has it been made mandatory again in 2024.

NREGA Mobile Monitoring System

Demonstrations around ABPS are not the first time NREGA workers are demonstrating their dissatisfaction with digital government interventions. The NREGA Mobile Monitoring System (“NMMS”) App which was made mandatory for workers to mark their attendance on last year, raised its own league of problems – exacerbating digital inaccessibility and costing them their daily wages. 

MoRD introduced the NMMS app in May 2022 and made it mandatory to record attendance of NREGA workers from January 2023. The app has to be downloaded by “NREGA mates”, who will then capture photographs of workers at the worksite, tag it with time and geographical stamps twice a day – when they come to work, and once late afternoon, before they leave. Reportedly, workers are facing loss of wages due to the app malfunctioning and network connectivity gaps due to which workers are unable to mark their attendance. Further, the app is in English, and most rural workers have been unable to navigate it. 

In IFF’s conversation with NREGA workers sitting in protest at Jantar Mantar in March 2023 against the NMMS app, we found out that due to technical glitches and low levels of digital literacy, workers are not able to claim their rightful wages under the Act. In Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and other states, the mandatory imposition of the NMMS App has caused many problems in similar vein. NREGA Sangharsh Morcha’s statement notes that the poor design of the apps lends to workers being subjected to pay cuts and not receiving their compensation, which they are statutorily entitled to receive within 15 days. 

While offline uploading of NMMS attendance and photographs has been introduced, the facility is still not operational in many areas and states. The introduction of the app has created a wave of confusion among workers and NREGA mates at worksites, and led them to live in the fear of not getting attendance everyday due to any number of reasons. There is also added overhead, where a story reported that “Workers are finding this [app] absurd because they are being told to stay back in the heat after their work hours so mates can click their photos and upload them,” which may even disproportionately impact female workers who have responsibilities at home.

Worker surveillance

Going a step further, union and state governments have also been planning or piloting electronic surveillance of scheme workers through drones and facial recognition technologies. We worry that surveillance of scheme workers will raise several alarms for their rights to privacy, dignity, and free movement. 

In November 2023, MoRD revealed an SOP for monitoring NREGA workers using drone technology. Beyond existing worker monitoring mechanisms under NREGA, which include physical inspections, geo-tagging of sites, ombudsmen audits and feedback and grievance redress mechanisms, MoRD has set up a drone system for regular worker monitoring, “special inspections” and real-time status tracking of work, and assessing the quality of NREGA assets. Further, data collected by drones may be used by the ombudsmen for enquiring into complaints against the work/asset. How expansively and to what extent the drones are utilised for these purposes is left up to the states/UTs. 

Moreover, there are plans to launch facial recognition technology-based worker authentication at sites in 2024. Privacy-invasive surveillance tools cannot be deployed in the absence of specific legal safeguards, which India currently lacks. Facial recognition-based authentication is also a highly inaccurate tool, and is more likely to inaccurately identify on the basis of gender, age and complexion, yielding low accuracy rates for a diverse Indian cultural landscape. Given that large numbers of these workers come from caste and class marginalisations, exposing their faces to potential surveillance tools like FRT is a human rights concern and glaring cause for worry. Constant worksite surveillance further has implications on the rights of workers to freedom of movement, speech, to privacy, and to live their lives freely and with dignity (read our detailed constitutional analysis of FRTs here). The use of flawed and dangerous authentication systems such as facial recognition may be potentially fatal to the scheme and lead to more and more workers falling through the cracks.

Who did you ask?

What do all three of these interventions have in common? The lack of public consultations and stakeholder participation at every level of their integration with NREGA. If the policy-makers asked NREGA workers how digital tools could help them in realising their rights under the Act, the situation would be very different, and probably none of these interventions would exist. An integral aspect of deliberative democracy is bottom-up citizen engagement. NREGA is a law of the people, but the techno-solutionism being thrust into it does not seem to serve the interests of the people. Introducing technological interventions in the domain of social security and welfare delivery without addressing the digital divide and low rates of internet literacy in the country is a policy move that is bound to exclude and violate the fundamental rights of many.

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