The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act gives rural families the right to 100 days of employment every year and payment within 15 days. But for many years now, the programme has been plagued by the lack of adequate work and delays in wages. Worse, the programme’s stagnant wage rate is lower than even the minimum wage in most states.

Barring the pandemic years, the rural employment guarantee programme continues to be grossly under-funded. The government’s apathy towards these workers is evident in the face of widespread rural distress and unemployment.

Adding to these concerns, the introduction of ill-suited technologies in the programme has increased violations of workers’ rights. This began under the second term of the previous Congress-led government, but has been exacerbated under the Modi government.

The implementation of the rural employment guarantee programme is linked to a real-time transaction-based software called NREGASoft. This has centralised the programme and reduced local accountability and transparency, effectively turning the scheme into a technological abyss for workers.

The mobile application-based attendance system is a recent example. Geotagged and time-stamped photographs of workers are to be taken twice a day at the worksite to check for fake attendance on the muster rolls. For workers, it means hanging around at the worksite till they are photographed. Poor internet connectivity and technical errors directly affect the online capture of attendance.

This system is unlikely to serve its intended purpose as it is impossible for officials to match hundreds of photos of workers taken at worksites with those on their job cards.

This is just one of the many technological interventions over the past decade that have undermined workers’ rights in the programme.

Until 2011-’12, the Centre used to transfer funds for the programme to state governments, which in turn sent the money to gram panchayats – the primary implementing agency. Paper muster rolls were issued based on workers’ demand for employment. Based on the week’s work, manual pay orders were issued by the panchayat and wages were transferred from the panchayat’s account to the workers’ post office or bank account. The details of these processes were then uploaded on the programme’s online management of information system or MIS.

In 2012, the Ministry of Rural Development introduced a real-time transaction-based electronic fund management system. It digitised the implementation processes of registering workers, recording the demand for work, allocation of work, issuing electronic muster rolls and wage orders, approving payment orders and so on.

This allowed officials to follow the status of the implementation processes in real-time on the management of information system.

Over the years, the funds have been centralised from the gram panchayat accounts to a single national account. Once the electronic payment order is approved at the local level, it is sanctioned by the rural development ministry for wages to be transferred to workers’ accounts.

It also became mandatory for workers to get their Aadhaar linked with their bank account and job card. Crores of workers who were unable to do so lost their right to work as they were struck off the programme’s database and labelled as ghost or fake workers.

The electronic fund management system and the centralisation of funds were aimed at improving the utilisation of money, checking corruption, reducing wage delays and enhancing accountability and transparency in the implementation of the programme. The rhetoric in favour of the technological interventions such as electronic muster rolls, GeoMGNREGA, mobile app-based attendance and so on, regardless of their time of introduction, has been similar.

The electronic fund management system has effectively given the rural development ministry undue control over the programme. The ministry can stop most implementation processes – disallowing wage and material payments, not allowing entry of demands for work of those who have already demanded 100 days of work (irrespective of the total number of days of work allocated), not allowing workers to demand work till their photographs are uploaded, restricting the number of schemes to be implemented in a panchayat and more.

It is becoming increasingly common for digital restrictions to be imposed in the programme, at times without a formal notification.

Now, the rural development ministry daily regulates the amount of funds to be sanctioned for wage payments in each state. Workers and the local administration often have no idea why wage payments suddenly stop for a few days or even weeks.

It appears that the ministry is using this technology to ration the insufficient budget. Rectifying a digital entry needs or reversing a process in NREGASoft can be done only at the level of the ministry or the state departments. Problems related to Aadhaar payments, such as misdirected and rejected payments, continue. Rectifying this is a long, drawn out process. Such technical glitches add to the uncertainty of getting wages on time.

The local administration is also at times unaware of how to solve these issues. Local officials conveniently shrug off their responsibility telling workers, “MIS nahi ho raha hai.” The management of information system is not working.

In the system that was in place before 2012, most problems could be fixed locally by the gram panchayat, block administration and banks or post office. Workers knew who was to be held accountable if their rights were violated. There were fewer uncertainties.

The rural employment guarantee scheme was conceptualised as a decentralised programme with strong local accountability measures. But over the years, the rural development ministry has become a puppet master that controls workers through digital checks.

The real-time management of information system makes various types of data publicly available online. But it is virtually impossible for workers to navigate this technological maze and demand accountability. Bureaucrats, with a false sense of knowing what is happening on the ground by merely looking at their computer screens, continue to thoughtlessly promote technology in the programme.

Corruption continues unabated and may have even increased as the nexus of contractors and the local administration has adapted to the technology while workers are being alienated from the programme. It is not surprising that the ministry’s tall claims of timely payment and work, based on the management of information system reports, are far from the ground reality.

It is high time that the use of technology in this scheme is thoroughly assessed. Most technological interventions appear to have been designed to aid the administrators rather than actually help workers claim their entitlements. It will be worthwhile to consider returning to the pre-2012 system of decentralised funds, delinking the implementation from the real-time software, restricting the use of the management of information system as a post-facto public reporting tool and increasing local measures of accountability and transparency.

The rural development ministry also needs to follow a basic rule – any technological intervention must be designed from the workers’ perspective after adequate discussion with them. The government must be open to feedback, rectification and roll-backs as and when required.

Even so, this is not the only programme where the government has introduced unsuitable technology. There is a growing rhetoric of Digital India and false claims about the “benefits of Aadhaar”. It is time for the government to start acknowledging that its technological interventions in these welfare programmes are not working.

Siraj Dutta is an activist based in Jharkhand.