In Bhusarpada village in Maharashtra’s Palghar district, close to the Gujarat border, family after family is locking up their home and leaving in search of work. Vishnu Bambre, 43, is going to wait till the end of January. “If I don’t get work, I will also leave,” he said.

Like others, Bambre used to supplement his meagre farm income with earnings from the rural employment guarantee scheme. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act mandates that the government provide a minimum of 100 days of work annually to every rural household that demands it.

After harvesting his monsoon crop of rice and millets in October, Bambre would take up work under the scheme around his village, constructing trenches, roads, or irrigation channels. For each day Bambre worked, he would earn Rs 273.

But now, that safety net is in tatters.

A closed door in Bhusarpada village where several families have migrated for work. Credit: Scroll Staff.

Bambre, who has not found any work since November, has been dipping into his savings to buy rations. He is considering migrating to Vasai, 90 km away, for construction work if he does not find any other source of income. There has been no work under the employment guarantee scheme in Bhusarpada in the last two months.

Like Bambre, several others are in a similar situation, which has been compounded by the central government’s insistence that from January 1, wages will only be paid to beneficiaries whose bank accounts comply with the Aadhaar-linking requirements.

Meeting the requirements of the Aadhaar-based payment system was made mandatory on January 30 last year. After five extensions through the past year, the Centre on December 31 announced it will no longer extend the deadline.

In Bambre’s gram panchayat, rozgar sevak Santosh Dombre, who finds labour for registered workers under the programme, said at least 175 workers have not been able to comply with these requirements for reasons ranging from technical difficulties to paperwork-related errors. This has led to their names being struck off the workers’ list or wages being held back.

The scale of the problem is immense.

At the Jawhar taluka office, an official of the rural employment guarantee scheme shows a list of workers and a common error message regarding the linking process. Credit: Scroll Staff.

There are more than 25.1 crore workers registered under the rural employment guarantee act, shows government data. Of them, at least 8.2 crore are not eligible to receive wages as their Aadhaar numbers and bank accounts have not been linked.

They worry their names might soon disappear from the list of workers. After all, an additional 7.6 crore workers have been struck off the scheme’s list in the last 21 months for not complying with the Aadhaar-based payment system, according to LibTech India, a coalition that works to improve public service delivery. Chakradhar Buddha, a researcher with LibTech India, said the names of the workers were removed because they either could not link their Aadhaar, had issues with documentation, or different names on job cards and Aadhaar.

Among the country’s large states, the gap is the widest in Maharashtra where less than 30% of the workers have a bank account linked to Aadhaar, data provided by LibTech shows.

Of the 2.8 crore registered workers in the state, as many as 2 crore were not eligible to receive wages through the Aadhaar-based payment system as of January 13.

Buddha said this situation will lead to an immediate reduction in the demand for jobs. “If people are ineligible to receive payment, they will stop asking for work under the programme,” he said.

Nikhil Dey, an activist working for the rights of workers under the employment guarantee act, fears a “catastrophic” effect on those left out. It will push more people in urgent need of daily wages into poverty, he said.

With workers dropping out of the programme, the government will be able to further reduce its spending on it, say activists. Already, the budget for the rural employment guarantee scheme has shrunk. The amount released by the Centre has steadily decreased since the financial year 2020-’21 from Rs 1,09,810 crore to Rs 88,290 crore in 2022-’23. For 2023-’24, the amount released was Rs 70,419 crore until this January.

Removed from the muster roll

In Walvanda village of Maharashtra’s impoverished Palghar district, most residents are Warli Adivasis who rely on wages from the rural employment guarantee scheme when there is no farming work for at least six months. “Even though the wages are low, we get to stay with our family,” said Ravi Gimbhar, who gets about 70 days of work a year under the programme, enough for him to sustain through the lean months of the agricultural season. “If we migrate, we have to live on footpaths,” he added.

For the past 15 years, 35-year-old Raghunath Masra has worked under the rural employment guarantee scheme between December and May, preferring to build roads, contour trenches or undertake work assigned by the forest department in Walvanda, where he was born.

“Most people in this village rarely had to migrate out for work,” he said. “Even if we got work for 60 or 70 days, we managed to buy ration for six months.”

This December, however, when Masra went to the gram panchayat’s rozgar sevak for work, his name was missing from the muster roll, a schedule prepared to assign work to those registered in the programme. Masra had been de-registered.

Raghunath Masra has been left unemployed. Credit: Scroll Staff.

Keshav Vaijal, the rozgar sevak, told Scroll that names of 127 labourers, including Masra, were removed from the gram panchayat’s records of the employment guarantee scheme. Labourers usually start looking for work after October, which is when the rozgar sevak came to know that several names had been removed. “I have submitted their documents to link Aadhaar,” said Vaijal. “But the process is technical and banks have not been cooperating.”

Across Palghar district, data till January 13 from Libtech India showed that 4.4 lakh of seven lakh registered workers – nearly 62% – have not been able to link with the Aadhaar-based payment system. “It is not like we don’t want to link our Aadhaar,” said Masra. “We tried and were unable to.”

Jagdish Rinjad, 32, said his wages for 42 days of work have been pending since at least three to four months. “I went to the bank multiple times. There is some error,” he said. “The bank says my Aadhaar is linked, but the payment is not coming.” Rinjad will not receive wages until his account is linked with the Aadhaar-based payment system, said Vaijal.

Meanwhile, Rinjad is using his savings to buy ration for his wife and two children. And Masra has borrowed money to run his house.

Technical errors, few fixes

Technical glitches, like the one holding up Rinjad’s wages, are rampant. The stringent Aadhaar-linking requirements are to blame, admit block-level officials of the rural employment guarantee scheme.

This is because it is not merely a case of linking an Aadhaar number to a bank account.

First, a worker must ensure their 12-digit Aadhaar number is linked to their rural employment guarantee scheme job card as well as their bank account number. These details must be entered in the records of the scheme as well. Then, the worker’s bank must ensure that the account is mapped under the National Payments Corporation of India, or NPCI.

The NPCI mapper is a database of Aadhaar numbers used to route transactions to their destination banks. Banks are responsible for uploading Aadhaar numbers in the NPCI mapper.

“The problem is with NPCI mapping,” said Buddha, from LibTech India. Several local banks do not have all their accounts mapped by the National Payments Corporation of India.

“In rural branches in Odisha, we found that small banks don’t have the capacity to handle so many accounts of labourers at once,” Buddha said.

Adding to these troubles, local bank officials have a limited understanding of the difference between the Aadhaar-based payments and standard bank transfers where an account and Aadhaar have been linked. “The process of money transfer is different in both,” said Buddha.

In Aadhaar-based payments, the Aadhaar number is the reference point to transfer funds and the bank account number is not required. But in standard bank transfers, a bank account number is shared to transfer funds.

Rural employment guarantee scheme workers in Jawhar taluka of Palghar district. Credit: Scroll Staff.

Vijay Ram S, researcher at the Peoples’ Action For Employment Guarantee, said bank officials themselves are not clear on what solutions to offer to distressed workers who try to link their Aadhaar but fail.

Several workers, Ajay Bhoir, a local activist in Palghar, said, are being advised to create an account with India Post, which, by default, links all accounts with the National Payments Corporation of India.

But this will mean marginalised and poor workers will have to pay for the added cost of opening a new account. Bhoir said workers are being charged Rs 200 to open a new bank account with India Post. “The cost of travel to the bank is additional,” he said. It also means a labourer loses an entire day in paperwork and bank procedures.

In Palghar, at the Jawhar taluka office of the rural employment guarantee scheme, an official said they are encountering a whole different set of challenges.

“Several Aadhaar numbers of labourers have been linked with wrong bank accounts by the bank,” an official said, requesting anonymity. “The payment is going to other account holders.” The official said this was the case for several labourers in Mokhada taluka.

Suresh Mahale, in white, paid Rs 200 to open a bank account in India Post. Credit: Scroll Staff.

No option but to migrate

Mired in such a tangle, many workers are choosing the hard way out – migrate in search of work. In Tilonda village of Palghar, 400 out of 800 workers have not been able to comply with the Aadhaar linking norms. Some of their names have been deleted from muster rolls.

The process of registering their names afresh involves restarting the whole process of getting a job card, said rozgar sevak Padmakar Bhoye. “Many are unwilling to wait this long,” he said. “They have left the village for work.”

In Bhusarpada, residents have travelled as far as 100 kilometres to the metropolitan sprawls of Bhiwandi, Thane, Mumbai, Nashik in Maharashtra and Valsad in Gujarat in search of work.

Palghar accounts for one of Maharashtra’s worst malnutrition rates. The migration of entire families away from their homes will lead to newborns and children being further deprived of nutritional support provided by local anganwadis.

In Bhusarpada, Suresh Thadkar, 29, who plans to travel to Vasai to look for construction work, said he and his family will eke out a living on the footpaths for the next three months as summer approaches. “We wait for the contractor to come pick us up for work,” he told Scroll. “There is not enough money for rent, so my family lives on footpaths.”

Maini Tadpade, who sat by the road listening in on the discussion, quietly said, “If the government provides us work, no one has to leave the village.”

Others in the village said Aadhaar could end up being the final nail in the coffin of the rural employment guarantee scheme. The last time Bhusarpada received work under the scheme was in May 2023, said Thadkar. “With Aadhaar they are making sure those in need of work do not get any,” he said. “The programme will eventually die.”

At the local taluka office, the rural guarantee scheme officer agreed. “Funds are always an issue. Payments are delayed,” the officer said. “Now because of Aadhaar, many labourers will look for work elsewhere. It seems the government wants to end this programme.”

An elderly man walks in an emptying Bhusarpada village. Credit: Scroll Staff.