This year’s Economic Survey lists several “improvements” in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act brought about since 2014-’15.

Mostly, these “improvements” are technological initiatives – greater convergence with other programmes, “geo-tagging” of MNREGA assets. They have not made a difference on two of the stated purposes – timely payment of wages to workers and the creation of useful assets.

Worryingly, ground reports suggest some of the initiatives lauded in the Economic Survey are, in fact, causing hardship to MNREGA workers, even costing them their wages.

One such initiative is getting nearly four crore workers on the “Aadhaar Payment Bridge”. The Ministry of Rural Development has been hammering states to increase the proportion of MNREGA wages paid through this method – electronically transferred to the worker’s Aadhaar-linked bank account. This requires the worker to have both a bank account and Aadhaar, a 12-digit biometric-based unique identity number that the Indian government has made mandatory for availing a host of services and welfare benefits. The worker’s Aadhaar is seeded to NREGASoft, the central database of the programme.

While payment not linked to Aadhaar requires details of the worker’s bank or post office account to be correctly entered in NREGASoft, Aadhaar-based payment adds an extra level of data processing – the unique identity number must be seeded to the database and linked to the bank account as well. Because errors creep into this two-step process – Aadhaar number is seeded to or correctly entered in only one of the systems – many workers are denied their wages.

The Economic Survey notes that last year 95% of MNREGA wages were “paid into beneficiary accounts”. Since having a bank account is necessary for Aadhaar-based payments – cash payments ended in 2008 – the rural development ministry has been aggressively pushing for the workers to replace their post office accounts with bank accounts. Under pressure to increase the share of MNREGA workers with bank accounts, some local functionaries are assigning fictitious bank account numbers to the workers. For instance, in Jharkhand’s Chhattarpur last year, block-level MNREGA functionaries entered random numbers as workers’ account numbers in the central database. Vikas Sahyog Kendra, a non-governmental organisation working in Chhattarpur area, complained to the state Rural Development Department about 51 such cases but, nearly a year later, the administration is yet to rectify the account numbers of some of these workers. The workers are yet to receive their wages.

Numbers dont tell the whole story

Another “improvement” is the verification of 68% of “active” job cards, that is, cards recording at least one day’s work in this or the three preceding financial years. While the merits of verifying job cards are unclear, the exercise is causing much disruption on the ground. In two panchayats alone, the cards of 80 workers were removed from the system without their knowledge.

Since their names do not appear on Muster Rolls, which are now electronically generated from the central database, the affected workers cannot be employed under the scheme. However, as work often starts before the Muster Roll reaches the worksite, the workers whose cards have been deleted do not get paid for their labour.

The Survey claims that because of these “improvements”, 48 lakh MNREGA schemes were completed in 2016-17 as against the annual average of 25-30 lakh schemes in the preceding 10 years. The source of these figures is NREGASoft. It is crucial to note that a project categorised as “complete” in the database need not necessarily be finished, or even exist on the ground.

The rural development ministry is setting MNREGA targets in a top-down manner, which is contrary to the spirit of the Act, and then pressurising states to meet them, as this circular shows. Under pressure, MNREGA officials are categorising as “completed” unfinished projects, or those where the workers have not been paid. Since funds for a project cannot be released once it is listed as “completed” in NREGASoft, many workers lose their wages.

MNREGA is increasingly being driven by technology. The shift from cash payments to bank or post office transfers, and then to Aadhaar-based payments was supposed to improve transparency and reduce leakages. While these objectives have been met to some extent, the inability of local functionaries and infrastructure to cope with the requirements of these complex technologies, along with the absence of an effective grievance redress system, is possibly leaving a very large number of workers unpaid every year.

Earlier, the problems of missing attendance details and wrong account numbers could be fixed at the local level. Now, it requires the intervention of block-level functionaries, sometimes even district or state officials, who are beyond the reach of most of the workers.

Absence of payment guarantee is an important reason for workers losing interest in MNREGA despite their need for employment. And this problem will likely fester until the central government rethinks its definition of “improvement”.

Ankita Aggarwal is an independent researcher. This piece is based on her experience working as a consultant with the National Institute of Rural Development. She is associated with the Right to Food Campaign and NREGA Sangharsh Morcha.