From Budget Cut to Deletion of Job Cards, How MGNREGA is Dying a Slow Death

Though the allocation of funds for the MGNREGA has been increased in the interim budget for 2024-25, it's the same as the revised estimates for the ongoing financial year.
From Budget Cut to Deletion of Job Cards, How MGNREGA is Dying a Slow Death

New Delhi: On January 26, when India celebrated its 75th Republic Day, Devi was busy cooking rice on an earthen stove in the courtyard of his kutcha house at Dasdih village in Jharkhand’s Latehar district — nearly 145 kilometres from the state capital of Ranchi.

Once it was ready, her grandchildren had it with ‘maand’ (rice water) and salt. Most of the male members of her family of 14 work in Goa. She lives in the village with her daughters-in-law and their children. 

Despite the guarantee of employment in their village itself under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), they are not getting any work there. 

Their MGNREGA job cards have been rejected, and their names have been deleted from the Management Information System (MIS). Why did it happen? They have not even been told the reason behind it. The job cards of Devi and her husband Nandkishore Singh have also been canceled.

As per a study of the MGNREGA MIS conducted by the Jharkhand-based NREGA Sangharsh Manch, there are two reasons behind the rejection of the job cards — “duplicate applicants” and “duplicate job cards”. Here, duplicate could mean that one person has two job cards.

Earlier, when they used to get 10-12 day work a month under the MNREGA, her husband lived in the village. Both husband and wife used to work to support the household expenses. 

“We have to survive on sanwa rice (barnyard millet), madua or ragi (finger millet) and kodo millets,” she told The Mooknayak. 

Rice, pulses, eggs and chicken are a luxury for Devi and her co-villagers as they cannot afford it frequently in absence of a source of income. 

“We no longer get work under the MGNREGA. Since there is drought in the area, even saags (leafy greens) are sold in the market at inflated prices. Where did we get money from to buy it?” she asks, narrating her ordeal.

They have AADHAAR card, bank account and all the necessary documents. “Still, our names were deleted. I have not got any work for almost two years. We will apply for a job card again. See what happens,” she said.

Other residents of the village too have the same complaint — their mandatory job card, which has their details and is necessary to apply online for work, have been canceled. All of them have essential documents such as AADHAAR cards, bank accounts, etc.

Over 5.48 crore job cards under the MGNREGA were deleted in 2022-23 — an unprecedented rise of 267% from the previous financial year.

Responding to a query Dileshwar Kamait — a Janata Dal (United) or JD(U) MP from Bihar, Minister of State for Rural Development Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti told the Parliament in December last year that 70,673 job cards were deleted in 2022-23 as against 23,528 the previous year.

West Bengal has a staggering number at 83,43,469, which is 5,203% more than 2021-22 when 1,57,309 job cards were deleted. With 1,14,333 job cards being deleted in 2022-23 against 50,817 in 2021-22, Odisha came second.

In Bihar, the number stood at 83,30,633 — which is 315.84% more if compared with the previous fiscal.

Uttar Pradesh witnessed 78,78,403 deletion of job cards — 608% more than the last financial year, while Andhra Pradesh recorded 77,96,889 deletions.

In Madhya Pradesh, 27,859 “fake” job cards were deleted in the last fiscal and 95,209 in 2021-22. Rajasthan saw a deletion of 45,646 fake job cards in 2022-23 as against 14,782 in 2021-22.

She added that in total 5,48,27,121 job cards were deleted in 2023. In 2022-21, job cards involving 1,49,31,801 workers were deleted. The minister cited fake, incorrect and duplicate jobs cards, workers unwilling to work, family shifting from a gram panchayat permanently and single-person job card where the person has died as the reasons behind the deletions.

However, activists rubbish the reasons. “Our field experience suggests that the reasons cited have been very randomly selected, and it cannot necessarily be true,” Apurva Gupta of the NREGA Sangharsh Manch told The Mooknayak.

During the survey, she said, 77% of the 237 respondents from Jharkhand’s Latehar, Lohardaga, Gadhwa and West Singhbhum did not know that their job cards had been canceled. Only 17% of the beneficiaries knew about the same, she added.

She said when the respondents were asked whether any Panchayat worker had taken their consent before removing the name or canceling their job cards, over 76% of them replied in no. Of all who were surveyed, Gupta said, 73% (173) laborers confirmed that they are staying at their registered address, eight percent of them said they are living in other cities to earn livelihood and six percent of the laborers have died.

Doubting the statistics presented by the minister in the Lok Sabha (lower house Parliament), development economist Jean Dreze said the government is “pulling the wool over the eyes” of people by citing such a data — which has “no credibility”.   

He accused the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre of “endangering” MGNREGA. 

“The central government is attacking the MGNREGA with ‘trishul’ (trident). Just as the trident has three sharp and pointed tops, this government is endangering the employment guarantee scheme in three ways,” he told The Mooknayak, elaborating that the government first reduced its budget to Rs 60,000 crores, then made marking of attendance of the workers on a digital app mandatory and removed such a large number of labourers from the record. He said the digital app — designed to mark the attendance — often does not work in rural areas. “This causes delays in workers getting their wages,” he said.

AADHAAR has been made mandatory for paying wages, he said, adding that it has a very complex payment-making. “Earlier, wages were paid through bank accounts; but the new system is proving a complicated one for the workers and their wage payments are getting delayed,” he added.

In a written reply in the Lok Sabha on February 7 last year, the Minister of State, Jyoti, had said ‘Saathis’ are being encouraged to take up the responsibility of recording the attendance of workers through the NREGA Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS app), and her ministry is providing all required support in the exercise.

When asked the government’s acknowledgement that there are teething problems in the new system and it would be rectified soon, Drez said, “The government brings a new system every time. Earlier, wages were paid against cash. It followed payments through post offices. Then came eFMS and NeFMS. Additionally, a cast-based payment system alo began two years ago. Separate payments were given to Scheduled castes and tribes. And now, the government is talking about introducing a face recognition system.”

In this way, he said, the government brings in a new payment system and says that it will improve it. “In the name of improving the system, a new system is brought in every time. This has been happening for the last 12 years,” he said. The economist-activist also accused Opposition parties of not taking interest and aggressively raising the issue.

“We met several Opposition leaders at several occasions, briefed them about issues and appealed to them for help. Though they listened to us and assured us that they would raise the issue, yet they never aggressively took it up,” he said.

While activists allege that the government has reduced the MGNREGA budget, the government rejects the allegation.

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in an interview, “MGNREGA is a demand-based scheme. It is possible to increase the budget allocation on the basis of demand. If more demand comes from the state, we can make a supplementary demand from the Parliament.”

From the revised estimate of budget allocation at Rs 89,400 crore towards MGNREGA in 2022-23, it saw a steep cut of 33% to Rs 60,000 crore for 2023-24. 

However, a year after the allocation was cut to the lowest in four years, it has been increased this time to Rs 86,000 crore (a hike of nearly 43.33%) in her interim budget for 2024-25.

Dreze said it is the same as the revised estimates for the ongoing financial year (2023-24). “So, the net gain for the rural employment scheme could be zero or even negative,” he added.

MGNREGA as a Technological Laboratory

MGNREGA payments are done in two ways: account-based payment (which are NEFT bank transfers) and AADHAAR-Based payment (also called ABPS). The latter uses AADHAAR number as the workers’ financial address.

The ABPS has at least four steps — AADHAAR must be seeded to a worker’s job card, its seeding with his or her bank account, mapping the beneficiary’s AADHAAR and the bank’s institutional identification number with the National Payment Corporation of India’s database.

Money is then sent to an AADHAAR number and gets credited to the last AADHAAR-linked account of the worker.

The Ministry of Rural Development has given varying and shifting justifications for why ABPS payments are “better” than account-based payments. Broadly, these can be classified into two justifications — increased efficiency and savings (which includes removing of “fake” workers, timely payment of wages and decreasing rejection in wage payments); and increased transparency (which has not yet been explained as to what this transparency means and how to measure and improve it).

NREGA Sangharsh Manch’s Gupta said their research on the mode of payment reveals that even after the implementation of the ABPS, 63 percent of wages payments were delayed beyond the mandated seven days by the Central government and 42% beyond 15 days.

“Thirty-six percent of transactions were processed in seven days for account payments and 39% for the ABPS. It means, there is no statistically significant difference in the time taken to process payments between the two modes,” she said.

Asked about the MoRD’s claim that the ABPS helps reduce rejections, she said they analysed rejected payments. “Here as well, we found no statistically significant difference. Against 2.85% of account payments that were rejected, 2.1% of ABPS payments faced rejections,” she said.

She said there is also significant anecdotal evidence that suggests that ABPS payments lead to a host of challenges for workers — from payments diverted to some other bank account of the same worker or misdirected payments to different account holders due to AADHAAR-linking errors to mass job card deletions because of no-compliance of ABPS requirements.

In short, technology can only be a tool for implementation and monitoring of policies, and not the sole engine. Introducing technical changes rashly with no local feedback is costly and more so for the most vulnerable.

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