Guarantee Void in MGNREGA: The Crisis In Universal Rural Job Scheme

From being the lifeline of the country’s rural economy whenever it went into distress and subject of political claims and blame, the MGNREGA scheme is facing unusual times, leaving workers and activists worried 

MGNREGA workers’ protest against delay in payments, technical glitches and other issues at Jantar Mantar in Delhi last month. Photos: Suresh K. Pandey

It is 3 pm on a hot April day in the heart of Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. A group of sari-clad women is holding a demonstration to raise the matter of delay in payments, technical glitches leading to payment loss and no work being provided under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme. A social security scheme launched in 2005 by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, it promises to provide 100 days of guaranteed non-skilled employment to every rural household but has run into trouble as demand for work rises among the poor.

The women and the accompanying men are shouting a slogan in Kannada: Kalasakodi kolli kodi kodadidre kurchibidi, which means “Give us work; else give us your chair”. The slogan is obviously targeted at the ruling class. Another sound of slogan echoing in ears went like, “Jaat dharam sab baad de, bhuka pet bhorey de. Jaat dharma sab baad de, khali haate kaaj de.” This Bengali slogan means: “Stop your politics of caste and religion and give food to hungry stomachs. Stop your politics of caste and religion and give work to empty hands.” The protestors are demanding work under MGNREGA, requesting the government to withdraw the mandatory use of the National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS) app, through which supervisors take attendance of people working under the MGNREGA scheme and which is tied to the payment of wages.

Anita Soni, an activist crusading for the rights of MGNREGA workers in Barmer in Rajasthan, travelled all the way to Jantar Mantar at the Capital to participate in the protest. She says, “This is the protest to get the poor’s basic entitlements, like the right to work, right to get paid on time and other such issues. We will sit in until the government pays heed to our plea.”

The Missing Funds

The MGNREGA scheme, which has widely been cited by the World Bank as one of the largest social security programme in the world, completed 17 years in February 2023. The Economic Survey for 2022–23 states that “in FY23, as on 24 January 2023, 6.49 crore households demanded employment under MGNREGS, and 6.48 crore households were offered employment out of which 5.7 crore availed employment”. According to a World Bank estimate, in 2021, the scheme had covered 30.85% of rural households in the country.

The Ministry of Rural Development claims that in FY23, it generated over 3.31 crore person days of work under MGNREGA, in which Tamil Nadu demanded the highest share at around 73 lakh person days. The ministry data shows that the government disbursed money to the beneficiaries through direct benefit transfers with over 1.6 crore transactions in FY23 and the average number of households that were given work under this scheme was around 2.15 crore every month.

However, despite the year-on-year increase in fund allocation, the scheme faces problems like a financial crunch, disruption caused by massive technology intervention and a lack of awareness amongst rural masses. Sanjay Sahni, a MGNREGA activist from Bihar who has been closely tracking the scheme since its rollout, says, “Ever since the year began, we have participated in eight protests to get work for interested people. The battle does not end with getting work. After this, the battle for getting wages on time begins. There is a new battle for labourers at every stage. It is like taking part in 200 days of struggle for getting 100 days of work every year.”

Fund allocations made in the Union budgets for this scheme are turning out to be inadequate. The government allocated Rs 60,000 crore for the MGNREGA scheme for 2023–24, which is 18% lower than the previous year’s allocation Rs 73,000 crore. The FY23 budgetary allocation of Rs 73,000 crore is the same as what the government allocated for the scheme for FY22 budget even when it ran out of funds half-way through the year and another chunk of Rs 25,000 crore was allocated, taking the total allocation in the revised estimate for 2022–23 to Rs 98,000 crore.

When the government allocated Rs 73,000 crore for FY23, experts and grassroots activists pointed out that the scheme needed an allocation of over Rs 1 lakh crore every year to fulfil all the demand for work. However, according to the People’s Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG), an advocacy group that tracks the achievements and misses of the scheme, the MGNREGA scheme should have a minimum annual budget of Rs 2.64 lakh crore. It says that this is the minimum amount needed to provide legally guaranteed 100 days of work per household in the country estimated on the basis of demand pattern witnessed in last few years.

A report on the MGNREGA scheme by the standing committee on rural development noted in February 2022 that the poor’s dependence on the scheme was a last resort of solace in distressed times. Thus, it said, the budgetary allocation of a scheme of such magnitude should be done in a more pragmatic manner so that there was no dearth of funds in mid-year and the flow of funds for payment of wages, material share, etc. was maintained seamlessly.

Negative Net Balance

Also sitting on protest at Jantar Mantar are Mina Devi, Anju Devi, Nirasiya Devi, Pathiya Devi and Rekha Devi from Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district. They have one thing in common: they are all fighting for the payment of MGNREGA wages for the work they have done in the last one year.

The protesting workers dubbed a lack of funds and delay of payment as the real reasons crippling a well-intentioned scheme.

Like them, Shankar, a MGNREGA worker from Telangana, complains about not receiving his back wages of one-and-a-half years and blames the Centre for the “deliberate” delay. He says, “Earlier the government used to park the MGNREGA funds with states. Now, the Central government directly disburses money to beneficiaries. That is where the delay is happening. This is the strategy of the government to delay paying wages and demotivate workers seeking work under this scheme.” He adds that the government is deliberately flouting MGNREGA provisions and should face the charge of “the contempt of the Constitution”.

On April 20, the total negative net balance of all states stood at Rs 10,256.01 crore, and over 21 states had negative net balance, leading to delay in wages and material payments, which simply meant that states had no money under their MGNREGA accounts to pay for wages and material. Out of all the states in this list, Rajasthan had the maximum net negative balance of Rs 2,086.08 crore, followed by West Bengal at Rs 1,590.45 crore and Uttar Pradesh at Rs 1,510.49 crore.

During the protest, workers from various states complained about their wage dues. Workers from West Bengal shared the plight of not being paid for the last one-and-a-half years. Leela Devi, a senior citizen from Rajasthan, shed light on the delayed payment. “Payments delays are the big concerns, and the budget for the scheme is also being slashed every year. The protest here is to get the due share of the scheme which is being largely neglected by the government.”

Trap of Technology

“Technology is the brahmastra of this government. Wherever it spots a problem, it throws a technological solution, which ends in worsening the problem rather than solving it,” a young activist, who works with an NGO that is engaged in demanding accountability under the MGNREGA scheme, says. He adds that in this case, the use of technology, which is meant to smoothen the process, has made it more convoluted and beyond stakeholders’ comprehension.

The implementation of MGNREGA is increasingly getting dependent on technology. The shifts from cash payments to bank (or post office) accounts, then to electronic payments and now to Aadhaar-based payments were supposed to enhance transparency and reduce leakages in the system. 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 leaving lakhs of workers unpaid every year. Earlier, it was possible to fix problems, such as missing attendance details and wrong bank account numbers, at the local level, but now corrections require the intervention of block-level functionaries—and, in some cases, even district- or state-level functionaries—who are not easily accessible to most workers. The absence of a payment guarantee is an important reason why workers are losing interest in the MGNREGA scheme despite needing employment.

This phenomenon is very much visible in Chennai-based policy research group Dvara Research’s Social Exclusion Report, which was published in June 2022. It mentions that out of all the work seekers it surveyed, 41% faced application issues under the MGNREGA scheme, like non-responsiveness at the level of enrolment or non-acceptance of the application. The report notes that even when they raised the issues with the panchayat, block or district officer, only the issues of 45.2% respondents got resolved. The government, to bring in transparency and plug the leakage of funds under the scheme, has created the NMMS app, which makes geotagging of worksites and attendance marking through it mandatory where more than 20 workers are employed.

“There are some villages where the network connectivity is minimal. We get queries from the pradhan rozgar sewaks[—the panchayat official who allocates work under the scheme—]daily about their inability to mark attendance on the website,” Sima Devi from Jharkhand says.

The PAEG finds the government direction to make the use of the NMMS app mandatory as a “massive deterrent” to women empowerment. Its 2022 note on the scheme says, “Having a smartphone is now mandatory for mates to record attendance on the NMMS [app]. However, as you may appreciate, many women from poorer households—a large fraction of whom belong to SC/ST communities—do not have access to smartphones. Even among families that have smartphones, it is an accepted reality that women are the last ones to access them as per priority.” A mate supervises workers and creates written records of their performance.

The PAEG further adds that the app i s designed in English and all messages, errors and instructions are available only in English, making it even more “inaccessible” to rural women workers. This new mode of taking attendance is also leading to a wage loss for many workers whose attendance is not being registered for many reasons.

Nirmala Tammineni, an activist from Telangana, wants the NMMS app to be withdrawn immediately. She says that there is no infrastructure on the ground to take attendance through this app. “I know many villages in Telangana where network condition is pathetic, leading to the loss of wages for workers as they are unable to mark themselves present. There are blocks and mandals where people are compelled to use their personal Wi-Fi dongles for ensuring connectivity. The technology related to the MGNREGA scheme upgrades daily, which bounces off people and bureaucrats’ heads as there is no proportionate infrastructure in place.”

Rina, a mate whose responsibility is to mark the attendance of women workers at a worksite in Muzaffarpur on muster roll, does not have literacy as her strong point. She says, “I cannot even read or write and am unable to take attendance even in physical mode. Taking attendance on the NMMS app is next to impossible for me.” She takes the assistance of her 18-year-old daughter to mark attendance in the old format and does not have a smartphone to graduate to the NMMS app. If the government insists on the use of the NMMS app, she is likely to lose her job or make a heavy investment in buying a smartphone.

When MGNREGA was enacted, its success had many claimants. The Congress wanted to give credit to then Congress president and UPA chair Sonia Gandhi, while the left parties, which supported the government from outside, claimed that they were its architect. There were also many grassroots and other activists and academics who claimed a role in its conceptualisation. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi famously declared this scheme to be a proof of the Congress’ failure, saying, “I will ensure MGNREGA is never discontinued. It is proof of your failings. After so many years of being in power, all you were able to deliver is for a poor man to dig ditches a few days a month.” Later, he discovered virtue in the scheme and started showing it as his government’s contribution to alleviate rural distress.

Years later, the MGNREGA scheme lies in a state of half-met promises. The Modi government may want to leave its imprint on the popular scheme, but the ground reality stares us in the face. Anil Kumar, 38, from Gopalganj district in Bihar, sums up what is wrong with it today: “The scheme is the lifeline of the poor in rural India, but it is being run as if the government wants to tick all the boxes to somehow keep it alive.”