Report on “The Slow Poisoning of NREGA: How a Rural Lifeline can be stifled by a Technocratic Government”

As the surge of COVID cases in the country continues for months now, the employment opportunities in rural India have been steadily decreasing; following the return of a large section of migrant workers, the unorganized sector faces a severe humanitarian crisis with stifled scopes livelihood adding to the existing food insecurity. Since the imposition of this unplanned nationwide lockdown, the rural population had to fall back on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) that guarantees 100 days of wage employment to every household that ensures their ‘right to work’. For the 8th Jayanta Dasgupta Memorial Lecture, Calcutta Research Group (CRG) organized a discussion of the factors leading to the stifling of the act in the past six years, especially using technocratic aids to subvert certain provisions. The speaker for the session was Rajendran Narayanan, Assistant Professor at Azim Premji University and the moderator was Nasreen Chowdhory, Vice president of CRG. The talk focused on the central problems concerning the NREGA act, like wage payment delays, under-funding and infrastructural designs on the bureaucratic levels which is failing to create adequate assets to boost the rural economy. Nirajana Chakraborty reports.

The lecture started by Rajendran briefly discussing the condition of rural employment and economy prior to the nationwide lockdown. Statistically, a 9% decline in rural consumption was noted from 2011-12 and 2017-18 in the consumption-expenditure survey, he also pointed to a 17% increase in the unemployment to rural men in these last six years. This decrease in both income and consumption in rural India has occurred for the first time in the last four decades, indicating directly towards the growing poverty in this cross-section of the population. For a country where 45 crore workers comprise the informal sector, and contribute to 50% of the GDP, (according to NCEUS released data) the right to livelihood itself is understood as a fundamental corollary to the right to life. NREGA as an act therefore has played a transformative role since 2005 in providing social protection and addressing deprivation along with strengthening local governance to a remarkable extent. However, May 2020 onwards a distinct spike in the number of household resorting to work in NREGA has been observed with an increase of 22%, following the return of migrant workers,  and data suggests more than 70 days of work has already been completed by the majority. This highlights the relevance and role of this Act in current times; the essential legal safeguards of NREGA, that therefore are fundamental to our understanding and implementation include the Act being demand-driven, so staggering unemployment allowances, delay compensations and social audits. Whereas 1.7% of the GDP is ideally supposed to be invested in NREGA, in reality only 0.3% is allocated to it in a financial year. Ranjendran moved on to discuss the four main concerns leading to the failure in proper execution of the Act- crisis in funds allocation, low wage rates, payment delays and the role of technology in this system.

The setting of labour budget through a participatory level of governance in each tier of the local rural government, from the Panchayat, Block  and then the District, to be added and corresponded with labour demands to set funds is the appropriate method, mentioned Rajendran. However, the Ne-FMS guidelines of 2016-17 did not allow work demand to be registered by the e-muster roll of the states, beyond a limit set by the Centre. This was revised after the PIL case 857, but transparency norms were circumvented when the joint secretary was found discourage generation of and thus registering of work demand through the means of a Whatsapp group ENCORE. This pointed to the misuse of technology as Whatsapp itself did not fall under the ambit of RTI and facilitated illegally to prevent generation of work demand. Allocation Level for budgets was the next key point discussed, the graphs released by government included the previous carry forwards or pending liabilities- pending wages and arrears comprised 16-20% of the total leading to mis-representation. It also did not take into account adjustments that inflation logically would require making, for a more realistic depiction of the increase in fund allocation. Rajendran notes 2019-20 a special case as this financial year rural distress was at its height due to the pandemic and although 70,000 crores are already exhausted 25% demands still are unmet. He termed this discrepancy between graphical representation and actuality the Rashomon effect in NREGA program.

File photo of NREGA workers, The Hindu

The second aspect closely examined was the nature of delays in payment, first on the level of individual states in generating pay orders and the second, transfer of the money from the Centre to the workers’ bank accounts. Rajendran elaborated on how the information system subverted legal rights by not calculating the delay compensations by not recording the stage two delays, basing the payment date on the pay order to be the actual date when the workers received the money, and this breach in the legal safeguard was very commonly observed upon data analysis. Over 98% of the delay compensation therefore was not being calculated due to administrative loopholes which blind reliance on the technical systems on part of both the workers and bureaucracy has enabled. However on the Government’s part this must be considered an instance of data suppression as evidence of the actual date of crediting is not easily accessible; the Ministry of Finance Memorandum in 2018 acknowledged this flaw and stated infrastructural bottle-necks and unavailability of funds as the two primary causes. In the 2018 Swaraj Abhiyan vs Union of India SC order, the Supreme Court strongly reprimanded the Central Government’s delay as a violation of legal rights. The NREGA wages were found to be lower than state minimum agricultural wages, furthermore, which directly violates Article 23, which addresses slavery, as well as the Wage Code Bill of 2019.

The next part of the lecture focused on the interaction of technology and democratic values by studying the MIS (Management Information System), a system that tries to create transparency, accountability and make administration more effective. The design of this platform however does not include worker’s oversight over their payment details and appear to be bureaucracy-centric rather than people-centric. The pertinent problem remains the lack of training, especially in rural areas, after technological systems replace the prior manual ones, giving rise to issues such as failures in biometric authentication. Rajendran mentioned a case where wages were rejected for a worker due to ‘inactive Aadhar’ and till date Rs 4285 worth of her wages remain unpaid- in the past 5 years a staggering total of 1200 crore days worth of wage payment are still pending. These technical problems happen due to a variety of reasons like incorrect bank account numbers or incorrect mapping of worker’s Aadhar numbers to their respective bank accounts; every year about 1 in every 23 transactions are rejected with no knowledge of their rectifying process available to workers. Further, the bank to people ratio is extremely low in these areas, adding to logistical inconvenience and offers a strong criticism of Techno-Utopianism in today’s society where the weakest link in the chain is seen to suffer the most. One example of this was the mass scale deletion of valid job cards when target-driven mappings were instructed to be put in place. Thus the lecture concluded by presenting how a program like NREGA which supports women, Dalits and Adivasis by providing them equal wages and opportunities as well as creates sustainable assets for the entire unorganized rural section at large, should be revived from decline due to extreme centralization, over-dependence on technocratic means and the clever use of software codes to violate legal safeguards and ultimately democratic values. From the interactive session certain interesting observations emerged of which the sidelining of mass attention from these fundamental issues was very prominent- a society shifting to economy ruled by technology can only reclaim power by investing more in public hearing and community auditing to improve social order, noted Rajendran. A robust mechanism for registering grievances that would help federations or unions of workers’ collective articulation and develop understanding, a wider space for consultation process to enhance the MIS and dispersion of positions of powers within the bureaucracy to women, Dalits, Adivasis and even Muslims or other minorities were among the few measures suggested. The session concluded by laying stress on the significance of making Data a public resource with wider accessibility, necessary for overall transparency and accountability that would catalyze in effect public understanding and involvement in NREGA.  

Nirajana Chakraborty is an undergrduate student of English at Jadavpur University. She can be reached at nirajanachakraborty@gmail.com.

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