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Tyranny of MGNREGA’s Monitoring System

The author would like to thank Jean Drèze and Siraj Dutta for their comments and suggestions.Ankita Aggarwal (aggarwal.ankita87@gmail.com) works on social policy.

The management information system of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 was hailed as a pioneering tool for enhancing transparency and accountability. However, it is now being used with impunity to centralise the programme and violate workers’ legal entitlements, causing frequent disruptions on the ground and opening new avenues for corruption in the programme.

When the central government introduced an online Management Information System (MIS) for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005, it was welcomed as an exemplary step towards proactive disclosure of information on the programme. The MIS is a social auditor’s dream come true; it contains details of workers registered with the programme, works sanctioned for implementation, payments made and a wealth of other information. The MIS also provides a variety of useful analyses, such as the participation of various groups in the workforce, the average number of days worked by households and the composition of works implemented in a given financial year. Data is available for all the states and union territories, disaggregated at the state, district, block and gram panchayat level.

At the time of introduction of the MIS, few would have imagined that it will eventually become a tool for centralisation of MGNREGA by the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD). The act itself envisaged its decentralised management with every state formulating and implementing its own employment guarantee “scheme.” The excessive control wielded over MGNREGA through the MIS is preventing states from executing the programme as per their requirements and capabilities, but more worryingly, is also causing gross violations of workers’ legal entitlements. This article discusses how this is happening based on observations in Jharkhand, but similar issues are likely to be occurring in other states as well.

Implementation through MIS

Over the past few years, the implementation of MGNREGA has been increasingly linked with the MIS. This has led to serious disruptions in places which lack computers, internet connectivity and elec­tricity or adequate numbers of computer operators (Aggarwal 2016). Periodic technical glitches in the MIS affect implementation of the programme across the country. Further, MIS reports are available for only 6–15 hours in a day.

The dependence of MGNREGA operations on the MIS started in 2011 with the replacement of “paper” Muster Rolls with “electronic Muster Rolls” (e-MRs). These e-MRs are electronically generated from the MIS and printed with the names of workers who are allotted work on the concerned scheme. Attendance is marked on the printed copy of the e-MR and then entered in the MIS. In places where gram panchayats lack digital infrastructure, e-MRs are generated from the block office (or even the district in some cases). Delays caused in taking the printed e-MRs from the block or the district headquarters to the village either force workers to wait or start work without the official attendance sheet at the worksite. In the absence of the printed e-MR, the worksite supervisor is forced to maintain kaccha (rough) records of attendance. A mistake made in copying the attendance from the unofficial records to the printed e-MR and then to the MIS can cost workers their wages. Further, as e-MRs do not allow adding names of workers by hand, they preclude workers from getting work by simply turning up at the worksite.

Earlier, MGNREGA funds used to be transferred to gram panchayat accounts and the elected representatives would plan the utilisation of the money. Discretion over MGNREGA funds was an important reason for the gram panchayats’ interest in the programme. In 2013, the MIS-based electronic Fund Management System (e-FMS) was introduced, in which funds are transferred directly from a central bank to the accounts of workers and material vendors. As gram panchayats have now lost much of the control over MGNREGA funds, their inclination to open and monitor works has also reduced signi­­ficantly (Dutta 2016). Some are of the opinion that the reduced attention paid to MGNREGA by gram panchayats has contributed to the crash in the scale of MGNREGA employment that began in 2011–12 and continued for the next two years.

It is hypothesised that the increased dependence of MGNREGA on the MIS and the reduction in local oversight by gram panchayats has, in fact, increased corruption in the past few years. For instance, it is now possible for block functionaries to siphon off money by generating e-MRs with names of fake workers and electronically authorising the corresponding wage payments (Times of India 2017). This may require collusion with workers to withdraw wages from their bank accounts, a task which is not difficult to accomplish. The same modus operandi can be used for making fraudulent material payments.

Monitoring through MIS

Having linked the implementation of MGNREGA to the MIS, administrators have started monitoring the performance of the programme on the basis of data made available through this online system. Soon enough, local functionaries found ways of bluffing their bosses in this method of review, at the cost of wasting time and/or violating workers’ entitlements. For instance, on being pulled up for not providing adequate employment, functionaries often generate e-MRs in the names of fake workers and later, enter them as “zero attendance” e-MRs in the MIS. To increase the rate of linking MGNREGA job cards with Aadhaar or bank accounts, some computer operators either delete job cards from the MIS or link them with fictitious Aadhaar/bank account numbers (Aggarwal 2015). Last year, when the ministry started pursuing states to increase the rate of completion of schemes, many local officials instructed their functionaries to close even those schemes in the MIS which were either physically incomplete or in which workers were yet to get their full wages (Wire 2016).

Centralising through MIS

Since 2016, the central government has started imposing statewise targets for the construction of certain types of assets and the progress on these schemes is closely monitored through the MIS (Aggarwal 2017). This violates the letter and spirit of the act which authorises gram panchayats to prepare the shelf of MGNREGA works after considering the recommendations of the gram sabha and ward sabhas.

Centralisation through the MIS also inhibits many local modifications and innovations in the implementation of the programme. For instance, all the states have to use a uniform format of e-MR which does not allot space for recording additional information or printing state-specific messages. States are also forced to continue with the language that was used by them for digitising MGNREGA records at the time of introduction of the MIS. As a result, several states use electronic job cards, e-MRs, electronic measurement books, wage-lists, fund transfer orders (FTOs), etc, generated in English, making these documents illegible to a large proportion of workers and gram panchayat members.

The MIS is also used for pushing initiatives considered important by the MoRD, many of which prove to be counterproductive. A recent example is the insistence on verification of electronic job cards available on the MIS. As per a news report, names of 3.1 crore workers have been deleted from their electronic job cards (Chatterji 2017). If Jharkhand’s experience is anything to go by, most such workers are in need of MGNREGA work and have not even been informed that they are no longer eligible to work in the programme. Another example is the much touted “geotagging” of MGNREGA assets, which involves capturing the geographical coordinates and photographs of assets to be then published on the MIS (Gulati and Sharma 2017). The time spent on activities such as verifying job cards or geotagging completed schemes is usually at the cost of other more important tasks, such as opening schemes on time, providing technical supervision to works and ensuring payment of wages without delays.

Violating MGNREGA

Over the past year or so, the MoRD has manipulated the MIS several times to ration the inadequate funds budgeted for the programme (Wire 2017). In the summer of 2016, when the demand for MGNREGA work soared due to a severe drought affecting a third of the country, MoRD tweaked the MIS to preclude payment to vendors for supplying material for the construction of MGNREGA assets. In December 2016, the ministry prevented allocation of work to households whose photographs had not been uploaded on their electronic job cards. It also prevented the MIS from recording more than a hundred days of demand for work for a household. This move, based on the flawed assumption that a demand for hundred days of employment always results in work done for an equivalent number of days also violates the act which allows households to demand work for as many days as they wish. In February 2017, the ministry took away the option of reopening schemes in the MIS from the state-level MIS login. As discussed above, schemes are often required to be reopened in the MIS to complete wage or material payments in them.

In case workers do not receive their wages within 15 days of doing work, they are entitled to compensation at the rate of 0.05% of the payable wages, per day of the delay. Workers are now to be paid compensation amounts as calculated automatically by the MIS according to the time lag between the last date of the e-MR and the date on which the corresponding FTO is authorised. The duration of delay calculated by this method is incomplete as it does not include the number of days lapsed between the signing of the FTO and crediting of wages in workers’ accounts (Narayanan and Dhorajiwala 2017). This is a serious concern as delays are routine in the case of post office payments and also, in case of technical glitches in the banking system or the Public Financial Management System (PFMS), an online application of the central government through which FTOs are now routed. For instance, almost no FTO was processed by the PFMS across the country from 23 March 2017 till at least the time of writing this ­article (12 April 2017). Furthermore, MoRD has provided the nodal block-level MGNREGA functionary the discretion to “reject” the automatically calculated compensation in the MIS. As one would expect, this authority is being widely misused; in 2016–17, less than 5% of the automatically calculated compensation was approved.

Need for Judicious Use of MIS

The subversion of MGNREGA caused by the MIS due to its reliance on digital infrastructure, its ability to excessively centralise the programme and provide new methods for corruption, need not be fait accompli. There is much that can be gained by the judicious use of MIS in MGNREGA. This online repository of data is currently beyond the reach of those for whom it matters the most—MGNREGA workers. MoRD has done little to enable workers access to the information available on the MIS. Initiatives such as user-friendly manuals on using the MIS, smartphone applications for pulling out information such as schemes sanctioned in a gram panchayat, details of work done on job cards, status of workers’ wage payments, etc, and active helplines for enabling people without access to internet to obtain such information will go a long way in helping workers demand accountability. The MIS can, in fact, be used for strengthening decentralised implementation of MGNREGA. A good example is the modification of MIS to transfer funds to gram panchayats and enabling elected representatives to, in turn, credit payments electronically into the accounts of workers and vendors. It must be remembered that the MIS is for MGNREGA, and not the other way around.

References

Aggarwal, Ankita (2015): “The Slow Destruction of NREGA: Evidence from Jharkhand,” India Together, 16 March, http://www.indiatogether.org/destruction-of-nrega-with-evidence-from-jha....

— (2016): “The MGNREGA Crisis: Insights from Jharkhand,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 52, No 22, pp 38–43.

— (2017): “How the Centre and State Governments Bypassed Villager’s Plans for MGNREGA to Push Their Own Targets,” Scroll.in, 19 February, https://scroll.in/article/828590/how-the-centre-and-state-governments-by....

Chatterji, Saubhadra (2017): “Fund Leakage: Nearly a Crore Fake ‘Job Cards’ Struck Off from MGNREGA Scheme,” Hindustan Times, 9 April, http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/fund-leakage-nearly-a-crore-fak....

Dutta, Siraj (2016): “Excessive Centralisation by Modi Government Is Undermining MGNREGA,” Wire, 22 November, https://thewire.in/81623/centralisation-mnrega-undermining/.

Gulati, Ashok and Sameedh Sharma (2017): Can MGNREGA Move from Being a ‘Living Monument of UPA’s Failure’ to a Development Scheme,” Economic Times, 24 February, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/policy/can-mgnrega-move....

Narayanan, Rajendran and Sakina Dhorajiwala (2017): “A Guarantee, An Illusion: MGNREGA Provisions on Right to Work and Timely Wages Are Being Violated,” Indian Express, 14 February, http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/mgnrega-provisions-on-r....

Times of India (2017): “How Tech Is Undoing NREGA in Jharkhand,” 16 February, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/how-tech-is-undoing-nrega-in-jh....

Wire (2016): “Claims of Jharkhand’s Success in NREGS Implementation Are Far from Reality,” 25 August, https://thewire.in/61634/jharkhand-claims-success-nregs-implementation-r....

— (2017): “Centre Using Online Transparency Mechanism to Undercut MGNREGA, Say Activists,” 23 March, https://thewire.in/118295/mnrega-mis-transparency-undercut/.

Updated On : 21st Sep, 2017

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