Use of app to record ‘violation’ of workers’ rights, MGNREGA presence law
The Popular Action for the Guarantee of Employment (PAEG) opposes the proposal of the Ministry of Rural Development May 13 order the cessation of manual presence on Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) program worksites with more than 20 workers and its replacement by the National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS) application.
Calling the decision a violation of the law that will be regressive compared to gains made in efforts to increase transparency on construction sites and exclude women, the PAEG – a group of academics and activists who are trying to ensure a better implementation of NREGA through research, advocacy and public intervention – said the move is fraught with technical pitfalls.
PAEG Joint Secretary Vijay Ram S said the organization is “disturbed that instead of ensuring time-bound action on the findings of social audits (as evidenced by the fact that measures have not been taken in most cases stemming from the social audits carried out in the last financial year), the ministry resorts to the use of “apps” in the name of “strengthening citizen surveillance”.
In a letter to Ministry Secretary NN Sinha, PAEG wrote that “the failure to provide physical call lists at NREGA worksites, which record work performed per day in addition to daily attendance, is a direct violation of the law”.
According to Section 15, Schedule I of the Act, muster rolls must be maintained on site by marking the presence of a person authorized under the program daily, the letter states.
Other signatories to the letter include Jayati Ghosh, a professor and member of the United Nations Advisory Council on Multiculturalism; Amit Basole, Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Employment, Azim Premji University; Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, Founder, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sagathan; Annie Raja, General Secretary, National Federation of Indian Women; agricultural activist Nachiket Udupa; Anindita Adhikari and Rakshita Swamy, leaders of the Social Accountability Forum for Action and Research; and Rajendran Narayanan, founder of LibTech India.
Under Article 15, Schedule I, the letter states that when work is in progress, workers engaged in that work may select from among themselves at least five workers on a weekly rotation basis to verify and certify all invoices or supporting documents from their place of work. , at least once a week. Everyone must have access to muster lists on site upon request every day during all working hours.
Article 22, Annex II, states: “For the purpose of transparency on the construction site, the measurement record of each work must be ensured and the details of the workers must be available for public inspection.”
The NMMS app specifies that it is mandatory for workers to upload two timestamped photos within a predetermined time window designed by the app. “This is in direct violation of Section 3 of the Act, which clearly states that workers are entitled to wages under the MGNREGA on the basis of the work performed by them, i.e. piecework . By forcing workers to stay for a specified number of hours, regardless of when they finish their work, the app imposes an hourly basis for the payment of wages,” the letter states.
Arguing that there is no way for a companion to check if the presence entered by him is correct, the PAEG wrote that he can make the entries “again and again” but will not see what was finally downloaded. because of which they cannot show it to the workers.
The order “fundamentally undermines” the ministry’s repeated efforts to encourage female workers in rural areas to be trained and appointed to MNREGA. Calling the order a “massive deterrent” to female empowerment, PAEG wrote: “Having a smartphone is now mandatory for companions to log attendance at NMMS. However, as you can see, many women from the poorest households – many of whom belong to SC/ST communities – do not have access to smartphones. Even among families that have smartphones, it’s an accepted reality that women are the last to access them first.
Moreover, the application is designed in English. All messages, errors and instructions are only available in English, which makes them even more “inaccessible” to rural women workers.
“Given that the NMMS already faced outages for almost 10 days in May, it is hardly reliable.” Workers at MNREGA sites cannot register their attendance and are asked to return home due to server fault, which is a violation of their rights, the signatories said. “In Dungarpur, for example, a case was reported where workers worked at an MGNREGA site for 13 days, but attendance recorded on the NMMS app was only 5 days. Since the affected workers were part of a union, they alerted the authorities to the discrepancy before the affected FTO was dealt with, and the issue was rectified after an eventful petition to the collector and CEO.
Furthermore, the errors listed on the application for technical failure are in “incomprehensible language that an ordinary person, let alone a worker and companion of MNREGA, cannot understand”. For example, one of the frequent errors that appear on the application reads: “java.net.SocketTimeoutException: timeout”. “These mistakes don’t even make sense to people who understand English.”
Since the application is tied to a SIM card, the companion cannot log in from another phone with their companion ID. “This means that for some reason, if the companion has issues with their phone, such as damaged or dead phone, etc., the companion cannot register attendance on the day.”
We are therefore troubled that instead of ensuring time-limited action on the findings of social audits (as evidenced by the fact that action has not been taken in most cases stemming from social audits conducted in the last fiscal year), the ministry is resorting to the use of “apps” in the name of “strengthening citizen oversight”.
“Furthermore, the MNREGA MIS remains inaccessible to MGNREGA workers and collectives 24/7, as evidenced by frequent instances where MIS reports are not viewable due to server errors. Due to repeated technical issues in various aspects of MGNREGA’s implementation, we are concerned that disproportionate national resources are being spent on fixing technical bugs at the expense of workers’ rights,” the letter reads.
In light of the concerns mentioned in the letter, the PAEG asked the ministry to “immediately withdraw the use of the NMMS application. This is necessary to be in legal compliance with the provisions of the law.”