Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot discontinue India’s popular rural job guarantee, the country’s most significant antipoverty program. He’s taken to underfunding and “appifying” it instead.

A rural village farmer transports the harvest from ripened paddies in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, December 29, 2021. (STR / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Signed into law in 2005, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (or NREGA, for short) was no ordinary legislation but a political breakthrough. The act guaranteed one hundred days a year of employment to workers in rural India. According to recent estimates, over 150 million workers are employed through the welfare scheme, making it the largest job guarantee in the world.

Its future, however, has never been more uncertain.

On January 30, the Rural Development Ministry declared that all NREGA wage payments would have be paid through a new digital app, and that this system would become compulsory just two days after the announcement. This meant that workers’ national identity cards would have to be used to both mark attendance and transfer wages. This rollout, plagued by technical issues, was a disaster. And workers have paid the price.

Since January, rural workers have staged protests urging the Indian government to respond to their pleas regarding wages that have gone unpaid for months, the absence of work despite demand, and the contentious “appification” and digitization of the employment process.

India’s Largest Anti-Poverty Program Comes Under Attack

The NREGA program aims to enhance livelihood security in rural areas by providing nearby wage employment to at least one member of every household. Women are guaranteed one-third of the jobs made available under NREGA, and since less than half of Indian women have access to transportation for work, the scheme has been especially significant for them. Women now make up a majority of the NREGA workforce.

NREGA was passed in 2005 under the United Progressive Alliance government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and presented as “the largest and most ambitious social security and public works program in the world.” The program’s lofty ambitions, however, have long been hampered by issues of underfunding and mismanagement. These issues have now come to a head under a hostile government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, that seems to be doing everything in its power to undermine the program.

Its implementation of an app-based attendance system has further complicated an already difficult process for securing jobs under the employment scheme. NREGA workers across India’s largest anti-poverty program have taken up protest against this cynical attempt at digitalization, shrinking budgetary allocations to administer the program, and an overall neglect of the welfare of India’s massive rural population.

Workers Bear the Brunt of a Digital Push

Modi’s administration introduced the National Mobile Monitoring System to record workers’ attendance through a mobile application under a pilot program in 2021. Its use, however, was only made mandatory beginning January this year, though protesters have succeeded in pushing back the full conversion to the new payment system several times, most recently from July 1 to August 31, which was announced this week. Workers decry the digitization of NREGA as a tactic to exclude them under the cover of supposedly bringing transparency and accountability to the benefits program.

The purpose of the application is to log the regular attendance of day laborers working under the job guarantee. Previously, paper rolls were used by supervisors to record attendance. The application, on the other hand, requires workers to upload two time-stamped and geotagged photographs of themselves on site on a given workday.

This isn’t just an imposition of unprecedented surveillance and an attack on rural workers’ dignity. It also presents formidable challenges for them to participate in the program and receive payment for their work at all.

India’s vast digital divide means many workers — especially rural ones — do not have access to smartphones, reliable electricity, or even mobile data networks. A 2022 Oxfam study found that 70 percent of the population had poor or no connectivity to digital services, only 31 percent of Indian women owned phones, and that only 31 percent of rural Indians used the internet.

For Ram Beti, an NREGA worker from India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, the attendance application presents difficulties in navigating an already-complex system. “The app-based attendance system means that sometimes we may be able to get our attendance marked and get paid for our work,” she says. “But sometimes, even after working for twelve days, the attendance is recorded only for five days, given the technical snags and the lack of internet and sometimes even electricity.”

Ashish, an activist with the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha (NSM), a collective of unions, organizations, and individuals demanding public action on NREGA, told Jacobin how the complexity of the digital payments system excludes the very people the jobs guarantee is meant to benefit. “There is no signal in the villages, use of offline mode is difficult, and one has to have a smartphone,” he explained. “If someone else with a phone takes their attendance, they are dependent on that person. They are dependent on someone who is often not a worker himself.”

Experts argue that the newer changes are not oriented toward the benefit of the workers but instead burden them further.

Proving attendance is just the first step; receiving payment for work is another. Economist Jean Drèze argues that the new payment disbursement system is a disaster:

Not only must the worker’s Job Card and bank account be seeded with Aadhaar, the account must also be connected to the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) mapper, a process known as “mapping”. If a worker has several bank accounts, as often happens, the ABPS [Aadhaar Payment Bridge System] sends wages to her latest-mapped bank account. If this sounds a little complicated, think of how it sounds to an average NREGA worker.

Welfare’s Death by a Thousand Cuts

Underneath the botched apps and digital attendance systems, the real issue is the slashing of the NREGA’s budgetary allocations and delays in the release of funds, leading to a complete dismantling of welfare-based support for rural workers.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has long mocked the program, stating, in his first year in office, that all the previous government was “able to deliver for the poor is to dig ditches a few days every month.” Unable to officially discontinue the popular program, however, Modi has instead resorted to defunding it and making it impossible to administer.

Experts in India point out that the program is dying a slow death, with technical issues alienating workers and massive budget cuts hampering the job guarantee’s full implementation. Earlier this year, NSM activists and academics lashed out against the NREGA cuts: “Instead of adequately funding the programme, the Union government has repeatedly resorted to needless technical tinkering.”

The central government has slashed the budget for the scheme by 33 percent, at Rs 60,000 crore (ten thousand rupees) in the current financial year, despite the fact that the revised budget estimate for FY’23 was at Rs 89,400 crore, up from the estimate of Rs 73,000 crore.

To economists like Prabhat Patnaik, the approach of the Modi government points toward a departure from the rights-based approach to welfarism to an outlook focused on something like charity, dependent on the government’s budget whims.

“Reneging on the rights-based approach, the government is creating these arbitrary conditions,” he says. “Modi’s welfarism is actually a withdrawal from the model of welfare that has prevailed in India, as the benefits from the government can now stop at any point. This is fundamentally different from the permanent solutions sought for workers.”

Fighting Back

Shortly after the late January announcement of the digitized system, the volume of NREGA wage payments took a nosedive, declining by more than 50 percent in February. Given the size of NREGA, this amounts to wage theft on an absolutely massive scale — and on the part of the Indian state.

Worker wages amounting to thousands of crores are now pending disbursement across several states, with an especially severe crisis in the state of West Bengal, where workers have been consistently agitating for years to be paid for their labor.

Activists have called the failure to pay and recent program reforms a systematic dismantling of NREGA. A vibrant workers’ movement in defense of NREGA has taken form, even in the face of government repression. NREGA workers had planned to originally stage protests for one hundred days in Delhi, but had to leave the protest site after sixty days following detentions and harassment.

Modi’s policies have been defeated by rural workers before, most memorably his proposed agricultural reforms. Farmworkers’ sustained mass protests, lasting one year and four months, forced Modi to abandon his plans to deregulate the industry. Despite facing brutal repression, with over five hundred fatalities registered during the protest movement, workers won.

“The law guaranteeing work to rural workers took a long battle and is deeply rooted in the history of struggle by unions and workers,” says Meera Sanghamitra of the NSM. “It must be defended.”

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