Suresh, 40, a single father of three, and a resident of Uttar Pradesh's Sitapur took a bus to Delhi on 22 March.
Similarly, Vikas Kumar, 25, a resident of Chhapki village in Bihar's Begusarai too had boarded a train to Delhi on 12 February.
Deepali Sarkar, 35, had also left behind her disabled husband at home in West Bengal's Purulia to come to Delhi in February.
Suresh, Vikas and Deepali don't know each other and yet they made the journey to Delhi for the same cause – to protest against the National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS) app that all those who work as MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) workers have to use to mark their attendance.
Many workers that The Quint has spoken to since February have alleged that due to weak network in their villages, they are unable to mark themselves present. This translates into many not getting their daily wages as they get marked absent on the app.
Since 13 February, MGNREGA workers from UP, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh have been sitting on a dharna in batches at Delhi's Jantar Mantar in a bid to be heard by anyone who cares, the Centre, and their state governments.
“The situation is so dire that I left my three children back in the village with my relatives to come here to fight for my dues. I have not received payment for 14 days till March this year. Why? Because my attendance did not get uploaded on the app even when I tried,” lamented Suresh.
For each day's work as a MGNREGA worker, he is supposed to get Rs 228. He has a debt of Rs 7,000 to repay.
Every few weeks, a new batch from a different state reaches Jantar Mantar. This is the story of Suresh, Vikas, and Deepali, and many like them who are unable to secure a livelihood due to an app.
'Marked Absent on Many Days Due to Weak Network': Workers
MGNREGA is a flagship scheme aimed at enhancing the livelihood security of rural households by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed employment. The Act was notified in 2005 and implemented in 2006.
From May 16, 2022, capturing attendance via the app was made compulsory for all worksites with 20 or more workers. From 1 January 2023, it was made compulsory at all worksites.
Vikas, the worker from Bihar, explained the app glitches. He said, "The workers can only feed their attendance on the app between 6 am and 11 am if they have the morning shift, and between 2 pm and 5 pm if they have the evening shift... But they lose attendance for the day if they do not have good connectivity on the device."
Vikas is a college student who took up work to pay his tuition fees. He alleged;
"I worked for 14 days in the month of January but was marked present only for seven days. I am incharge of feeding the attendance for the workers in our panchayat and the workers in the panchayat have collectively lost Rs 1,08,000 due to mandatory app attendance."Vikas, a MGNREGA worker from Bihar
According to the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha’s data, derived from data available on the Ministry of Rural Development website, a number of gram panchayats in each state did not have NMMS device usage.
As of February 23, 2023, data showed that Maharashtra has 25,226 gram panchayats that do not have NMMS device usage.
The Morcha compared the data available for the month of January 2023 vis-a-vis that of January 2022. Across states, employment generation dropped by 26 percent. There was a decline of more than 50 percent in most states. Some of the states that saw the most drastic decline include Telangana, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Maharashtra.
The Morcha said, “The sharp decline may be a reflection of the complications associated with the digital attendance system (NNMS App), made compulsory from 1 January 2023. It is not clear to what extent this system is being enforced.”
'Not Paid Since December 2021,' Claim Bengal Workers
Not all MGNREGA workers, however, get 100 days of employment every year as guaranteed, they alleged.
In fact, workers from West Bengal that The Quint met on 3 March claimed that they have not been paid at all since December 2021.
Based on data available on the Ministry of Rural Development’s website nrega.nic.in, we see that there has been a significant drop in the number of MGNREGA workers in the state for the select months (April and August) of 2021 and 2022. For instance, there was a drop in employment generation from over 12 million (person days) in April 2021 to 4 million (person days) in April 2022.
"I have a pending payment of 45 days which is Rs 10,035 from before December 2021. Since then, I have not got a single day's work," said Akali Sarkar, 45, a worker from West Bengal’s Dakshin Dinajpur district. Her husband too has not received his dues. Akali said that she had been a MGNREGA worker for 14 years but had to resort to taking a loan after she stopped getting any work. They were being paid Rs 223 a day as MGNREGA workers.
“We have to face a lot of trouble because both my husband and I are dependent on the wages we get from here. I took a loan of Rs 20,000 in order to run my household of four,” she told The Quint on 3 March at a press conference held by the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha in Delhi.
She works as a farm labourer when she does not get MGNREGA work. "That work is tiresome and only pays Rs 100-Rs 150 a day... I am thinking of migrating to a city to find work," she said.
Meanwhile, another MGNREGA worker, Deepali from West Bengal’s Purulia said she has not been paid for 87 days of work in 2021. "When we go to the authorities to complain, they tell us that the central government has not disbursed funds to the state government," she said. Her husband, who has disabilities, is unemployed. Deepali runs her household of five all by herself, primarily on income from MGNREGA work.
Centre Withholding Funds, Alleges WB State Govt
According to the Morcha, the last Fund transfer order (FTO) to West Bengal was released on 26 December 2021 and no payment order was released after that.
In January this year, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said that the total central dues to the state government under MGNREGA currently stands at Rs 6,000 crore. “The central government is not releasing MGNREGA funds to West Bengal. It owes us Rs 6,000 crore. BJP-ruled states, however, are getting funds for the 100 days’ work scheme," she said.
She said she has written several letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding the same.
The Hindu reported that during a question hour in the Rajya Sabha in December 2022, Trinamool leader Jawahar Sircar asked the Rural Development Ministry for details on the states that hadn’t received funds during the financial year. In response to this, Minister of State for Rural Development, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti said that the Centre did not “discriminate” against any state.
Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti said, “But there are a few guidelines under the MGNREGA that all states have to follow.” She added that the funds were frozen after the state government failed to send in a detailed response to the questions raised by a Central team that investigated the implementation of the scheme in the state in 2019.
Based on a petition filed by Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity (PBKMS) on behalf of the workers, the Calcutta High Court passed an order dated 9 January 2023 directing the workers to file a detailed comprehensive representation before the concerned district magistrate (DM) to conduct an enquiry and take appropriate action in three months since the representation was filed.
In a statement, the Morcha said, “More than 2,500 workers having arrears of over Rs 1.94 crore have submitted their claims to their respective DMs in accordance with the HC order.” The workers' demands include immediate payment of wages along with compensation for the delay at a rate of 0.5 percent per day for the entire duration of the delay.
Here, we can see the pending wages across states, over the last two financial years. West Bengal has the highest pending wages from the Centre.
'Difficult To Run Household Without MGNREGA Work'
What does not having the MGNREGA livelihood mean? For Suresh, the single father of three children in UP, it means borrowing money from relatives, and a piling debt.
"I pay Rs 500 per month for electricity, Rs 1,100 for cylinder, and Rs 200 for oil... We have spoken to authorities to the Sub-divisional Magistrates in our district but they just say that they cannot help it because funds have been reduced and they are not receiving funds from the Centre."Suresh, a MGNREGA worker from UP
Meanwhile, Manuja from Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district, spoke to The Quint about exploitation, especially of women workers. She said, "Forget the guarantee of 100 work days, workers are heavily exploited and not paid even the stipulated wages of Rs 231 a day. Women workers, those who are not a part of any union, get paid lesser for the same work... Around Rs 100-Rs 150.”
Another worker, Rajoo Devi from Bihar has three children and her daily expenses come up to Rs 500 a day. She has a debt of around Rs 7,000 that she's finding difficult to pay back without MGNREGA work.
‘Govt Targeting Rural Poor, Adivasis, Dalits’: Activists
At a press conference held by the morcha on 3 March, CPI(M) Leader Brinda Karat said, “The Modi government is waging an undeclared war on the legal and Constitutional rights of rural poor. And the focus of this undeclared war is to dismantle many of the laws which were enacted through decades of struggle by the rural poor, Adivasis, and Dalits."
"22 percent of MGNREGA job holders belong to Scheduled Caste communities. Adivasis make up 16 percent of MGNREGA job card holders. Women make up well over 50 percent, all over India."CPI(M) Leader Brinda Karat
Socialist activist Anjali Bhardwaj highlighted how the government’s “poorly planned technological interventions” such as the NNMS app are impacting the workers. She said, “The NMMS app was made mandatory on the grounds that it will rid the country of corruption. But here, one can see workers have to buy phones in order to avail the benefits but after that they are unable to upload their photos and cannot feed in their attendance. Despite doing an honest day’s work, they are not given their dues.”