Over 20.8 lakh people in the south Indian states who are actively working under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) are yet to qualify to receive their wages under the Aadhaar-based payment bridge system (ABPS) that will soon become mandatory. Many workers across India have been jumping through hoops to have their Aadhaar linked to their job cards and bank accounts, to become eligible for payment. However, out of nearly 3.57 crore NREGA workers who are active in the southern states, while 3.36 crore people were able to complete this process, around 20.8 lakh workers were unable to do so as of Thursday, August 17, and remain ineligible for payment. This is despite the five southern states featuring among the top six states with the highest success rate of workers qualifying for ABPS, along with Tripura. Across India, out of over 14.4 crore active workers, 2.89 crore workers are yet to qualify for the new system as of Thursday, government data indicates.
Although the Aadhaar-based system was made compulsory by the Union government in February 2023, owing to complaints over the difficulties in resolving inconsistencies in various documents, it has extended multiple deadlines for switching to the new system, with the latest, August 31, fast approaching.
Under NREGA, workers must be paid their wages within 15 days after the job is done. Payments are routinely delayed across India, and mandating the Aadhaar-based payment system has become yet another hurdle in accessing wages, with many workers unable to complete the Aadhaar seeding and authentication processes, which make them eligible for payment under this system. The total number of workers (and not just active ones) yet to be deemed eligible for the ABPS is much higher. For instance, in Telangana alone, this figure was nearly 41.99 lakh as of the second week of August. Total workers are people who have been issued job cards, while active workers are those who have received work in 2022-23.
When the Union Ministry of Rural Development first announced its decision to make ABPS compulsory for all NREGA workers from February 1 (with only two days’ notice), it was criticised by activists and economists for unnecessarily complicating the wage payment process. Until then, two modes of payment were allowed — account-based (a simple bank transfer based on the account details provided by the worker) and Aadhaar-based. At the time of the announcement on January 31, barely one-third of the active workers in the country were eligible for ABPS.
To become eligible for ABPS, the worker’s job card and bank account need to be seeded with their Aadhaar, followed by an authentication process. This complicated process has resulted in many job cards being wrongfully deleted due to inconsistencies in spelling and other minor issues, according to activists.
Twenty-two-year-old Anjappa (name changed) and his parents, who live in Telangana’s Narayanpet district, have relied heavily on NREGA for several years since its introduction in 2005. Despite having a job card, an Aadhaar card and a bank account – all the documents needed to be eligible for ABPS – Anjappa’s job card was suddenly deleted during the course of Aadhaar seeding/authentication, rendering him ineligible for NREGA work.
“I worked for a few days last summer, but the payment never came through. After nearly a month’s work, they informed me that my job card was cancelled,” he said, adding that he wasn’t given a clear explanation as to why it had happened, and was also unable to claim wages for the days that he had already worked. He has since moved to Hyderabad in search of work.
“Often the only way active workers know that there is an issue with their job card is when they turn up for work and their name isn’t on the muster rolls. Until then, they are unaware,” said Chakradhar Buddha, a policy analyst with LibTech India, an NGO working on issues affecting public service delivery in India. “A simple difference in the spelling of someone’s name, or the incorrect gender, could result in your job card not being successfully authenticated with your Aadhaar card,” he said. He added that enrolments done in a hasty, shoddy manner in the early days when Aadhaar was rolled out have resulted in several mistakes.
Once there is a faulty Aadhaar linkage or wrongful deletion or any other discrepancy in the seeding or authentication process, it’s not easy to resolve the issue. The worker has to approach the district program officer to delink the wrongly linked Aadhaar or bank accounts, which often proves to be cumbersome. Chakradhar alleges that job cards are often deleted at random by block-level officials by marking someone ‘dead’, or ‘unwilling to work’, to avoid the complications in resolving the grievance. On August 8, Union Minister for Rural Development Giriraj Singh said in the Lok Sabha that for the financial year 2023-24, as of August 3, a total of 33.23 lakh job cards across India were deleted for reasons including “not willing to work”, the other reasons listed being fake/duplicate/incorrect job cards, permanently shifting out of that Gram Panchayat, or death.
However, according to the Annual Master Circular 2022-23 which deals with NREGA implementation, the district programme officer must independently verify facts before directing the Gram Panchayat to cancel a job card, and non-demand or non-reporting for work cannot be the grounds for doing so. The only allowed reasons are permanent migration to urban areas or a different Gram Panchayat, and duplicate or fake cards.
All additions, deletions and cancellations must be made public and presented to the Gram/ Ward Sabha. National Secretary of Dalit Bahujan Front (DBF) P Shankar remarked that the process is seldom carried out, and workers’ job cards are being illegally deleted.
A field assistant from Telangana’s Siddipet district who wished to remain anonymous said that in his mandal alone, he received nearly 20 complaints regarding the ABPS system on a daily basis. “Often, owing to a lack of technological awareness, workers are unaware if the Aadhaar seeding and authentication process is successfully done,” he said.
The bank account recognised by ABPS also needs to be linked with the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) mapper. When a worker has multiple bank accounts, the wages are deposited in their latest-mapped account. This also leads to complications, the field assistant said, as most workers have multiple accounts, as community service providers from various banks in rural areas get residents to set up accounts with them, to meet their targets. This means it’s often difficult to figure out which account is mapped and linked to ABPS.
“Earlier, there were only Union Bank of India, State Bank of India, and Andhra Pradesh Grameena Vikas Bank. With the arrival of more banks such as ICICI and IndusInd in rural areas, it is now very difficult to figure out who has an account with which banks,” the field assistant said.
Anjappa also highlighted problems with the National Mobile Monitoring Software (NMMS) app used to mark workers’ attendance by photographing and geo-tagging them. “If we aren’t present on time to get our photo clicked, our work for the day isn’t counted and we don’t get paid for that day,” he said. Chakradhar too said that owing to poor connectivity in most rural areas, more often than not, the app doesn’t work well. The app was made mandatory for marking workers’ attendance from January 1 this year.
The national platform NREGA Sangharsh Morcha has demanded ground-level verification of cancelled job cards before the end of August, and urged all Gram Sabhas to pass resolutions against NMMS-based attendance.
“If the Aadhaar authentication doesn’t succeed, lakhs of workers will remain ineligible for payment, which could result in fewer takers for work under NREGA,” said Chakradhar. Echoing his views, the field assistant too said that the issues with ABPS and NMMS have resulted in a number of NREGA workers being forced to seek jobs elsewhere.
Apart from concerns over workers not being able to exercise their right to work under NREGA due to snags in ABPS and NMMS, activists and Opposition leaders have also been complaining about the gradual decrease in funding for the programme, accusing the Narendra Modi-led BJP government of trying to systematically weaken NREGA by reducing budget allocations and making it difficult for workers to access work and wages.
In the Union Budget 2023, the allocation for NREGA was cut down drastically to Rs 60,000 crore, lowering it by nearly 33% compared to the revised estimates for the programme. And while workers are entitled to 100 days of employment, the average days of employment provided per household was only 48 in the financial year 2022-23, while it was 50 days in FY22, 52 days in FY21, 48 days in FY20, and 51 days in FY19. The NREGA Sangarsh Morcha had estimated that the programme needs a minimum budget of Rs 2.72 lakh crore in FY24 (4.5 times the actual allocation) to provide 100 days of work per household for active workers.