Fact Check

Question for ‘The Wire’: Can Digital India Actually Make MGNREGA ‘Less Transparent’?

Digital India

An article in The Wire, written by Nikhil Shenoy, an activist with Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, claims that the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has become less transparent after the Digital India drive became popular. This is conveyed by the article’s headline itself: “‘Digital India’ Actually Made MGNREGA Less Transparent”.

What Does the Article Say?
  • The story appears to build its entire narrative on changes made to the MNREGA website. It provides a screenshot of how a particular section of the webpage used to look like back in 2014 and argues that a certain “worker” tab missing from the current site is evidence of less transparency.
  • Largely based on the above point, the article then uses anecdotal “evidence” of how workers are finding it difficult to get information about their wages and it goes on to narrate such stories about payment trouble.
Flaws in the Argument
  • The article completely ignores the effort of and progress in bringing transparency through Aadhaar-linked Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) under the current administration
  • It implies that MGNREGA was a picture of transparency before 2014. This, when there are many reports available in the public domain about the misuse of funds under the scheme as well as the damning report of the CAG on the same during pre-May 2014 era
  • Perhaps, it is not surprising that an article based on the above premise would not acknowledge how the current government has made MGNREGA more effective in terms of more funding and focus on asset creation.
Transparency in MGNREGA

Since the article talks so much about the complexity of the website to make its point on transparency, let us also take a look before touching upon the hard facts and figures about transparency.

There may be changes in the design and structure of a website and some specific tags may also be removed or overhauled over time, but that seems only natural and/ or necessary. Nevertheless, all the details of works under MGNREGA are very much in the public domain thanks to the website.

There are the provisions of Social Audit, Grievance Redressal Mechanism, State Quality Monitor(SQM), National Level Monitors (NLM). The e-Muster system has been introduced to avoid bogus attendance and to check instances of tampering and misuse of muster rolls.

The details are updated and made available on the MNREGA website. On entering place and timeline details, the details of current working status can be obtained. To illustrate, a screen grab is provided below:

There is also a provision for extracting the information on the number of beneficiaries, work in progress, details of complaints received in various stages — such as gram panchayat, state, Centre, etc — and also details as to how many complaints saw redress.

The MIS page looks as below:

Measures Taken to Enhance Transparency
  • Electronic fund management system (eFMS), Aadhaar-seeding, geo-tagging of assets and strengthening of the Social Audit System are some steps towards bringing in more transparency and accountability in the programme implementation. Thus, Digital India and Transparency are progressing hand-in-hand in MGNREGA.
  • Almost 96% of wages are being paid directly into beneficiaries’ bank accounts.
  • Around 85% of wages were being paid on time in 2017-18. This needs to be compared with the 50% record in 2013-14 to tell the difference.
  • Works completed under the scheme have been geo-tagged and made available in the public domain thus improving and enhancing transparency in programme management. More than 2 crore assets had been geo-tagged as of September 2017. The Ministry has made it mandatory to geo-tag three stages of asset creation.
  • Beta version of the Android app Jan-MGNREGA is available that allows the locating of already geotagged assets.

 

With the above measures in place, especially Aadhaar-linked bank accounts and DBT, it may seem counter-factual for the writer to fear that the money goes to the wrong accounts.

Payment Issues

There is no dearth of Central funding to MGNREGA. In fact, the financial year 2017-18 set a record for the highest-ever budget allocation of Rs 48,000 crore. However, it is the state and local bodies which look after the larger part of the implementation. As such, the payment issues have been largely with the states. It also appears to be the case that the Centre could not allocate further funds without accountability.

For example, in September 2017, the Ministry had said: “FTOs for Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal are pending for payment for specific reasons. Internal Audits conducted by the Ministry in the recent past in both the States have detected irregularities in implementation for which the States have been asked to take appropriate steps to rectify the situation. Funds will be released to them once complete and sufficient response is received.”

The following circular from the Ministry to the Karnataka government illustrates how state governments, in many instances, have been failing to release payments on time:

How MGNREGA Was in the Past

Since the article claims Digital India is making MGNREGA less transparent, it obviously implies that transparency and accountability in MGNREGA were better in the pre-May 2014 era.

Therefore, it is important to hold a mirror to the writer – that of media reports from the past. These reports are also evidence of how the scheme had been implemented in the past. (We have already noted above how things have changed today, especially in plugging the holes.):

DBT & Digital India: A Boon for MGNREGA

Thus, there is plenty of evidence that both MGNREGA and digitalisation have witnessed a paradigm shift with remarkable progress after May 2014. Apart from MGNREGA, DBT — which is major part of Digital India — has evidently done a great service to the public exchequer by weeding out fake beneficiaries and leakages in the system.

You may read our earlier article: Has Direct Benefits Transfer Been a Game-Changer? An Assessment of Its Progress. A detailed take on the progress made under MGNREGA can also be found here: MGNREGA Being ‘Slow Poisoned’ or Killed Off? Please Check the Facts Again.

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