The UID in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act may simplify the administrator's task, but will not make a poor man's task any easier.
EVERY time there is talk of tinkering with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), it is time we recalled how and why the Act came into existence. The passage of the NREGA was Parliament's response to a people's movement that grew out of the recognition and articulation of the needs of the rural poor.
It made people's right to seek work a legal right. It was chronic poverty that propelled it, and the focus was uncomplicated: work must be provided on demand. It is work-in-progress and its foundations are still being strengthened. It has had considerable impact in the villages. But this success is nascent and fragile and any change that is brought into it must not undermine what has been achieved. Any change should be preceded by rigorous debate in which the voices and views of those for whom this law was made are given centrality.
The unique identification (UID) project has made many claims in attempting to get into the NREGA, but there are serious problems with what is being suggested.
Let us take a look at these claims. It is said that the UID will weed out duplicates and ghost beneficiaries, that it will enable the opening of bank accounts and so take care of the leakages and corruption in the payment of wages and, thus, enhance the efficient functioning of the system. This is in contrast with the way in which transparency and accountability are being worked out in situations which keep the solution as local as the problem.
The wall is a case in point. On the wall in the village are painted the names of all the NREGA workers, how many days they have worked, and how much they have earned for doing that work. If you want to put people in the driving seat of a programme and that has to be done by giving them information, that information has to be localised.
The problem is that often information is in the hands of the system. This may simplify an administrator's task, but it does not make a poor man's task any easier. By putting the information on the wall, they have taken the information out of the dabba the computer and put it amongst people and into their hands.
Much better than the UID is the job card, and if that is not filled as required, then the wall acts not only as a fallback for the worker but also as a collective vigilance mechanism. If you expand the acronym MIS, it is plain that it is information that drives the programme from the management point of view. That is a management tool, not a process of strengthening democracy or establishing transparency and accountability in governance.Scam in labour
The scam in labour has been where people who do exist but never go to work pick up a wage. Biometrics does not help there at all; it actually makes it easier to cheat the system.
The web wall and the wall in the village are effective in these contexts and help control corruption in the whole village. The information on the wall for all the world to see takes care of ghosts and duplicates in the system.
The big corruption story in the NREGA is around material use 20 bags of cement and book 100; buy cement at Rs.200 and show it in the books as Rs.300. This, the UID will not control. And this is 40 per cent of the expenditure. The wall has a summary and details of materials for all works in the village, making local checks possible.
We are looking for top-down management solutions when what is needed is for people to monitor their own works and development expenditure. What is needed is not the government watching the people, but people watching every paisa of expenditure.NREGA's success
One of the NREGA's greatest successes was that, unlike ration cards, NREGA job cards were given very quickly. So there was no exclusion. Why? Because this was simple technology. You lined up, the sarpanch identified you, and you got your job card which had your photograph on it. Even if you did not have the photograph, you were allowed to work. You were identified by your neighbours, your mate, your superviser everyone knows you.
One big problem with the UID is the whole registration process. If the UID does not cover everyone who may seek a job under the NREGA, and the UID is used as a tool in determining entitlements, it actually becomes a tool of exclusion. The NREGA gives everyone a right to demand work and receive work within 15 days. Being dependent on the whims and competencies of a technology and its administrative structure is a clear infringement of that right.
It also opens the door for manipulations of power. Because all NREGA systems have been in the hands of the panchayat and block officers, it has not been possible for anyone in authority to deny people their right to a job card, without which you cannot exercise your right to get work. However, when an external technology is introduced, the solutions to errors and problems are no longer local and the entire system comes into question. The UID has to guarantee 100 per cent coverage with no exception before it can be considered for use in this system; even one person left out or denied work for not having a UID will mean a failure of the NREGA.
As for opening bank accounts, it is anachronistic to talk about using the UID in the context of NREGA payments through banks. This has substantially been achieved following a policy initiative that dates back to 2008, which required that all NREGA payments be made through banks or post office accounts. This was when the UID project had not even begun.
Even if we find that biometrics are useful for increasing the efficiency in making payments and our experience raises questions about this assumption it would make more sense to have a localised biometric system rather than linking up with something on a centralised server. A local system can deal with anomalies that a centralised system cannot. From the point of view of the NREGA, there is no reason to want to link to a central server, and there is every reason for keeping it local. This will also avoid all questions that have been raised by civil rights activists about the misuse of information about separate silos being converged.
Now, when biometrics do not work, which is not uncommon in places where work makes fingerprints noisy' and where cuts and bruises abound, there is a provision for manual override. This, of course, creates opportunities for juggling with the payments, but the alternative is not paying the worker. Until something more sound is found, this will have to do, and, despite banks protesting at this tweaking of the process, it continues because there is no better way of using technology. If this were tagged on to a central system without whose recognition the worker would not get paid, that would leave the worker in dire straits.
There have been efforts at de-duplication where a biometric database from Andhra Pradesh was sent to a technology institute. The result has been extremely discouraging; de-duplication simply could not be done. That has so far been a failed experiment.
In the NREGA, it has generally been found that machines, including computers, should be used only in areas where there is a manual backup or where an alternative exists because you cannot hold up people's rights that are caused by glitches in technology or in the functioning of devices. The talk of using the UID even to check attendance at worksites opens up the possibility of points in time when the machine will not work on site, not having an alternative available in a remote area and the whole system being thrown into disarray.
This was the concern that provoked a protest letter with over 280 signatures about a tender dated October 11, 2010, issued by the Ministry of Rural Development indicating that the contract would include UID compliant enrolment of job card holders under the MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] scheme.
There too, while endorsing the use of technology in ways that enhance transparency, empower labourers and are cost effective, the letter said: Such technology has been used with success in Tamil Nadu.
For instance, it combines SMS reports on daily attendance with random spot checks to curb the problem of fake muster roll entries. Localised use of biometrics, independent of UID, to speed up payments can be considered. Biometrics and UID are not the same. In Rajasthan, simpler measures have been put in place, such as transparency walls'.... We therefore demand that neither the NREGA employment nor wage payments be linked to UID enrolment. Employment of 100 days under MGNREGA is the only universal entitlement that the rural poor enjoy.
In May 2011, social activists had to reiterate their concern when the media carried reports that the UID was going to be made compulsory for NREGA benefits in Mysore.
To those who are watching the processes from close, it seems clear that the NREGA does not need the UID; it is the UID that is trying to piggyback on the NREGA despite its potential to create inefficiency and confusion. Something like the NREGA requires simple, localised systems in the hands of the people. There is nothing what the UID provides that cannot be done as competently and in a more reliable fashion.
In the NREGA, where people's hands are callused with work, where worksites cover some of the most extreme climatic conditions, where connectivity is at its most precarious, where dust and heat can ruin any machine and where the UID can make the system completely machine-dependent, it seems clear that the dependency on machine-based technology, which spells potential disaster, should be avoided.
Nikhil Dey works with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan. This article is based on his conversation with Usha Ramanathan.