India’s Digital Registration System Leaves Marginalized Workers Without Pay

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The Indian government’s push for digitization has inadvertently left millions of low-paid workers without their wages. Under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), rural workers are guaranteed income for their labor on public infrastructure projects. However, a glitchy new digital registration system, the National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS), has created significant challenges for these workers, particularly in areas with weak or infrequent internet connectivity.

The NMMS, introduced in January, requires workers to log their attendance through an app. Site supervisors must upload pictures of workers to prove their presence. Unfortunately, the app fails to function effectively in remote regions with limited internet access. As a result, workers like Vaishali Kanal from Palatpada village in western India often perform strenuous labor without receiving payment due to the inability to log their attendance. This situation is further compounded by the fact that the app requires workers to have their photos taken twice a day, both at the start and end of their shift. If the internet is sluggish or unavailable, these photos fail to upload, jeopardizing workers’ wages and creating a lack of accountability within the system.

The Modi government’s push for digitization in various sectors, including public services, has been met with criticism. Activists argue that the focus on technology overshadows the welfare of workers, particularly those from marginalized groups. Brian Lobo, an activist working in Palghar, emphasizes that the government’s emphasis is on adopting new technology, regardless of whether it truly benefits the workers.

While the government claims that digitizing attendance records reduces corruption, critics argue that the system lacks accountability. The digitization process has led to instances where photos of unrelated subjects are submitted and accepted, undermining the purpose of the system. The government’s eagerness to showcase its technological advancements and success stories often overlooks the exclusion of individuals who face difficulties in accessing these digital services.

The National Mobile Monitoring System rollout represents one of many instances where poorly thought-through digital solutions have created problems for workers. Lessons from previous failures are rarely learned due to a lack of accountability and consequences. The absence of a proper review process hinders improvements and perpetuates the cycle of ill-conceived technology implementation.

The frustrations caused by the NMMS app have been compounded by the mandatory adoption of the Aadhaar Based Payments System (ABPS). Workers now require an Aadhaar ID card, a linked job card, and a bank account connected to the National Payments Corporation of India’s database to receive their wages. The stringent requirements and potential inconsistencies in documentation have led to a significant number of workers being unable to access their payments.

Despite the government’s intentions to expedite wage payments, workers’ groups argue that the new system is no faster than the previous one. The abrupt rollout of the ABPS further exacerbates the challenges faced by workers, with a significant percentage at risk of losing access to their wages.

In conclusion, the Modi government’s drive for digital registration and payment systems has inadvertently left millions of low-paid workers in India without their rightful wages. The implementation of glitchy digital solutions and a lack of consideration for workers’ circumstances have created significant obstacles. While the government aims to reduce corruption and improve efficiency, the consequences for marginalized workers highlight the need for a more thoughtful and inclusive approach to technology implementation.