Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Technological Endeavour to Fulfill the Right to Work(MG NREGA): Bringing ICT to the door steps of the Common People of India

     Being a fellow of the Berkman Center (Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University) has been one of the best experiences of my academic life. The exposure to a wide variety of discussions taking place in and around Berkman Center on the impact of technology on society is both intimidating as well as inspiring. A novel feature which was introduced at the Center this year to encourage more interaction between the fellows was the concept of ‘Fellows Hour’ every Tuesday wherein each week a fellow is required to lead the discussion on a specific topic falling within the wide notion of ‘web exceptionalism’.
    When it was my turn for leading the discussions I was faced with the challenge of identifying an issue which would on one hand fall within the notion of ‘web exceptionalism’ and would also be linked to society. Being a research scholar from India it was an additional need to present Internet culture from the perspective of Indian people and their needs. An area which has always fascinated me was the  role of technology in the developmental aspects of human life. Hence it was of deep interest to me to look into the role of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the fundamental aspect of fulfilling the 'right to work' under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005.
     Initially I was not sure whether role of ICT in MG NREGA would fall within the general notion of ‘web exceptionalism’ but then I realised that the term ‘exceptionalism’ implies something unusual, out of ordinary and to that extent in a country where less than 7 percent of the population has access to Internet any endeavour to make the technology available to the vast majority of the uneducated, technologically illiterate and vulnerable people who are living in extreme hostile conditions, even if in a limited manner, is an extra-ordinary event. And if this technology helps in empowering this class of people, then it will be an exceptional event.   
     MG NREGA is a landmark legislation securing right to work for a period of 100 days for every rural household. The legislation attempts to fulfill a number of laudable goals like implementing the Gandhian ideal of development through progression in the rural economy, achieve the human development goals propounded by Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen and it also attempts to fulfill the Indian Constitutional goal of a social welfare state wherein every individual has a right to live with dignity and it is the obligation of the State to provide necessary employment opportunities to all her people. This social security program is also India's flagship program to achieve the UN Millennium Developmental Goal of poverty reduction.
     But inspite of the immense potential benefits of this legislation different study reports have found out that large scale corruption has eaten away majority of the real benefits of this program. At every stage of implementation the government officials and the local political establishments have taken advantage of the ignorance of the people to deprive them of their entitlements. 
    Non-issuance of job cards at the time of registration, denial of work application receipts, delay in allocation of jobs, inadequate payment of wages, non-payment of unemployment allowances, and  fudging of the muster rolls and the work site reports are some of the many instances of corrupt practices under MG NREGA.  Lack of awareness amongst the common people about the details of the employment program aggravates the problem. Existence of laws like Right to Information Act and Prevention of Corruption Act are not adequate to protect the rights of the people as the legal procedures under these legislations are complicated, time consuming and expensive. 
   Absence of Transparency and Public Accountability are the primary causes of corruption and consequent failure of the legislation. Social activists have suggested different mechanisms like mandatory social auditing, appointment of regulatory authorities, payment of wages through banks etc. to deal with the problem of corruption. To my opinion the most important mechanism to deal with the problem of corruption is by making the ultimate beneficiaries or consumers of the program aware about their legal entitlements and creating a system whereby they can demand a fulfillment of their rights. In a vast country like India a mere top-down approach is not adequate to deal with corruption but has to be equally matched with a bottom-up approach which creates upward social pressure. Towards achievement of this objective the most innovative approach which the government has contemplated is the use of ICT.
     The use of ICT in MG NREGA can be classified into two stages.
     The first initiative was the creation of a centralized information system known as the Digital Knowledge Repository (www.nrega.nic). This website provides state-wise details of number of employment demanded, amount of work done, wages earned, number of days worked etc. Details relating to job cards, muster rolls and asset registers are also made available on the website. Individual beneficiaries by registering their job card number can apply online for allocation of work, receive work receipt as well as payment receipt, register their complaints and know other details about the program in their local area. 
    However this centralized information system is primarily beneficial for the purposes of government officials, policymakers and practitioners, and is of not much use to the actual rural beneficiaries. Lack of Internet connectivity, illiteracy and absence of adequate computer knowledge inhibit the use of this system by the rural people. The biggest shortcoming of this system is that  there is no mechanism to verify the accuracy of the data uploaded in the repository. In the absence of actual field study verifying the authenticity of the various data, it will be very difficult to identify the manipulation in the official records and prevent actual corrupt practices. 
    In light of the shortcoming of the centralized Digital knowledge Repository, the second initiative of the Ministry of Rural Development is far more important from the perspective of the actual beneficiaries as it attempts to bringing user-friendly technologies to the door steps of the people. This initiative was recently launched in August 2010 after the successful pilot study in few selected districts of Rajasthan. Proper implementation of the second phase of technologies has the potentiality of securing the people their true entitlements. This initiative involves five major components. 
   Soochna Seva Kendra - The Soochna Seva Kendra or Information Kiosk at the village level will provide text-to-voice and touch screen enabled computers with in-built bio-metric access system. A worker will receive automatic information about total number of days worked, days left to work and wages earned. Through touch screen facilities the computers will provide the users with additional information relating to the legislation, worker entitlements, unemployment allowances, prerequisites for work under the scheme, work site information and worker history. It will also act as a platform for job application, job receipt, payment slip receipt and grievance platform.  
    Unified Handheld device - To prevent falsification of muster rolls and official records a unified handheld device with biometric and GPS verified attendance tracking system will be provided at each work site. The GPS will help to verify the location of the workers and the biometric device will help to record his attendance. This will prevent fraudulent preparation of muster rolls and work sheet. The device is also being developed to issue work receipt, capture photographs of work in progress etc. Information collected through the UHD will automatically be transmitted to the Information Kiosk and the Digital Knowledge Repository.
    Community radio - For the purpose of creating awareness about the different entitlements under the legislation a community radio system is being initiated. 
    SMS job card retrieval - In light of the growing mobile subscriber base a low cost SMS job card retrieval option is also being initiated to receive job status information about number of days worked and number of workdays left under the program.
     Biometric enabled ATMs - To ensure easy but secure payment system low cost ATMs with biometric identification is being proposed. As soon as the work details are uploaded in the Digital Knowledge Repository the Central Government will directly transfer the wages to the bank accounts of the beneficiaries. This will ensure timely and correct payment of wages. 
     This second stage of ICT will help to transform the existing system into 'People's Information System' whereby the workers will be able to access information and demand for proper fulfillment of their rights and entitlements. Reduced opportunities of corruption will help in empowerment of the rural people. It will also help the Government in exercising better control over the funds and ensure better implementation of the program. 
    A little financial help goes a long way in improving the lives of millions of poor people. This fact is proved correct in the course of working of this legislation in the past four years as it has brought significant changes in the rural economy and in the lives of the people.  But corruption, illiteracy, ignorance and caste based social structure have long acted as the major impediments in the successful implementation of welfare programs.  If technology can help in overcoming these shortcomings then it will be a step towards the goals of rural economic progress and human development.  
      At present there are many hurdles in the successful implementation of ICT in developmental works – 
     (1) Huge financial expenditure (2) Adequate and regular training of the rural people in the workings of the computers and related technologies (3) Building up of a team of computer knowledgeable professionals who will be willing to work in rural places (4) Constant monitoring of the information systems (5) Attitude of accountability and transparency in the mindset of government functionaries (6) Prompt penal actions against corrupt officials  
   Bringing technologies to the door step of the people is a step towards the right direction. The importance of internet based system for the purpose of open, transparent and accountable government cannot be denied but it becomes crucial for the poor and vulnerable because they do not have the means or the knowledge to exercise their rights in other alternative ways. Thus if technology helps to fulfill the basic human right to work for 20 percent of the world's poor population, it will be an ‘exceptional’ event for mankind.    


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