A vast section of India’s large population relies on social welfare schemes to supplement their livelihoods and well-being. The MGNREGA scheme is considered one of the largest social welfare schemes in the world in terms of beneficiaries covered.
Over the last couple of years, the scheme has been updated with digital processes, which were made mandatory in 2023. This paper discusses the new mandatory mobile application-based attendance system (NMMS app) for MGNREGA workers, which requires two photographs of the worker to be uploaded twice a day, in the morning and evening, at the worksite in order to be marked present and receive payment. There have been widespread concerns and protests by workers’ groups regarding the app, with numerous instances of missed attendance, glitches in the app, issues with connectivity and resulting unpaid work.
This paper sets out to explore the claims made by the protesting workers and civil society groups. The discussion finds that in the year preceding the decision to make the app mandatory, there existed several challenges to implementation and usage across the country. Almost half of the eligible worksites do not use the app, and there appear to be several challenges for the remaining worksites that do. The paper finds that even when attempts to implement the app have been made, issues of connectivity, device ownership and glitches in the app itself have resulted in low-to-no usage. Finally, we find a big implementational gap in the practice of uploading photographs on the app, whereby uploading the second set of photographs in the evening has been a severe challenge due to worker unavailability and livelihood concerns, with a large number of attendance days that are missing both sets of photos.
In this context, the paper argues that the burden of digitisation in MGNREGA has been passed on to the worker without accounting for regional, financial and social challenges that affect digital literacy and usage among the socio-economically vulnerable. Finally, we argue that the condition of making the app mandatory without accounting for the challenges in the preceding year indicates a trend of ultimatum-based governance, wherein states with differential capacities are expected to catch up at the same pace, even while social welfare is negatively affected.