Insights into Editorial: All about means and ends
The MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) scheme has successfully completed 10 years. Considered one of the biggest social welfare programmes in the world, this programme aims at generating 100 days of work in rural areas. In the last 10 years, the programme has lifted lakhs of people out of poverty, though many lacunas still exist in it.
It was in February 2006, that Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) was for the first time notified on an experimental basis in 200 odd districts across the country. The event marked a watershed in the right-based entitlement framework of the country and for the first time provided a legal guarantee for wage employment.
The Act, guaranteed a minimum 100 days of employment out of the 365 days in a year to every willing household, within 15 days of making such a requisition. This is the only law in the country that is not budget constrained and is not supply driven.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is not only a pioneering livelihood security programme but also a great example of proactive disclosure of information through its Management Information System (MIS).
- It is the first transaction-based real-time system for any public works programme in the country that is available in the public domain.
- There has been a digitisation of all the processes in MGNREGA — right from a worker registering demand for work, to work allotment, to finally getting wages for completed works.
- Another notable feature of the MIS is the availability of information through online reports at various levels of disaggregation. This has enabled any citizen to monitor the implementation of the programme and has consequently charted a new paradigm of transparency since the enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
- Individual worker details from around 2.5 lakh gram panchayats are available in the MGNREGA MIS.
Some of the objectives of MIS are as follows:
- Bring transparency to the entire system.
- Make various registers, muster rolls, documents available to public.
- Provide single window interface for all stakeholders of NREGA.
- Maintain records of 100 days of employment to a family.
- Maintain accounts and generate all registers/documents to be kept at Gram Panchayat in the format specified in guidelines.
- Track transfer of funds to various implementing agencies.
- Decide when and how much funds to replenish in which account.
- Highlight the irregularities, send alerts to various stakeholders.
However, the sheer scale of information available on implementation is no mean achievement. While this system is certainly a great feather in the cap of a transparent democracy, there are few shortcomings:
- Firstly, the MIS is accessible only from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Indian Standard Time. This is a huge impediment for collaborative work across time zones.
- Second, it does not provide any data dictionary. A data dictionary is a repository of all the names of variables/columns used in various reports, containing a brief explanation of its meanings. Such a dictionary is crucial so that any citizen accessing the online reports can understand the content in them.
- Third, the nomenclature of the column names in the online reports is not consistent. The same column name is labelled differently in different reports. For instance, what is referred to as the Payment Date in the report of weekly works (‘Mustroll Report’) is known as the Second Signatory Date in a report titled ‘FTO Second Signatory’. Payment Date is also a misnomer as it does not refer to the date on which a worker gets paid.
- Fourth, some obvious worker-centric links in the data structure are missing. For example, every household that does MGNREGA work has a unique job card number. This number is crucial to get work. Upon completion of a work week, a Funds Transfer Order (FTO) is generated containing the details of each job card holder’s earned wages. On the MIS, there is no clear link between these two crucial pieces. As such it becomes difficult to follow the trail of each job card holder from the time of work demanded to getting the wages.
What is to be done?
- Record maintenance at the Gram Panchayat level requires to be streamlined. This should be monitored closely at all levels and funds should be linked to proper maintenance of records.
- Original data fed into the system should be checked before updating the MIS.
- There is a need to put in place stricter controls for data modification after authentication and closure of data entry.
- The staff deployed to feed the data should be properly trained and they should be held accountable in case of data fudging. Operational Guidelines are required to be followed.
- Lessons can be emulated from Andhra Pradesh’s e-Muster, e-Measurement, e-Muster verification and e-check Measurement.
- A governance framework for the MIS needs to be put in place that lays out the minimum standards and accountability of the Ministry managing the system. Such a framework must be built in consultation with all concerned parties and should follow the provisions of the law (both MGNREGA and RTI).
- The system design choices should reflect the values of the worker-centric programme and hence principles need to be followed for compassionate design.
The rampant discrepancies noted naturally raise questions as to the way forward regarding accurate data reporting with respect to social welfare schemes such as the MGNREGS. On one hand, technology is not a silver bullet for effective implementation and monitoring of MGNREGS. But on the other hand rejecting the MIS outright would be like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The system should have proper checks and balances. While the automated calculation is a progressive measure, its basis must be correct and transparent. The MIS is a powerful mechanism to have an evidence-based discourse for monitoring basic services.