NREGA digital attendance driving women out

With no means to buy a smart phone & limited access to internet, women workforce are dropping out from scheme
A file picture of women employed under the MGNREGA scheme. Representational image. (Photo | B P Deepu, EPS)
A file picture of women employed under the MGNREGA scheme. Representational image. (Photo | B P Deepu, EPS)

NEW DELHI:  Sarda Devi, a Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) mate, or supervisor has not been to work since January 1 as she doesn’t own a smartphone. The 40-year-old has been working as a MGNREGA mate for the past 10 years in Barwadih village of Jharkhand’s Latehar district.

With the government mandating digital attendance for all MGNREGA workers nationwide, thousands of women like Devi have been forced to drop out from the scheme as they don’t have access to smartphones to register attendance.

The new government directive has made it mandatory for workmates to register the attendance of all NREGA workers through the National Mobile Monitoring App (NMMS) app. Though the government rolled out the new feature in May last year, it was implemented in January this year.

“A smartphone costs a lot as I hardly earn Rs 7,000 - Rs 8,000 a year. Now, I have to buy a phone and resume work somehow,” says Sarda, who is the bread earner of her family.

As per the latest figures of the Ministry of Rural Development, women make up 57.8 per cent of the total workforce of the scheme. It is one step forward and two steps backwards for women, who constitute more than half of the NREGA workforce, points out activists.

As several state governments encourage the participation of women in the workforce by deploying them as mates in work sites, digital attendance will be a major setback for women’s empowerment, says Apurva Gupta of NREGA Sangharsh Morcha.

“With this policy measure, women are being excluded from the workforce. Already in many places, women are being replaced by males as they lack digital literacy and access to devices. Mostly, female workers do not have a 4G connected smartphone, hence they become ineligible to be mates,” says Gupta.

For Mina Devi, working as a mate in Jharkhand’s Kundri village, capturing digital attendance is a tedious process and she says many women in her village dropped out as they don’t have phones. As a mate, she has to click the pictures of the 70-odd workers on the NMMS app on her mobile phone and depute work daily. As attendance is marked twice daily, morning (9 am-11 am) and afternoon (2-4 pm), she is struggling to cope with the changes.

“I have four small children and I have to walk 4 km daily to reach the site. Earlier, I used to work on flexible timings, and now I am not able to manage between work and home,” she said. Former rural development secretary Jugal Mohapatra agreed that the flexibility of working hours has been the key factor behind NREGA’s popularity.

“What’s the rationale behind enforcing digital attendance? It’s not meant to be a 10 to 5 job and it benefitted women more. It’s an anti-worker measure,” said Mohapatra. In Latehar district, NREGA work is on hold in many places as women mates are not equipped with smartphones, said James Herenj of NREGA watch. Several districts in Bihar will soon go on strike against digital attendance, says Sanjay Sahni, a prominent NREGA activist in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur.

“Out of the 4,000 workers in our district, hardly 2,000 were able to mark their attendance since January 1,” he told TNIE.

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