For 35-year-old Laxmi Devi, life as a woman working under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), India’s largest public employment program, was never easy. While working jobs such as digging soil in the arid heat of Rajasthan in northern India, Devi and her co-workers endured frequent wage delays and unresponsive government officials. The Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020 made things even harder: thousands of migrant men returned to the village, desperately seeking jobs, making the supply of workers much greater than the demand.

Devi thought she had endured it all — until a smartphone app became the bane of her existence.

MNREGA guarantees at least 100 days of paid employment every year to adults across rural India. As of 2020, at least 82.9 million adults were enrolled in the program. In May 2022, the Indian government launched the National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS) app to ensure “transparency” and to “increase citizen oversight” of the MNREGA program. The app requires time-stamped and geo-tagged photographs of workers in order to verify attendance.

The forced shift from a manual to a digital system threatens to exclude Devi and others like her from MNREGA. Interviews with five MNREGA employees suggest that they are struggling to use the app in remote areas where the network is often poor and because they have not received any training to use the NMMS app. Furthermore, the app is offered only in English, a language understood by less than 11% of the country’s population.

Parvati Devi Harishri, a 27-year-old MNREGA supervisor, is responsible for recording the attendance of 55 workers in the Kukar Khera village of Rajasthan each day. Since the app was launched, she has managed to correctly mark attendance for an average of only 35 workers each day as she struggles to navigate the app, she said. “We have received no support from the government nor panchayats [the local governing body]; the smartphones we have to use are our own. We never received any training on how to use the app either nor any money for recharging our phones,” Harishri told Rest of World. “On top of that, the app is in English!”

Harishri uses a family smartphone for her work and has trouble with connectivity. “This is a hilly area; there are network problems. Just a while back, the attendance of five or six days was not recorded, so obviously, all these women will miss those wages,” she said. “If their attendance is not registered on time, then the workers will obviously run after us supervisors, no? There is so much pressure on us.”

The app crashes constantly during peak attendance hours, starting around 6:30 a.m. every day, Nikhil Shenoy, an activist associated with the Rajasthan Unorganized Workers Union, told Rest of World. In response to complaints about technical glitches, government officials have offered only one piece of advice — to delete the app and download it again. “Imagine how this affects their attendance and wages,” Shenoy said.

National Mobile Monitoring System App

Rest of World sent questions to several officials at the Ministry of Rural Development but did not receive a response. Meanwhile, Krishan Kant Pathak, a senior official at the Rajasthan state government’s Rural Development & Panchayati Raj (village self-governance) Department said that “app-based attendance should have been operational from earlier itself.”

Pathak said that the workers’ complaints amounted to “merely teething problems.” 

“Whenever a new software or technology is devised, there are always certain difficulties during the transitional phase, which is why you hear stories of the app’s hanging or the screen suddenly disappears at the time of attendance and so on,” Pathak said. “They will gradually get sorted out. We believe this to be a good experiment.” Pathak also added that, “preparations for this could have been better.”

The app has changed the nature of the MNREGA program in a number of ways. Whereas wages under the scheme were previously calculated based on the amount of work done rather than the time spent working, the app now mandates a regimented schedule, said Laavanya Tamang, a coordinator with LibTech India, a coalition of engineers, social scientists, and social workers working on public transparency.

“Until now, workers would wake up at around 4 a.m., work until around 9 or 10 a.m. and then go back home, attend to cattle or agricultural work on their own fields. This is also necessary because MNREGA wages are so low and come in after several months, one cannot rely solely on this,” Tamang told Rest of World. “Now, they have to make sure they’re present at least twice a day for the time-stamped photographs.”

The adoption of the app has had a particular impact on women, who constitute over half the workers under MNREGA. “To expect women, especially those from the most marginalized sections, to buy smartphones so easily is a problem,” Shenoy told Rest of World. “Families below the poverty line do not have that kind of money, and many haven’t been paid wages for several months.”

According to Nikhil Dey, co-founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, or the Association for the Empowerment of Laborers and Farmers, the program has failed to deliver on the government’s desired goal of higher transparency. It is easy to fool the app and commit frauds, he said. “There are a reported 10 crore [100 million] Indians who do MNREGA work. Who is going to sit and pore over those photos daily?” Dey told Rest of World

Pathak, however, pointed out that “whenever an individual’s attendance is marked through these photographs, the app records this data, and this won’t be deleted later. So if anyone has committed fraud, they can be traced or detected in the future.” He reiterated that if the government didn’t have an app to upload photos and store data, “we wouldn’t even have been able to catch people in the future,” adding that “at least now there is a chance you will be caught.”

Dey feels otherwise. “Cases have come up where people are clicking the same set of five people 20 times and showing them to be 100 workers.” This misuse could be stopped if someone individually checked each photo, “but who is doing that?” he asked.