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women, laborers, India

India’s Laborers Are Fighting To Get Paid

A buggy app, sparse internet, and biometric linking are robbing India’s 144 million workers of their meager wages.

Words: Arbab Ali and Nadeem Sarwar
Pictures: Gyan Shahane

On a blazing April afternoon, Savitri Das, 44, sits at Jantar Mantar, a traditional spot for protest in India’s capital, New Delhi, with 99 other people — mostly women — some 733 miles (or 21 hours’ drive) from her home in Sarguja district, a hilly and remote region in the central Indian state of Chattisgarh.

From 10 am to 4 pm, the 100-odd protesters scream at the top of their lungs, demanding the rollback of a mobile app used to mark their attendance in a government work program, while several loudspeakers blare from all directions and multiple protests rage on at Jantar Mantar, a sight not uncommon there.

They are among the 144.2 million active workers under India’s largest public employment program, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), which guarantees them 100 days of unskilled manual labor each year at mere subsistence wages. A day’s work, usually five to six hours in a muggy field, earns an MNREGA worker less than Rs. 245 or $3. Yet, these workers have helped to create rural infrastructure in India, such as roads, irrigation canals, wells, lakes, and dams.

According to the Ministry of Rural Development, the National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS) app, developed by the National Informatics Centre, will lead to “more transparency and ensure proper monitoring” and the use of “geo-tagged photographs” taken of the workers on arrival and departure on the app would help increase citizen oversight of the program. It would also eliminate any tampering of physical registers. In May 2021, while launching the app, Union Minister of Rural Development, Agriculture, and Farmers’ Welfare, Narendra Singh Tomar said that the app will help in refuting the charge of ghost assets being financed through the scheme.

However, the app is not available on Google Play or the Apple store, or any other major app market, raising concerns about its quality and the safety of the data stored on the app. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.


Das is an official, or “mate,” responsible for logging in the attendance of workers in the program. She bought a smartphone three years ago during the first COVID-induced lockdown for her son’s online classes, then again in May 2022, when the Indian government announced that manual logs of worker attendance will no longer be kept. “Whatever I had saved in the first half of 2022, I used to buy a smartphone,” she explained. Das spent a little over $120 on her smartphone — the equivalent of about 40 days of earnings.

Labor rights advocates and critics of the government allege that the government is bringing in the app and new payment system with the sole purpose of scrapping the program altogether.

Das’ typical day consists of waking up at 4 am, preparing breakfast for her four school-aged children and her husband, who is still sleeping, and leaving for her worksite, which is usually 2-2.5 miles away, arriving at 5:30 am Workers gather at 6 am to get their first attendance recorded on the app. The second round of attendance happens later in the afternoon.

“Till last year, we were done with work and attendance by 11 am. Now we have to wait for the second round of attendance in the afternoon heat,” Das explained. Previously, Das and other laborers supplemented their modest MNREGA salaries by laboring in other people’s fields. That is no longer possible with the extended attendance hours.

Normally, she explains, it would take her about half an hour to physically register 100 workers divided into groups of five in the “muster roll,” but with the app, it takes her at least an hour. In March 2023, 100 employees, headed by Das, labored for six hours to dig up land in order to build a lake. However, her internet signal stopped working when it was time to take attendance the second time. Das’s 100 employees were not given that day’s salaries. “The workers blamed me for their lost wages,” Das told us.

Das went to the Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (village self-government) Department, but they weren’t much help either. Over the last year, government officials have repeatedly asserted that if any difficulties arise, they will be addressed and resolved. The app was piloted in 2021 in the Alwar area of Rajasthan — a small region that could not have generated enough data to justify a national rollout. In fact, the government has not provided any data on the pilot test and evaded questions in the Lok Sabha, India’s parliament.

Another MNREGA mate, Parvati Devi, 32, of Sukma in Chattisgarh, had to walk nearly 3 miles from her worksite every day for six days to connect her smartphone to the internet and upload the attendance. There is only one mobile network tower in the region. Devi had barely heard of Facebook or WhatsApp till nine months ago when she bought the smartphone.

Devi had brought her phone, which had cost her over Rs. 10,600 or $130 in monthly installments, and that she is still paying off. In 2022, the average price of a smartphone in India was Rs.18,300 or $224, which equates to 72 days of wages, or almost three-quarters of the entire wage guaranteed by the program in a given year.


MGNREGA has long served as a refuge for rural Indian women. According to World Bank data from 2021, women account for barely 19% of the Indian workforce. However, women made up 57.8% of MGNREGA workers in 2022-2023. A 2022 report by Oxfam said that less than 32% of women in India own a mobile phone, compared to over 60% of men. According to government data for the fiscal year 2022-2023, 651,310 mobile phones have been registered with the NMMS app, with just 68.5% currently recording attendance.

In addition to the initial costs of purchasing a smartphone, Das, Devi, and thousands of other MNREGA mates must spend at least Rs. 160-240, about $2-3, every month for an internet data package — a significant portion of their income, increasing their financial load.

There is also the matter of phone compatibility with the app. “The cheapest smartphone will not work with the app,” Carina Singh, a lawyer at the protest site, told us. “I was told by a female worker from Rajasthan named Bhagwati that she wanted to register as a mate, but she was told to get a better smartphone,” Singh added.

During a workday, Rekha Kumari’s smartphone display screen got damaged. “I’m still paying off the phone loan; how will I get it fixed?” Kumari, 27, inquired. Kumari is concerned that if she does not get her phone fixed right away, she would lose her position as a mate. The government does not refund internet packages or phone damage.


Two weeks ago, mates in Chhattisgarh’s Bemetara area were unable to access the app because internet connectivity had been suspended due to communal unrest. The district has more than 268,000 MNREGA workers. According to a recent analysis by the US-based digital rights advocacy group Access Now, India accounted for roughly 58% of all reported shutdowns worldwide.

To make matters worse, the Ministry of Rural Development notified state governments on Jan. 30, 2023 that all payments to MNREGA beneficiaries would be mandatorily made through Aadhaar Based Payment System (ABPS)  from Feb. 1, 2023 — two days later.

The new ABPS system recognizes Aadhaar as the financial address. To receive payment, a worker’s Job Card and bank account must not only be seeded with Aadhaar, but the account must also be connected to the National Payments Corporation of India mapper through a process called “mapping.” All this sounds complicated but more so to an average, unskilled worker like Mukesh Singh.

“I haven’t received my wages since February. I’m still not sure how this new payment system works,” said Singh, who has visited the bank three times which is about 15 miles from his home but has yet to complete the biometric linking and “mapping” of his account.

Labor rights advocates and critics of the government allege that the government is bringing in the app and new payment system with the sole purpose of scrapping the program altogether.

“They are experimenting with methods and means to make MNREGA more difficult for people. They want people to stop coming for work by making it more difficult and technical,” said Nikhil Dey, co-founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, or the Association for the Empowerment of Laborers and Farmers.

The Modi government’s aversion to MGNREGA is apparent in this year’s budget, in which the government cut the funding to Rs. 60,000 crore or $7.3 billion, the lowest in four years. It is also the scheme’s second consecutive budget cut, following a 25% cut in the previous budget.

Dey feels that conducting public audits and taking action against corrupt employees is the most effective way to ensure transparency in the system instead of cutting the program’s budget.

The sit-in protest will last 100 days, with MGNREGA workers from around the country arriving at Jantar Mantar in phases. Dey stated that they have tried to communicate with the government about the app. “We went three times to meet them, but they never acknowledged those meetings,” he explained. When asked what would happen if the government did not roll back the app and the new payment method, Das replied, “Then we’ll fight until they do.”

Arbab Ali and Nadeem Sarwar

Arbab Ali and Nadeem Sarwar are freelance reporters based in Delhi, India.

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