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Friday, September 22, 2023

India’s Tech Obsession May Leave Millions of Workers Without Pay | WIRED

But this is still better than when the internet works at the start of the day but doesn’t at the end. “That means there is no proof we worked the whole day and we risk losing our wages,” Kanal says. “It is insulting.”

Often, she says, she works for 15 days in a month but logs only seven or eight days in the system, because the internet is down so frequently in her village. “I have lost wages because of it,” she says. “This is our only source of income. We can’t afford to lose money.” Her husband now often goes to the nearby cities of Thane or Vasai to look for work, she adds.

This is a common problem, according to Vinod Thackre, another assistant in the same block of Vikramgad. Since the introduction of the app, 300 workers from his village have dropped out, he says. “There were 500 that had enrolled under MNREGA when 2023 began. Now there are just 200. Many of them now migrate to cities to find work.”

The government claims that digitizing the attendance records helps curb corruption in the system. However, critics say the system doesn’t add much in the way of accountability. “There are innumerable examples where photos of crowds, boats, books are submitted and even accepted,” says Nikhil Dey, founding member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), the organization for the power of laborers and farmers. “That means you are not even looking at them.”

Osama Manzar, founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, an NGO, says that the rollout of NMMS is symptomatic of the government’s belief in creating digital tools as an end in itself, without thinking about the people who will actually have to live with the consequences.

“The way our bureaucrats and policymakers approach technology, they love to show that we are technology-friendly and adopting new technology,” he says. “That is the attitude. We have to prove that we are technologically advanced.”

In 2015, Modi launched Digital India, a campaign launched to ensure that government services are made available to citizens electronically. Since then, Manzar believes, the administration has been pushing to make the campaign a visible success.

“It helps the government say we have digitally delivered these services to millions of people,” he says. “It makes for a great story internationally.” But although the sheer size of India’s population means the absolute number of people reached by these digital services looks impressive, “the government’s PR machinery won’t talk about how many people were excluded in the process.”

Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at Access Now, a digital rights group, says that the private sector has also driven some of the momentum. “There has been a lot of private sector influence to drive the creation of tools,” he says. “People develop tools in order to justify the usage of other existing digital infrastructure, rather than seeing what people actually want.”

Chima says that even though there have often been problems with the rollouts of these digital services, lessons are rarely learned, because no one is held accountable for failures.

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