A day in the life of MGNREGA mate: Long walks, oppressive heat, and a pesky mobile appWritten By Amarpal Singh Verma | Published on Updated: Nov 16, 2022, 12:45 IST | 1668582924191Hanumangarh: From making payments to marking attendance and allotting work, everything is now digital under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Formulated in 2005, the game-changer scheme generates employment for rural masses. A gram panchayat-level committee under the supervision of gram pradhan appoints MGNREGA mates in villages. One mate manages 40 labourers. To understand the technicalities, on-ground hardships and humane moments, 101Reporters followed the life of Preetpal Kaur — an MGNREGA mate in Satipura gram panchayat of Hanumangarh district — for a day, on October 19, 2022.
In her early 30s, Kaur belongs to Gadarana in Sirsa district of Haryana, but moved to Dhaliya after marriage at the age of 19. Six years ago, Kaur lost her husband in a road accident. She was pregnant then, with a toddler also vying for her attention. Later, she remarried. Ever since she joined duty in 2021, she has been supervising workers without fail — through the hottest summers, chilliest winters and heaviest rains. Her duty time is from 9 am to 4 pm, but the summer schedule is slightly different, from 6 am to 1 pm.
Hanumangarh is in Rajasthan, where mercury soars to above 50 degree Celsius in summers and dips to minus degree in winters.
Around 8.30 am, about three dozen labourers registered under MGNREGA have started flocking near the village canal, waiting under a tree for Kaur to arrive and allot them work. At 9 am, Kaur reaches the spot after a long walk from Dhaliya to Sitapura. She calls out to the labourers to gather closer and divides them in a group of four or five each. She opens the MGNREGA app on her phone to record their attendance, along with a picture.
Kaur has adapted to digitisation well. She herself starts by measuring the land on the canal track before allocating work to different groups. The labourers pick up the scattered soil to dump it on the canal banks. Some were plucking away the weed and bushes alongside. This is the job for the day — to strengthen the banks of the canal. Kaur can catch a breath now.
"I get up around 4.30 am, give fodder and water to cattle, finish household chores and leave for work at 8 am," Kaur says. She walked 2 km to reach the work site today, and will mostly walk back too. With an honorarium of Rs 235 per day, this is the best possible option for her. The labourers hardly get work for 15 days in a month. So, Kaur also earns only for a maximum of 15 days.
“Tempo charges Rs 30 one way and bus fare is Rs 20,” she says. If she was to opt for them, she would have to spend roughly Rs 50 per day on just commuting.
At 12 pm, Kaur announces lunch break. Labourers drop their tools and walk towards a tree. As they sit under its shade and open their lunch dabbas, satiating hunger for the next 20 minutes, Kaur joins them. She has brought rotis and sabzi today. Meanwhile, a female labourer lights a fire to prepare and serve tea.
Kaur takes a sip and says, “Initially, for four to five years, I worked in the fields. As I was an intermediate pass, I got this MGNREGA mate job.”
At 1 pm, under the unrelenting sun, Kaur is seen sitting on the canal track. She keeps a check on the labourers to ensure smooth workflow. Though the weather is clear after the long monsoon and nights are colder, the afternoons are still hot. “This time is much better. If you had come here in Jyestha (mid-May to mid-June), you would have known how hot it could get. There won't be any respite, even when under a shade. But we are used to such summers and winters.''
Kaur spots two workers walking away from the site. She follows and calls them out. Upon getting a satisfactory explanation, she nods and walks back. “I must ensure that they work continuously. Officers show up for surprise inspections. I would be reprimanded if even one labourer is missing from the worksite. Recently, two mates were blacklisted for similar reasons.”
"Do your work properly. It should not be sub-standard," she announces.
Kaur reaches out for a jug of water to find respite from heat. The allotted work is for four hours, which ends at 1.35 pm, after which Kaur will again record the labourers' day-end attendance on the app. But the day is not over yet. “They will have to sit here till 4 pm. I will stay too.”
At 1.35 pm, Kaur repeatedly clicks on the app, but to no avail. After multiple attempts, she explains how the application is down at times. Now, she will have to wait for an hour and retry. If it is still down, then she has to click pictures of all labourers and send them to the official WhatsApp group of gram panchayat along with her GPS location and time stamp.
“After this, my work is considered complete.”
Kaur walks to the tubewell to quench thirst again and sits down for grievance redressal. Omprakash, Mohammad Hameed, Sugran Bibi and Tanuja request her to allot work near their village to avoid long tiring walks. Another says, “Payment should be disbursed on time.”
No tents or drinking water pots are made available for workers here, though the Act stipulates so. “Thankfully there is a tree shade, otherwise what would we do in this heat?” Another one asks: “Why are we made to sit until 4 pm when the work ends much earlier?”
In her reply, Kaur expresses her inability to resolve these problems. “I just have your names on this muster roll. These problems can only be resolved by the government. I simply follow the directions of the gram panchayat office.”
After an hour-long session, it is 3 pm now. Kaur arranges the labourers in groups and starts taking their pictures as the MGNREGA application is still down. She then forwards them to the WhatsApp group with the necessary details. At 4 pm, workers take leave, and Kaur also gets ready for her long walk to home, where her children and other family members would be awaiting her.
“So your duty is over now?”
Kaur laughs. “Not yet. I have to go home, make rotis and feed everyone. I have many jobs.”