Amid a flurry of reports stating that Aadhaar-based payments have improved efficiency of Direct Benefit Transfers (DBTs), economist and rural jobs guarantee programme architect Jean Dreze has rubbished the claims, saying that the system has instead added to irregularity in payments.
MGNREGA workers have become “guinea-pigs for immature financial technologies such as the Aadhaar Payments Bridge System”, Jean Dreze said in an exclusive interview with FE Online. In addition to the old problem of delayed wage payments, Jean Dreze said, now there other problems such as “rejected payments, diverted payments and locked payments”.
Jean Dreze is a Belgian-born Indian economist known for his work in development economics. He is a known associate of noted economist Amartya Sen and has co-authored ‘An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradiction’ with the Nobel Laureate. Besides conceptualizing and drafting the first version of the MGNREGA, Jean Dreze has also been a member of National Advisory Council during UPA-1 and UPA -2.
Asked if Aadhaar could bring more transparency to DBTs, Jean Dreze said that it has instead made direct payments difficult for ordinary people to understand and is anything but transparent. “To illustrate, if you have several bank accounts, which is very common today, the Aadhaar Payments Bridge System automatically sends money to your last Aadhaar-linked account. But people rarely know about this, so they often look for their wages or pensions in the wrong account. Sometimes the APBS sends money to an account they know nothing about, such as an Airtel wallet,” he said. “For NREGA workers and pensioners, the APBS is anything but transparent,” he said to FE Online.
It is not just the Aadhaar-based payment that is a problem but other issues too have slowed the momentum of MGNREGA, such as lack of timely payment and middle-men corruption, he said. “Talk to any rural worker in Jharkhand today and he or she will tell you that there is little point working on MGNREGA if there is no guarantee of being paid in good time.
Even then, of course, some people are desperate enough to take a chance with MGNREGA work. But when so many workers lose interest, corrupt middlemen take advantage of the lack of vigilance to siphon off MGNREGA funds. This is a big setback in the battle against corruption. The situation may be better in other states, but I doubt that these problems are confined to Jharkhand,” Jean Dreze said.
On what should government’s top priority for next five years, Jean Dreze said that it should be children of this country. “The well being and future of millions of children are being ruined today for lack of nutrition, health and education services in early childhood. This neglect also manifests itself later on in the form of a huge army of low-productivity labour, which holds up the growth of wages.” He said that the Narendra Modi government seems more concerned with India’s power and prestige in the world than with the living conditions of ordinary citizens.