Home / Opinion / Online-views /  The information poverty of a digitally-rich MGNREGA

Information is a great enabler for the educated as well as the illiterate. For many, Internet is the biggest junkyard of information. Yet, for many, the junkyard is a source of empowerment.

It is paradoxical how information and the Internet play a game of not knowing each other among the corridors of government.

On the one hand, it is because of the Right to Information Act (RTI) the government is obliged to produce all its information on websites for public viewing. On the other hand, the implementers of the same government schemes cheat people on the ground and show satisfactory implementation on the websites. I am talking about the biggest government scheme —Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)—which promises a minimum of 100 days of work to millions of the poor who ask for it.

Rekha Devi, 35, a mother of two children, cannot read or write. She lives in Ratnauli village of Muzaffarpur district in Bihar. Last month, she was showed a piece of paper printout with her name and details that she had been issued an MGNREGA job card and that she had been paid for 100 days of labour worth 16,200.

At first, she thought it was a job offer, but when it was explained to her, she said she was unaware of any such scheme. Incidentally, she was not the only one. There are hundreds and perhaps thousands in and around Ratnauli village council whose name could be found, till recently, on the list of those paid under the MGNREGA scheme.

Little did they know that somebody else was withdrawing the money in their name. If there were no Internet, none of these illiterate labourers would have come to know about this mass cheating. It all happened with a simple Internet connection and access point that was facilitated in Ratnauli that we started recently. Actually, a couple of months ago, we established what we call a Community Information Resource Centre (CIRC) in Ratnauli. The purpose of the centre was to spread digital literacy among the village youth and offer readymade information from the Internet relevant to the villagers.

How does it work? Well, there is a cowshed that has been cleaned and converted into a place where wooden plank has been attached to the thatched walls, on which about five laptops have been kept. The machines are connected with data-card Internet facility.

A couple of youth has been trained on how to access information and give print-outs. We call them soochna sewaks (information assistants). There are also a few MGNREGA and RTI activists who are always with the centre to guide the sewaks find the exact information required by a villager about the status of their job and payment under MGNREGA. Initially, the star MGNREGA activist Sanjay Sahni, whose story I had already written earlier (http://goo.gl/KqbhUy), used to take out prints.

In fact, Sahni made us realize the information available at the village level is totally different from the information published on the Internet. In other words, in the absence of governance, there is fake information being served by agents of e-governance.

Ironically, because of the lack of connectivity or access or awareness, the people at the village level do not know how to check if the information about them is correct.

Incidentally, the poverty of resources and information in Ratnauli and its adjoining villages is so abject that every night, people in their homes, under candlelight, talk about the availability of print-outs from CIRC as a magic wand.

The queue at CIRC is getting longer, to seek muster roll information and status of MGNREGA jobs and payment. Till date, labourers from 15 panchayats in the area have come to CIRC regarding job cards. Most are women. Considering what the Internet and information can do, the rural development ministry can consider the idea of having kiosks at panchayats across districts where MGNREGA is being delivered, and then let it be run by the community.

Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and curator of the Manthan Award. He is member of the working group for Internet proliferation and governance, ministry of communication and information technology. Follow him on twitter @osamamanzar.

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