Dadul, a security guard at a construction site in Mira Road, returned to Mumbai from Allahabad a month ago. “I went back to my village by truck, paying Rs 3,000, at the start of the pandemic. All I was given from the government at the time was Rs 1,000 and some ration because of the 14-day quarantine. But I was scared of another lockdown, so I stayed back in my village, until recently.” he says. Dadul is not aware of any relief announced for construction workers through the lockdown, and he is not alone in this.
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the central government attempted to leverage pre-existing government schemes to support lower-income groups in the country. They promised direct cash transfers into bank accounts linked to various schemes. But soon, they found that enrollment was abysmally low.
One scheme employed involved the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Boards (BOCW-WB), created in 1996 to provide social security and welfare to the largely informal sector. The 500 lakh-strong workforce, were among the most likely to be left jobless due to the lockdown.
Approximately 55 lakh of the workers are in Maharashtra, many of them migrants attracted by the opportunities in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). The Maharashtra government announced Rs 6,500 for them, in installments of Rs 2,000, Rs 3,000 and Rs 1,500 over the year.
But active registrations in the state were only 13 lakh (in 2020). Further deducting those whose bank details were not available or linked with Aadhaar left only 9-11 lakh workers.
This meant that most workers never saw the relief funds intended for them.
The situation was equally worse in the MMR itself, as NGO YUVA found in a study on the impact of COVID-19. According to the YUVA report, 25% of workers in 16 construction sites were registered with the BOCW-WB, but only 29% of that subsection received the Rs 2,000 (announced then).
To salvage the situation, the Ministry of Labour and Employment ordered the states in July 2020 to fast-track the registration of the workers left out. But the number of active registrations has only decreased, currently standing at 12 lakh.
Where are the funds?
The Maharashtra BOCW-WB has collected over Rs 10,583.7 crore, taken as the mandatory 1% cess from construction projects. This was supposed to provide social security benefits for the workers, covering education assistance for their children, home loans, insurance, etc. But as per the latest information on the website, only 830.51, which is 6.8% of funds, had been used.
The problems that plague the BOCW-WB are not unique to the scheme. Rather, the same pattern – missing beneficiaries and fund underutilisation – is found across government schemes.
Another group chosen for direct cash transfers was women, under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), a financial inclusion programme launched in 2014. Out of nearly 15,000 households in the MMR, YUVA found that only 23% had bank accounts under a woman’s name.
The misconception that zero balance accounts are Jan Dhan accounts resulted in more of them losing out on the Rs 1,500 promised.
“People don’t know about the schemes, how to apply for them, or the documents needed,” says Madhura Karnik, Chief Growth Officer at Haqdarshak. The company uses an assisted-tech model to facilitate access to government schemes and documents. Their trained Haqdarshaks work in pockets of 24 states in tandem with their mobile app.
Civil society organisations and NGOs, like Haqdarshak, funded by philanthropists, grants, CSR funds etc, attempt to fill in the gaps in enrolment left by the state’s labour department.
Getting documents ready at the cost of a day’s wage
Registration under the BOCW welfare board required workers to furnish a 90-day employment certificate from the employer. But for workers in a largely informal sector, acquiring this certification from a single employer poses a big challenge. Many workers are dependent on nakas, where work is fixed on a day-to-day and daily wage basis. Even on construction sites, confusion around the employer – is it the immediate petty contractor or subcontractor? – poses a hurdle. The disparity in enrolments between the workers was stark in YUVA’s survey, finding only 3% of naka workers registered compared to 25% of those who lived and worked on-site.
This issue was addressed to some extent when the Labour Ministry’s order to fast track registrations under the BOCW welfare boards, called ‘Mission Mode Project’, came with some measures to ease the process, albeit for three months only. It recommended an online-only system, removing any physical/in-person requirements. Only Aadhaar and bank details were made mandatory. Self-certification would suffice instead of the 90-day employment certificate.
But hurdles persist beyond this. Minor technicalities like spelling mistakes, unlinked Aadhaar to mobile number, PAN card, ration card, or bank account are often grounds on which applications are rejected. Around 80% of citizens have found wrong spellings and mismatched information on their identity cards, due to poor last-mile data-entry. This leads to 80-90 million Aadhaar cards being updated every year, revealed an RTI response to Moneylife.
“Most of the people we work with in urban areas come from outside the city, and are working for their livelihoods. Whatever documents they have are either back home, or they don’t know about,” says Madhura. Requesting them to make new documents or rectify the mistakes can mean the loss of a day’s wage.
Maharashtra receives the highest number of migrants in the country, according to the 2011 Census. Migration exacerbates the difficulties faced with documentation. Most schemes require an address proof, made harder for those who move frequently or live in informal settlements.
A new solution?
In August 2021, the central government came out with a solution that would unite all unorganised sector workers under one umbrella: the e-SHRAM portal. Everyone from gig workers, domestic workers, daily wage earners and street vendors can register for their unique e-SHRAM number.
The portal’s primary aim is to create a National Database of Unorganised Workers (NDUW), ordered by the Supreme Court in 2018 and then again in 2020. But it also promises to integrate various welfare schemes through it, currently only offering accident insurance under the Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana (PMSBY).
Over 255 million workers have registered, as of February 14th. Registrations in Maharashtra are at 9 million, only 8 lakh of them belonging to the construction sector.
“Once everyone is on the e-SHRAM portal, linking them to multiple government schemes like pensions and insurance, the disbursement of benefits will be very easy,” says Madhura. But the struggle is to get all unorganised workers, estimated between 380 million and 415 million, onboard.
Already, the recurring issue of an Aadhaar-linked mobile number has reared its head. “Most domestic workers either didn’t have their numbers linked or have changed their phone numbers. Others had their Aadhaar linked to their relatives’ number who lived out of state,” says a statement by the Sangrami Gharelu Kamgaar Union, a union for the rights of domestic workers. “Getting out-of-state relatives to provide the OTP over the phone was a tremendous task, as many didn’t read any English.”
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Another resounding complaint has been against the technical process. “The e-SHRAM website was extremely slow to load, especially on mobile phones. Due to server overload, it would often stop working mid-registration. OTPs would not come in during the 180 second window and the website was mostly operational late at night, when traffic was low,” said the union.
Online self-registration is an option for most schemes, through the official website or mobile app. But it is an option most are unable to use. “You can’t expect all construction workers to go to a cyber cafe or fill an online form on their mobile phones. Most of them have feature phones, with no internet access,” says Madhura. The digital divide is stark even in urban India, with less than 50% of urban households having access to the internet.
The workers are then directed to the 4.5 lakh physical common service centres (CSCs) in the country. But unlike the free online route, CSCs and other centres charge a fee for registration. Nonetheless, almost 65% of e-SHRAM registrations to date have been through them.
“There has to be decentralisation in the implementation and facilitation of the schemes,” says Madhura. “Today, every scheme has a different application process and a different set of documents needed. All of it needs to be streamlined and simplified.”
It remains to be seen how the e-SHRAM portal will disseminate the benefits of government schemes, and whether it will cover the ambit of state and central schemes.