HOW EFFECTIVE CAN A SOCIAL AUDIT ON GOVERNMENT’S INITIATIVE BE?

HOW EFFECTIVE CAN A SOCIAL AUDIT ON GOVERNMENT’S INITIATIVE BE?

The Rural Development Department of the Andhra Pradesh Government is conducting Social Audit of the Andhra Pradesh Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme being implemented under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act which came into force from Februray 2, 2006. Andhra Pradesh is probably the first state in the country where such a process has begun and the credit for this goes entirely to the Principal Secretary of the Rural Development Department here, K. Raju. It is normally unheard of that any government department would subject its performance to public scrutiny, especially a department dealing with development works where huge siphoning off of resources has become the norm rather than exception. Fake muster rolls are one of the biggest sources of corruption in this country. By mentioning fictitious names, names of upper caste people who never perform manual labour, names of people who have migrated to cities long time back, names of people who are too old to work or exaggerating the number of days of work for labourers who have performed work, it is a common practice to withdraw huge sums of money from the government exchequer. In addition to the abovementioned discrepancies, it might also be the case that the work being shown on paper was never actually performed. In Hardoi District of U.P., recently is was discovered that a canal was being desilted on paper in 2004-05 by using the funds of Bharawan Block Panchayat whereas the Irrigation Department had taken a decision five years back not to release water in this canal. Over Rs. 3 lakhs were embezzled in this instance.

Social Audit is a process where in an open meeting of the village physical verification of the records is done with the help of officials, people’s representatives and the people. In fact, the citizens of the Gram Sabha are supposed to perform this audit. In addition to the verification of financial details it is also ensured that other provisions of the NREGA are being followed. It is an opportunity for the people to evaluate the entire scheme and also determine the quality of development works in their village. In a new democratic culture building up in the country since the Right to Information Act has been implemented, it is a chance for citizens to intervene and check the rampant prevalent corruption and irregularities in the system.

The advantage of Government itself facilitating such a social audit process is that the government documents become easily accessible to the people, a right for which the country had to wait for 58 years since independence. Since most of the corruption takes place by fudging figures on paper, once documents start becoming public there will be a natural check on corruption. As these papers get into the hands of common people, they also discover ways and manners in which irregularities are committed. It is a real feeling of empowerment to be actually checking whether everybody has received the wages that have been mentioned on the muster rolls and whether the measurements of the work are according to what is mentioned in the measurement books.

Considerable enthusiasm is seen among the people in these social audit exercises. The entire atmosphere of transparency forces the officials to take corrective action whenever a discrepancy is discovered. For example, if a person had not been paid what is shown on the muster roll or pay order then she is paid the full amount due to her. There have been instances where the Post Office incharge, who disburses the payments, deducts a portion of the wages before making payments to the villagers. Sometimes, the measurements of the work are exaggerated. In Andhra Pradesh, where the administration is proactively involved in social audit it is also making sure that such discrepancies are removed as soon as they are discovered. Because there is a will at the top, the errant officials or functionaries are punished or fall in line. Moveover, the officials and functionaries performing their duties diligently get recognition. For example, a Field Assistant paid one day’s wage from her pocket when she discovered that for a woman labourer one day less was mentioned by mistake on the muster roll. She also watered the plants, planted as part of the works under APREGS, when they were going dry by carrying a water can on her bicycle. A Post Office incharge went to 3 villages to distribute the wages himself to ensure that no middlemen took away any commissions. This Field Assistant and Post Office Incharge were recently honoured at a meeting held a Mulugu Mandal Office. Otherwise, the norm is that such honest and diligent employees are marginalized in a system where the corrupt receive patronage from the higher ups. The present set up of Rural Development department of the A.P. is a welcome exception to this norm.

However, if the initiative of social audit remains in the hands of the government or administration, there is a danger that ultimately it’ll be subverted. How many cases of corruption do we know where an enquiry was set up and because the individuals who were conducting the investigation were from the same class of people as they were investigating, the results of such exercises did not yield the desired result and the matters were covered up? We would not like to see the social audit process currently being undertaken in A.P. to degenerate to a state where the social auditors develop vested interests shared with the people responsible for implementing the APREGS. Hence it is very important that the initiative of the social audit process remains in the hands of common people. The Gram Sabha is the appropriate body to conduct this exercise and not some externally chosen professionals. Hence the Gram Sabhas or some people’s organizations (not NGOs who normally do not represent the interests of the community and whose agenda is driven by funding agencies) should be entrusted with this task. If the department of Rural Development can ensure this and can keep the intervention of the officials minimal in the process of social audit then this exercise will bear fruits. The government department’s role should be limited to creating public awareness and facilitating the social audits where there are some obstacles. An empowered citizenry is the only key to ensuring transparency and accountability in the system.

By Sandeep Pandey

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