Sarpanches and gram-sewaks are creating havoc on the streets, rioting and striking, to protest against the half-yearly social audits that evaluate work done by villagers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS), which entitles the rural poor to 100 days of employment a year, building local infrastructure in their villages.
The social audit, scheduled to begin on August 26, has proved to be an utterly unwelcome move with sarpanches boycotting it widely and gram sewaks (Panchayat secretaries) going on strike. All of a sudden, the sarpanches who were regarded as the talisman of decentralized grassroots governance — are playing game to affirm their rights to take undue advantage & procure materials under the MGNREGA so that their pockets don’t exhaust & social audits do not meet their purpose. The Opposition parties have of course started intervening (our politicians are so used to crucify each other for their own interests) with ex-Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje all supporting & sympathizing with the sarpanch protests. As expected, the entire matter has taken face of huge political game, with the interests of the intended beneficiaries lost in the process.
The story began from Banswara district; the backlash started visibly by the corrupt & anti social elements involved in the social audit. It was well understood by the corrupt elements that social audits were here to stay with impending fear that their deeds will soon be exposed.
The progressive resistance came from the sarpanches and the gram sewaks, following the Bhilwara social audit in October 2009, which uncovered huge frauds in the material component alone, they mounted pressure on the state government with strikes and gheraoes and even went to the High Court. The state government acted decisively by taking away their responsibility of making material purchases and giving it to the block offices instead. This was more than what the sarpanches could digest, and as a result the protests exploded.
This is where the amendment to Section 13, Schedule I of the Act came to their aid, through a gazette notification dated December 31, 2008, stating that “the social audit process shall be open to public participation, any outside individual person apart from the Gram Sabha shall be allowed to attend the social audit as observers without intervening the proceedings of the Social Audit.” This nullified the whole thrust of social audit. The sarpanches gained relief as the High Court staying the entire social audit process in the state, ruling that Section 13b had to be followed to the letter. With this, the social audits as done earlier in a campaign/participatory mode came to complete halt.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which has lighten hope in the rural landscape across the country, has succumbed to mockery in the land of its birth, Rajasthan. Unfortunately social audit of the Rs. 40,000-crore Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in his own home state is on the brink of collapse.
Social Audit: Humbug in disguise.
Social audit is proposed to be conducted jointly by the government and the people, especially by those people who are affected by, or are the intended beneficiaries of, the scheme being audited. But according to central government notification it is ought to be conducted by people who implement it & citizens are conditioned to be mere observers of this legalized money drain.
Social Audit can bring the much needed change by involving the people in the task of verification, making the whole process more transparent and participatory. In a matter of five years, the entire conception, formulation and practice of social audits in the state as an independent, open, inclusive, fair and participatory process where people — whether from inside or ‘outside’ could objectively facilitate and enable labourers to assert their rights has been systematically attacked and dismantled. In its place has crept up a legalized & pretentious system where the corrupt system will audit itself and still call it a social audit!
The NREGA 2005 historically made social audit mandatory under Section 17, vesting these powers with the Gram Sabha. Section 13 of Schedule I (at the end of the Act) reiterated that “every scheme shall contain adequate provisions for ensuring transparency and accountability at all level of implementation.
In addition, the Operational Guidelines 2008 of the NREGA 2005 envisaged Social Audit Forums, defined as “periodic assemblies convened by the Gram Sabha as part of the process of social audit” where a mandatory review of all aspects of the social audit would take place at Gram Sabha meetings to be held at least once in every six months, solely for this purpose.
Thus, although the ‘social audit forums’ were seen as special purpose the guidelines explicitly stated that the forums would not be presided by the sarpanch (who is usually the chairperson of the Gram Sabha) or anyone to do with the Panchayat or any implementing agency. It also specified that the secretary of the forum must be an official from outside the Gram Panchayat and the person responsible for presenting the information should not be a person involved in implementing the work. But quiet & strategic amendment of Section 13 b (December 2008), Schedule I of the Act, in favor of all corrupt elements & keeping ‘outsiders’ at bay in the whole social audit process has left me wondering the integrity & objective of such audits.
The earlier social audit mechanism allowed those outside the Gram Sabha to be part of the evaluation of the programme. Changes in the rules in December 2008 made it mandatory for the Sarpanch to be the head of the auditing mechanism and no one other than the Panchayat to sit on the audit. This has resulted in the auditing being carried out by the persons implementing the Act. Section 13(b) became the guiding light for all social audits in the state, and any outside participation became a strict no-no. The restricting of participation of anyone with informed opinion and data, in the social audit process is the denial of a citizen’s right to monitor public funds but that is what section 13 amendment have resulted into.
The bitter story:
An outcry by the Campaign and worries on account of corruption established in previous audits led the government to announce ‘special audits’ in all 36 districts in December 2009. Irregularities to the tune of Rs. 6.2 crore were discovered, averaging around Rs. 21 lakh in each Panchayat. In April, during an inspection tour of Churu district, two firms, listed as sources for cement and gravel purchases worth 2.4 crore, were fictitious. And in Ajmer, one of the four listed water-harvesting structures did not exist. For every 500 meters’ of gravel road that they fraudulently claim to have built on paper, Panchayat officials made off with 3.5 lakh of public funds. The social audit in Bhilwara in October 2009 revealed irregularities in 10 of the 11 panchayats. The next audit in Alwar witnessed even more drama after one of the panchayat officials absconded with the records (shockingly soon he won a stay from the Jaipur High Court).
In Nachna panchayat of Jaisalmer, Rs. 10,000 was shown as paid to four villagers who were dead before the work started and five others who were government employees. Officials pocketed over Rs. 30 lakh in Udaipur Bada panchayat, Banswada district, by issuing bearer cheques to themselves for no reason.
The Andhra Experience
For those who see this as a hopeless situation, there are important lessons to be learnt from Andhra Pradesh. AP has put in place a system where an autonomous Society for Social Audit, Accountability and Transparency (SSAT), led by a social activist (and not a government servant) has institutionalized social audit of MGNREGA in such a way that maximizes government support and minimizes its interference. Importantly, it has kept up a separation of the implementing and auditing bodies and proved that ordinary laborers when imparted with the right skills can conduct effective social audits. Today, social audits are done regularly in all districts of AP. Social audit teams are selected from among villagers based on a random basis and trained by district resource persons. They are then allotted villages to conduct the social audits, thus avoiding the pitfalls of Gram Sabha selection.
The effects have been phenomenal. As of June 30, 2010, Rs. 82 crores worth of misappropriated funds have come to light, of which around Rs. 15 crores has been recovered; 33,807 field-level functionaries have been implicated; 3,842 staff have been dismissed based on the social audit findings and 1,430 suspended. A total of 548 FIRs have been lodged and 1,220 departmental enquiries have been initiated. All this has been possible by 60,000 village social auditors (wage earners trained in social audit) trained by 700-odd district and state resource persons largely drawn from civil society organizations and 22 technical resource persons. Andhra Pradesh’s initiatives and its outcomes are commendable. It is noteworthy that this approach to social audit is expounded in the ‘NREGS-AP Conducting of Social Audit Rules’ adopted in 2008. Andhra Pradesh has set high standards of probity. Since the inception of the scheme, 3,864 panchayat and district officials have been dismissed and 1,435 suspended. It has conducted audits in 1,085 blocks and recovered Rs. 15.3 crore of the Rs. 81 crore that was misappropriated.
The way ahead
Andhra experience has given a ray of hope; it has displayed sheer commitment to social audit by institutionalizing citizen audits. But will Rajasthan ever experience silver lining? Can the efficient social audit model be replicated in other states too or do I hear infamous bug “corruption” yet again??
What renders the State Government’s present social audit framework entirely unworkable is that it goes against the basic tenets of audit, which calls for a total separation of the implementing and the auditing agencies. A perusal of circulars and orders issued by the state government on its scheduled social audits shows that this principle stands completely violated. Can the rules be modified again for greater good?
The Rajasthan government in turn could capitalize the opportunity by taking stringent action to bypass the sarpanches with their corrupt intentions and reach its voters directly. The most critical factor absent in the social audit attempts in Rajasthan is the absence of a strong political and administrative will to execute the audits. Andhra has shown what a state can achieve with a strong resolve, versus a one with corrupt intentions.
Perhaps we can just hope that situation revolutionizes for intended beneficiaries, the sooner the better.