The right to information empowers a common man to access information from any public office within 30 days, failing which the act provides for penalty. But Comptroller and Auditor General of India Vinod Rai cannot claim such luck when he calls for information while auditing a government office or programme involving public money.
While many may comply with his request, he can do nothing to those who hold it back as his office does not have statutory backing to ensure timely and unfettered access to records.
Not surprisingly, Rai is keen that the Bill that redefines its mandate by replacing the CAG Act 1971 is in place by the winter session of Parliament. The draft legislation states that information asked by CAG shall be provided within 30 days, as is done under RTI.
A comprehensive audit draft Bill was sent to the finance ministry last November. The CAG sent reminders for expediting the Bill for cabinet and parliamentary approval. “We sent another reminder a month back. My officers are in daily touch with them,’’ Rai told HT.
The Bill is also expected to address three other major loopholes that have virtually turned a powerful accountability instrument into a toothless one.
First, in the absence of statutory provision of a time-frame for tabling CAG reports in legislatures and Parliament — the law just says it should be done “as soon as possible” — there are instances of state and central governments not doing so for a year. The proposed Bill suggests that if Parliament/legislature is in session, the report be tabled during the session otherwise within seven days of the session being convened.
Second, though CAG monitors government money, about 53 per cent of plan expenditure — or around Rs 83,223 crore for 2010-11 — is outside its purview and parliamentary oversight. The proposed Bill is likely to give CAG the authority to review such accounts.
Third, the government needs to take a conscious view on whether or not to allow CAG to oversee decisions of the 50-odd new regulators unless they have an appellate tribunal.
Is CAG asking for too much? “We are not asking for powers to probe, penalise or ensure implementation,” Rai said.