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Enter the watchdog

Social audits can help the poor keep an eye on State spending on development projects. But we need to strengthen the system for better results, writes KP Shashidharan.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 17:12 IST
KP Shashidharan

Recently an interesting article appeared in The New York Times on how after the completion of a social audit at Nagarkurnool in Andhra Pradesh, villagers punished a local official for swindling funds allocated to the central government's flagship project, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme. The irate villagers tied the official's hands and paraded him around the neighbouring villages. This is not a one-off incident; similar accounts have appeared in the media from other states too.

By now, social audits have become critical to enforce the proper implementation of development programmes and reduce corruption. The poor are joining hands with the government and NGOs to achieve socio-economic justice through inclusive community governance. Over the years, social audits have emerged as a powerful tool to demand the legitimate rights of marginalised villagers. The time is now ripe for them to get the right kind of information, skills and knowledge to question and take action against corrupt practices and officials.

Though the concept of social audit was first used in the West, it was in a different context. The auditing process that has evolved in India has been meticulously nurtured and developed by social activists. People's audit is a powerful tool because it can tackle the root causes of corruption by scrutinising accounts and documents and corroborating them with physical verification, fact-finding inquiries and interrogation and roll out remedial and preventive actions without any delay. They can also help in finding details of corruption like payment of commissions, frauds in material management, fake or ghost job cards, delay in payments, threat by authorities including panchayat heads, arrange public hearings to decide on suitable action and file FIRs against the corrupt persons. It has by now become the audit of the people, by the people, for the people.

The NREGA's Section 17 provides for social audits and makes people aware about their rights and entitlements. It provides a formal platform for articulation of the perceptions of wage seekers and brings out the strengths and weaknesses of the programme.

Understanding the advantages of people-led audits, the Andhra Pradesh government — a state where social audits are conducted most effectively — has established the 'Society for Social Audit, Accountability and Transparency'. The Society will be responsible for training as well as facilitating audits to ensure transparency and accountability.

The state extends certain minimum facilities to the social audit teams and issues guidelines for regulating and training the trainers. If it is allowed to function properly by creating an enabling environment, the system will ensure social and public accountability of the elected representatives, government and non-government organisations and other stakeholders who operate in villages.

It is important to strengthen social audits as a nation-building movement for effectively implementing all flagship development programmes for the poor and, thereby, achieving inclusive economic growth. The government has now extended audits to Basic Services for Urban Poor and Integrated Housing & Slum Development Programme under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission covering 63 mission cities, comprising 70% of the country's urban poor, involving specific responsibilities to central and state governments, urban local bodies and parastatals with a big push for the development of slum-free states and slum-free cities within a specified timeframe.

Unless supported by the stakeholders, social audits will remain a legal formality since there's an inherent risk that vested interests may hijack the entire process and not allow the villagers to raise their voice against corruption. There needs to be elaborate training programmes to train social auditors to conduct the audit systematically. There is need for effective interaction and relevant information flow from all sources relating to the specific village, block or district forming the three tier-Panchayati Raj Institutions.

In order to make these audits effective, information from ministries and accounts of the units certified by chartered accountants and audit observations of the CAG of India on the schemes relevant to the audit should be made available on the web. At present, accounts and audit-related information on the government's flagship development programmes, central and state government enterprises, and local, urban bodies and utilities are available in different reports on the official website of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. Now, we need to make this information available to social audit units. This may need customisation and a change in how the data is presented. This may be true in case of administrative ministries too.

Besides, it is important to provide adequate powers to the gram sabhas (village councils) so that they can work as self-reliant republics and appoint an ombudsman to look into complaints against mala fide intent of local administrations. It is important to ensure that rural whistleblowers also get adequate protection.

A meaningful partnership should develop among civil society organisations, government agencies, budgeting, accounts and audit departments of the schemes and people's representatives under the Panchayati Raj Institutions to enforce an accountable regime at the grassroots level so that inclusive community governance becomes a reality.

KP Shashidharan is director-general, Comptroller and Auditor General of India. The views expressed by the author are personal.