Commenting on the rural employment guarantee scheme before it became an Act in 2005, an avant-garde economist suggested that the money (Rs 40,000 crore or so) be dropped from a helicopter because any other way it would not reach the poor. The bulk of middle class Indians share the cynicism but a section of rural poor are beginning to evolve sure shot methods of intervention that make the copter redundant.
The initiative is particularly significant now when India is witnessing a spate of radical social sector announcements. In 2006-7, Center’s expenditure on social services including rural development increased to Rs 87,607 from Rs 19,240 in 1995-96, according to the Economic Survey. Most social sector schemes being state subjects, the combined expenditure is much more and is continuing to expand.
Matter of participation
Cynicism apart, schemes like the BPL old age pension and the countrywide employment guarantee, have generated new enthusiasm and hope. The problem, however, is that people on the margins hardly participate in public affairs. Vikram K Chand, a senior public service delivery specialist with the World Bank, cautions that when the citizens fail to demand improved public services, politicians lose the incentive to take the issue seriously.
The silver lining is that despite our politicians India’s rural poor are beginning to intervene. The Hunger Project chief, Rita Sarin recalls that 10 elected women Panchayat members landed up in Delhi all the way from Arunachal Pradesh last month, following the trail of a development grant meant for civic amenities like water, toilets and primary health centres. But for their initiative, the money had very little chance of being released because it was stuck in tangles of banking technicalities.
Social audit system
Like financial audits, social auditing is a system of bookkeeping for social sector expenditure to be independently verified when required. Many countries like the UK certify social auditors but in India it is mainly a civil society activity where NGOs (with or without the state governments’ partnership) open books and ledgers publicly to potential beneficiaries. A senior AP government official says that without the civil society partnership, the recovery of money would be nearly impossible. The first phase of several hundred social audits in 13 AP districts have so far recovered more than Rs 70 lakh (see table) embezzled from the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) scheme.
A Planning Commission paper on making social audit a viable instrument for programme delivery in rural India recommends that legal provisions be created to make social audits mandatory for all panchayati raj institutions. Submitted in October 2005, the report recommends that the local bodies’ accounts and social audit reports be put on the Internet and without this no fresh funds be released for welfare schemes.