A fight for better governance
In the last week of May, while the Gujjar agitation rocked parts of Rajasthan, Bagidora, a tiny block in Banswara, witnessed a different kind of protest. From May 28 to June 4, as many as 248 activists, academics and policy-makers campaigned against the corruption in the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The campaign was conducted under the banner of the ‘Rozgar Evum Soochana Adhikar Abhiyaan’ (RESAA) after a social audit in 54 NREGA worksites in 18 gram panchayats in the Bagidora block. The auditors verified government expenditure, spread awareness about the Act and mobilised the local people to fight corruption.
A social audit is a process through which citizens compare state-reported expenditures of development works with the actual amount spent. Evidence is gathered through interactions with participants in development projects, verification of schemes and interviews with panchayat members and local officials. Findings are then shared with government officials. Social audits are mandatory under the NREGA.
In the days preceding the audit, research was conducted to procure, demystify and consolidate expenditure records. This included muster rolls (employment registers), procurement bills and measurement books. Activists worked with block-level officials to collate information and prepare materials for the auditors. The audit covered 18 gram panchayats where over 30,000 labourers got work in 2006-07. The audit was followed by meetings with gram sabhas (village councils) in panchayats and findings were shared with labourers and officials. In some cases, officials were asked to respond. Later, the audit teams converged at the block headquarters where a public hearing (jan sunwai) was held in the presence of district, state and national-level officials and politicians.
The auditing process revealed some important facts about the implementation of NREGA in Bagidora. Historically in India, and Rajasthan in particular, record-keeping in employment generation schemes has been very poor and not available for public scrutiny. Moreover, most works were implemented through contractors who would take a cut, ensuring that wages never reached the labourer. Findings from the social audit in Bagidora suggested that contractors have been done away with in the NREGA in Rajasthan. Muster rolls were being maintained and were also available for public scrutiny. Finally, there were no visible signs of contractors or middlemen in the implementation of the scheme.
Yet, corruption is rampant. To begin with, fake names were found on many rolls. In one panchayat, the names of the headman’s entire family were found. When auditors interviewed the ‘workers’ and cross-checked with other workers in the village, it became evident that not a single family member of the headman had worked on any site. Yet, they all received wages for over 100 days (the minimum guarantee provided by the law) of work.
The more worrying aspect was that large amounts of money were being siphoned off in the name of material procurement. For instance, in one panchayat, bills were submitted for 60 bags of cement for the construction of a checkdam, but the audit revealed only 15 bags were used. The local panchayat president made Rs 1.5 lakh through these fake bills.The audit also highlighted the challenges facing the scheme. First, most people were unaware of the legal entitlements of the Act. For instance, the Act mandates that any individual holding a job card can apply for work and is guaranteed employment within 15 days of submitting the application. If the applicant does not get work, he or she is entitled to unemployment insurance. Prior to the audit, not a single job application had been submitted. In at least two panchayats, no work was initiated since March even though people were desperate for work. The reason: lack of awareness. Worksite facilities such as crèche, medical kit and shade (mandatory under the Act) had not been provided, mostly because of lack of awareness.
The second problem was with measurement of the work done. According to the state government’s guidelines, payments should be made on the basis of the ‘task’ performed by individuals. Earlier, a labourer had to dig 62 cubic feet to earn Rs 73. This, according to many, was unrealistic. Recognising the harsh conditions under which labourers have to work, the government reduced the ‘task by 40 per cent’. However, labourers and officials are unaware of this. Worse, measurements are taken on completion of work rather than daily. This is then divided on a group basis, thereby encouraging free riders.
The social audit unravels many other challenges. Crucially, the process demonstrates the need for public vigilance and monitoring. Direct investigations of accounts can go a long way in identifying the misuse of funds. Moreover, the very act of interacting with labourers and organising gram sabhas on the NREGA can strengthen awareness about the scheme. Through its meticulous analysis of government expenditures, its ability to hold officials to account for these expenditures and spreading information, social auditing has thepotential to transform governance in India.