Meghalaya shows the way on social audit. Other states must follow
Social audits are increasingly becoming critical these days because the accountability and transparency mechanism of India’s local government structure has not kept pace with the increasing responsibilities and flow of funds that are delegated to local governments.opinion Updated: Dec 31, 2017 19:55 IST
When it comes to governance innovations, India’s northeast is not known to be a market leader; in fact, the region is more often in news for the opposite: governance deficit. Recently, however, Meghalaya did something extraordinary that is worth emulating by other states: It became the first state in the country to operationalise a law, The Meghalaya Community Participation and Public Services Social Audit Act, 2017, which makes social audit of State-run schemes mandatory. What makes the state a trailblazer is this: Unlike other states that have implemented the provisions of social audit only in certain schemes such as MGNREGA (the government’s flagship rural job guarantee scheme), the Northeastern state has come up with a comprehensive law that covers almost all development projects.
Social audits are different from government audits such as the ones conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). In Battling Corruption: Has NREGA Reached India’s Rural Poor? authors Shylashri Shankar and Raghav Gaiha explain the difference between different types of audits: “Unlike government audits [conducted solely by government auditors and confined to compliance of expenditures in specified amounts under specified heads without involvement of affected people] and people’s audit [the community examines outcomes but their findings lack mandatory acceptance by the government], a social audit is conducted jointly by the government and the beneficiaries of the scheme being audited”.
While social audits were pioneered by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan in the mid-1990s, they were first made statutory in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, and later in other laws such as the National Food Security Act, 2013, and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2016.
WHY ARE SOCIAL AUDITS IMPORTANT?
Social audits are increasingly becoming critical these days because the accountability and transparency mechanism of India’s local government structure has not kept pace with the increasing responsibilities and flow of funds that are delegated to local governments.
But such audits can improve transparency in governance and give people the confidence to question elected representatives and bureaucrats on a regular basis – and not just before they go to vote for them. It also helps to develop a cadre of social auditors at the panchayat level who will have deeper understanding of government accounts and policy-making processes. For example, in Andhra Pradesh, thanks to social audits of the MGNREGA over the past nine years, the government has recovered 50 crore.
PLENTY OF CHALLENGES
Despite its usefulness, the process suffers from certain weaknesses. One, in certain states the auditing process is not sufficiently independent (there have been examples of former policy implementing officers being asked to do social audit of the same programme they were heading); funds are not earmarked for such audits (now the Centre is giving funds directly for MGNREGA social audits); third, there is no follow-up of the cases to haul up those responsible for corruption. Then there are established hierarchies of power structure in villages, which reproduces itself in social audits and muffles criticism by poor stakeholders in any project. There is also evidence of programme staff sneaking into a public hearing on projects to tear down the process.
Along with fixing these inadequacies, the back-end systems of the governance structure has to be improved if social audits have to meet their promised goal of transparency and accountability. States have to invest in e-governance; fill vacancies in the administrative structure so that there are adequate number of officers to respond to people’s grievances; and do a thorough work assessment of service delivery system (quantity versus quality).
Experts such as Abey George of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences say that to strengthen the social auditing process, which is now administratively under states, it’s important to bring it under CAG. In India, evidence-based policy making is becoming popular so that the impact of State-run programmes on the ground is better. Social audits can only bolster this process by keeping an eye on implementation so that the State as well as the taxpayers get better bang for their buck.