& Pulkit Agarwal
“India is a servile state with its splendid strength caged, hardly daring to breath freely, governed by strangers from afar, her people beyond compare; short lived and incapable of resisting disease, and epidemic, illiteracy rampant; vast areas devoid of all sanity or medical provisions; unemployment on a prodigious scale, both among the middle classes and the masses.”
That was how Pandit Jawahar Nehru described the Indian situation in the 1930’s – a depiction we all will agree, characterizes our country even today. In order to improve the state of India described above, transparency, accountability and participation are becoming important components of good governance. Governments are facing an ever-growing demand to be more accountable and socially responsible and the people are becoming more assertive about their rights to be informed and to influence governments’ decision making process.
“For me every ruler is alien that defies public opinion’’
– Mahatma Gandhi
Governments are facing an ever-growing demand to be more accountable and socially
responsible and the community is becoming more assertive about its right to be informed and to influence governments’ decision-making processes. Faced with these vociferous demands, the executive and the legislature are looking for new ways to evaluate their performance especially in the framework of public policies. Social Audit is a tool through which government departments can plan, manage and measure non-financial activities and monitor both internal and external consequences of the departments’ social and commercial operations. Social Audit gives an understanding of the administrative system from the perspective of the vast majority of people in the society for whom the very institutional/administrative system is being promoted and legitimised. Social Audit of administration means understanding the administrative system and its internal dynamics from the angle of what they mean for the vast majority of the people, who are not essentially a part of the State or its machinery or the ruling class of the day, for whom they are meant to work. In other words social audit may be defined as an in-depth scrutiny and analysis of the working of any public utility vis-à-vis its social relevance.
Programmes conceived in the recent past have inbuilt mechanism to promote all these components to enable people-centred policies and development. The creation of space for social audit under NREGA is one such step in this direction. NREGS is an Indian Legislation enacted on August 25th, 2005 to provide a legal guarantee for one hundred days of employment in every financial year to adult members of any rural household willing to do public-related unskilled manual work at the statutory minimum wage. The Act not only guarantees wage employment as a right, but also promotes community monitoring through vigilance and monitoring committees, social audit through gram sabha and also makes provision for complete transparency as mandated by the Right to Information Act, 2005.
One of the prime reasons for the victory of NREGS is the commencing of the policy of social audit. Social audit helped to plug in leakages and check corruption. Social audit has recovered Rs. 3 crore – around a crore each year – since 2006 from corrupt contractors, sarpanches, postal officers and other intermediaries. Much has been said and written about the social audits conducted under NREGS. However, another spectrum of reality is that on the ground these audits have achieved much less than advertised. The social audit process has a long way to go before it can claim to have contributed to transparency, empowerment and good governance.
The paper traces the importance of accountability in developmental programmes through the case of social audit in National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Despite a common framework for social audit under the Act, different actors have adopted different approaches leading to different results. By analysing actual social audit exercises, the paper tries to identify the various constraints of social audit and lessons learnt, appropriate attention to which may make social audit more effective in future.
SOCIAL AUDIT IN PUBLIC POILICIES
A social audit is a way of measuring, understanding, reporting and ultimately improving an organization’s social and ethical performance. A social audit helps to narrow gaps between vision/goal and reality, between efficiency and effectiveness. It is a technique to understand, measure, verify, report on and to improve the social performance of the organization. Social auditing creates an impact upon governance. It values the voice of stakeholders, including marginalized/poor groups whose voices are rarely heard. Social auditing is taken up for the purpose of enhancing local governance, particularly for strengthening accountability and transparency in local bodies. Social audit focuses on the neglected issue of social impacts.
The closed door proceedings and the formal way of monitoring, evaluation and traditional auditing process made them ineffective and inefficient because neither it could identify/ hold the culprits nor it could provide feedback and the remedial measures for formulation and implementation of the developmental works. On the other hand, due to lack of en-masse awareness the pressure could not be built up on policy makers. And hence a new method of auditing was needed.
THE CASE STUDY OF NREGA
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is one of the country’s most ambitious anti- poverty programme ever, which provides a legal guarantee of 100 day’s of work in a year to India’s rural household whose adult members are willing to do unskilled manual labour. The scheme was launched by the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in the remote village of Bandlapalli in Anantpur district of Andhra Pradesh on February 2nd, 2006. Initially, a total of 331 most backward districts were identified across the country for the implantation of NREGA. Since April 1st, 2008, NREGA covers all the rural areas in the country. The past allocation of Rs. 12,000 crores is increased to Rs. 22,000 crores. A wage employment programme of such magnitude can be successful only if transparency, accountability and participatory provisions of the Act are strictly adhered to. An innovative feature of NREGA is that it gives a central role to the social audits as a means of continuous public vigilance (NREGA, Section 17) i.e., to ensure public accountability in the implementation of projects, laws and policies.
Several governmental and non- governmental organizations have facilitated social audit process in NAREGA in last one year. This paper will try to find out approaches and processes of such audits and will also analyse bottlenecks and emerging issues that need to be addressed.
Social Audit Provisions under NREGA
Article 17 (1) says that the gram sabha shall monitor execution of all works within the Gram Panchayat. Article 17 (2) of the NREGA says “the gram sabha shall conduct regular social audits of all the projects under the Scheme taken up within the Gram Panchayat”. Article 17 (3) says “the Gram Panchayat shall make available all relevant documents including the muster rolls, bills, vouchers, measurement books, copies of sanction orders and other connected books of account and papers to the gram sabha for the purpose of conducting the social audit.”
The Central Operational Guidelines issued by the Union Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India mention continuous social audit as well as a six monthly social audit through the gram sabha called “Social Audit Forum”.
The process of social audit, according to the guidelines, should include public vigilance and verification of the following eleven stages of implementation of the NREGS: registration of families, distribution of job cards, receipt of work applications, preparation of shelf of projects and selection of sites, development and approval of technical estimates and issuance of work orders, allotment of work to individuals, implementation and supervision of work, payment of unemployment allowances, payment of wages, evaluation of work, mandatory social audit in the gram sabha (Social Audit Forum). The guidelines list out various vulnerabilities at each stage and suggest steps to promote transparency and accountability. The guidelines also delineate, in great detail, how to publicise, collect data and prepare documents, and procedures to be adopted as mandatory agenda of the gram sabha for social audit.
Citing provisions of the Act and the guidelines, the Union Ministry has also issued circulars and formats to different states to conduct timely six monthly social audits. The Ministry is in the process of issuing separate guidelines for social audit in the NREGA.
Types of Social Audit Followed in NREGA
The Act, guidelines and circulars provide an institutional design and create space for the community to participate in ensuring transparency and accountability. However, to make these designs operational and effective some facilitation is needed. In some states this facilitation has been done by government agencies themselves and in others by civil society organisations, academic and research institutions.
Different approaches to conduct social audit have been observed. The first one is to conduct it in a campaign mode, combining it with an awareness programme, followed by a village, block or district level sharing. For example the mass social audit of Dungarpur, Rajasthan in April 2006. The second one, mainly facilitated by government agencies is to collect information on the basis of a pre-designed format for all the gram panchayat of the district. Reports are then read in the gram sabha and also consolidated at the block and district level to be transmitted to higher authorities. In Jharkhand the state administration adopted this approach.
The third one, usually facilitated by civil society organisations, is done in selective gram panchayat and blocks and data is collected with the help of volunteers, largely outsiders, and presented at the block level and district level public hearings attended by government officials. This approach has been adopted by organisations ASHA, MKSS, and activist-academicians such as Jean Derez etc., during social audits in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan etc. The fourth one, initiated by gram panchayat, and facilitated by civil society organisations, where a committee consisting of residents of that gram panchayat collects information and presents it in the gram sabha. The Rajasthan Government in its guidelines has adopted this approach.
Steps Followed in the Social Audit Process under NREGA
1. Environment Building.
First and foremost, a conducive non-threatening environment needs to be created in the gram panchayat. Consultations with elected representatives, members of vigilance and monitoring committees, women and youth collectives and officials are done to inculcate a common perspective on the importance of social audit for the effective implementation of the NREGS and good governance.
2. Formation of a Committee.
During environment building efforts, active, honest and respected citizens need to be identified. The interested among them, members of vigilance and monitoring committees, representatives of women collectives, youth collectives and capacity building organisations and members from the gram panchayat itself will form a committee for conducting the social audit. If the state government has provided any guidelines for the constitution of this committee those are complied with.
3. Capacity Building of Committee Members.
These members are briefly oriented on concepts of governance, transparency, accountability and decentralisation. Then they are oriented on how to conduct the social audit. A video of an earlier social audit is shown to them and their doubts are cleared. Apart from these, regular hand-holding and facilitation is promoted.
4. Collection and Verification of Data.
Information related to registration, issuance of job cards, job allocation, payments, assets created etc. are collected from records such as muster rolls, registration register, demand register, asset register, minutes of gram sabha and gram panchayat meetings, technical and administrative sanctions etc. If needed, applications are filed under the RTI Act to get information. These data are then verified by physically inspecting worksites and meeting workers personally. Any variation is noted down and signed written statements are collected. This information is then presented in a report in the local language for dissemination.
5. Gram Sabha Mobilisation.
The gram sabha is called by the gram panchayat as per the Panchayati Raj Act and rules of the state. Notices are pasted at public places and traditional methods such as drum beating are used. All households within the gram panchayat area, especially the poor and marginalised, are informed about the date, place, venue and agenda of the meeting. Members are also told why the social audit is important to them. A ward level meeting is also held. Immediately before the gram sabha, the confidence of the poor and marginalised needs to be boosted so that they participate in the gram sabha actively.
6. Gram Sabha.
This special gram sabha for social audit is chaired by a respected person not associated with the implementation of the NREGS. Major findings of the report are written on posters and put up for the information of members. The chairperson of the Social Audit Committee presents the report in simple language. People, especially the poor and marginalised are encouraged to ask questions, submit complaints if any, to the gram sabha. The chairperson, officials and executing agencies remain present and answer queries and address the members’ complaints. Resolutions are passed by voting. Minutes are prepared by someone other than the secretary of the gram panchayat. Later these minutes are signed by all members present. The gram sabha is also used for making people aware of their entitlements and procedures on how to get them.
The report along with the minutes of the gram sabha is shared with the block, district and state administration and also with the media and academia for follow up. Constant pressure is maintained on the administration, for timely action on complaints and malpractices identified during the social audit. In the following gram sabha a report on the action taken on the social audit is presented by the administration.
Achieving Findings via Social Auditing in NREGA
Several reports of research institutions and media have highlighted wide scale non-compliance of rules and regulations and incidences of corrupt practices. Certain findings by the virtue of the social audit are as follows-
- • Door-to-door survey to identify person’s willingness to register was not conducted in290 Gram Panchayats (GPs) across 19 states.
- • Job cards were not issue to all the registered households.
- • Job cards were not issued within 15days of application for registration across 15 states and photographs were not attached to job cards.
- • Wage-material ratio of 60:40 was not maintained.
- • Low wage areas were not identified and unique identity numbers were not allocated to work across 21 states.
- • Worksite facilities were not provided in most of the states.
- • The proforma for muster rolls prescribed by MORD was not followed.
- • Copies of muster rolls were not available for public scrutiny in 237 Gram Panchayats across 15states.
- • Muster rolls did not contain requisite details.
- • In 90 Gram Panchayats across 11states, the workers are getting wages less than minimum wage rate and in 200 Gram Panchayats across 18 states; workers were not being paid wages in time.
- • NREGS works were not measured daily in 348 Gram Panchayats across 20 states.
- • Unemployment allowances were not paid in 53 blocks across 17 states.
- • Application registration register, job card register, employment detail register, asset register, muster roll register and complaint register were not properly maintained in most of the states.
- • The intimation of work employment was not notified publicly at the block offices in 91 blocks of 21 states.
- • State share was not released within 15 days of the release of the central funds in 29 districts across 21 states.
- • Financial audit was not carried out in 38districts across 19 states and District Internal Audit Cell was not constituted in 52 districts across 23 states.
- • Inspection work by state level, block level and district level officials has not been conducted in a routine and proper way in most of the states.
Constraints of Social Audit under NREGA
• Culture of Silence.
In facilitating the social audit in NREGS, the culture of silence is one of the important bottlenecks. People do not speak up even if they see something wrong happening. They think that it does not directly affect them. This is partly because of ignorance and partly because of dependency.
• Resistance from Authorities.
The colonial mindset of the ruler is strongly imprinted on authorities and they resist any effort to make them accountable. They are also afraid of being punished if any evidence of wrongdoing is found during the social audit. Hence, they resist the social audit process in their jurisdiction. Sometimes they also use strong-arm tactics to discourage civil society organisations and activists facilitating the process.
• Conflicting Socio-economic Interests.
Rural Indian society is not homogeneous and there are conflicting interests on caste, class, and gender lines. The process of social audit takes into account the interests of the weaker sections such as the poor, dalits, women and minorities and empowers them. Hence, powerful groups resist such processes to the extent of siding with the authorities.
• Unverifiable Records.
In some states the format of records are such that vital information is not known to the workers. Entries in records at some places are made in a manner that is impossible to verify for semi-literate labourers and difficult for even trained investigators. This problem of faulty design is compounded by irregular maintenance or updating of records.
• Low Participation in Gram Sabha.
Low participation by people in the gram sabha is another bottleneck. Non-response to past resolutions, domination by the powerful and a lack of meaningful discussion are some of the causes why people think attending the gram sabha is a waste of time.
• An Expensive Exercise.
Large financial resources apart from human resources are needed to pay for photocopying, travel and logistic support to the audit committee or team and gram sabha. To make it more effective the entire process has to be continuously ongoing, making it an expensive exercise. Workers, who are the primary stakeholders of this scheme, have to be paid equivalent wages if he/she spends their day in the process, in order to make the social audit people-led. Hence a certain sum, from the scheme’s administrative budget, needs to be earmarked for social audit or an altogether separate fund needs to be created for the social audit.
• Inbuilt Mechanism for Social Audits in NREGS is Enabling
Although a social audit of all schemes being implemented under the jurisdiction of a gram panchayat was to be done by the gram sabha as per the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act and subsequent Panchayati Raj Acts of different states, in reality it was not happening. The provisions for six monthly social audits in the NREGA and detailed guidelines by the Union Ministry of Rural Development has created a space for all stakeholders to demand and be part of the social audit of NREGS’ implementation.
• Right to Information Act, 2005 is an Important Enabler
All the documents and records under NREGS are under the preview of the RTI Act. For a social audit of NREGS, the availability of information is necessary and with the RTI Act in force authorities cannot deny these. It has also been observed that fearing punishment if they do not provide information after applications are filed, officials are providing information even before applications are submitted.
• Social Audit has Negative Connotations
Social audit evokes fear and resentment among elected panchayat representatives, especially chairpersons. In the initial stages, if the social audit is promoted more as a learning process to inculcate the culture of transparency and accountability rather than fault finding, it is easier to bring the chairpersons on board.
• CSO (Civil Society Organization) Facilitation makes Social Audit more Effective
A social audit needs a lot of facilitation and mobilisation and hence the involvement of civil society organisations makes it more effective. As they are not associated with the execution of works, it enhances the objectivity and credibility of the process.
• A Motivated District Administration Smoothens the Processes
A people friendly district administration, especially District Magistrate, makes a lot of difference in terms of smoothening the process, making the block and village administration responsive and initiating follow up action on the findings of the social audit.
• Timely Action by Competent Authorities on Findings has an Impact on Social Audit for the next Round
Since a social audit of the NREGS is to be done every six months, timely actions on earlier social audits encourage people and facilitating organisations. On the contrary if this does not happen, people get disappointed and do not get involved.
• Adequate Pool of Professionals
The social audit report shows that the NREGA is being run for all practical purposes with very little professional input. The shortage of staff leads to delay in the execution of the work and payment of wage sand is also responsible for the poor quality of work. Full time programme officer in each block exclusively, employment guarantee assistant in each Gram Panchayat, technical assistant for a group of 5 Gram Panchayats, civil engineers in each block and additional staff at the state secretarial level must be appointed.
“Our money, our accounts, full pay for full work, work for every hand and payment for every hand.”
These slogans raised by people at the commencement of the social audit process of NREGA marks the essence of the social audit programme. The growing realisation about the need for transparency, accountability and participation has led to the creation of space for social audit under NREGA.
The social audit programme under NREGA has been conducted with the objective of identifying best practices, addressing weaknesses in implementation and unearthing corruption and malpractice in the programme. In essence, the audit is an exercise to empower the people to effectively participate in the NREGA implementation and hold the administration accountable for implementing the act in letter and spirit
Using this institutional design many governmental and non-governmental agencies have conducted social audits in the last one and half year since the launch of NREGS, albeit with different approaches and methodologies. On the basis of emerging lesions, these methods can be further refined to arrive at an effective and sustainable approach. Gram Panchayats and the Gram Sabha must be in the centre of all social audits.
It has been observed that mere statutory provisions are not sufficient to promote transparency and accountability in NREGS. The demand side needs to be strengthened with awareness about entitlements, capacity building, mobilisation and facilitation. The supply side, primarily responsible for follow up actions, should be supported by creating a non-threatening environment and capacity building in record keeping. It is also important to complete the process of devolution to Panchayati Raj Institutions, because accountability without power is as incomplete as power without accountability.
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