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Social Audit: Means To An End

– Manasi Nikam, Programme Associate

As we were about to alight from the jeep, a man walked towards us and started abusing us, asking us to go back. He carried a lathi in his hand.  He snatched my cell phone away and beat me up. A little further, another team member was being dragged along the length of the road and was badly wounded. When I rushed to help him, I was hit once more. A female member was pelted stones at. Such were her bruises that she needed stitches. These 5-6 people thus intimidated us and chased us out of the village. I identified one of the assailants as the Phelu, the Upasarpanch of the panchayat.” An activist, from Mazdur Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a civil society organization (CSO), whose team intended to conduct a social audit of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in Bhankshedi, Rajasthan, narrated this incident. [1]

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act mandates the Gram Panchayats or village councils to facilitate social audits and build capacity of gram sabhas to undertake it themselves The hostile reception meted out to auditors from a civil society organization in Bhankshedi reveals how averse the Gram Panchayat officials are to a social audit being conducted by a third party. They argued that it ‘undermines the Panchayati Raj and restricts its autonomy’. [2]

Subsequent social audits performed by CSOs in Rajasthan unearthed huge frauds in material distribution meant for beneficiaries, prompting the state government to transfer the authority of making material purchases to block offices instead. This irked the Gram Sevaks and Gram Panchayats so much, that instead of ensuring that the process remains unbiased, the government introduced clause 13(b) in Schedule 1 of the MNREGA Act, which barred independent entities from participating in social audit. The underlying flaw in this system is that the very persons responsible for executing the policy are investigating its implementation; effectually stripping the mechanism of its virtues of citizen participation, accountability and transparency.

Relevance of Social Audits

A social audit is an essential process in a democracy. Citizens, along with the government, monitor and evaluate the planning and implementation of a scheme. Its function is to bring out irregularities in the implementation of a programme. It can be termed as a grievance redressal process where beneficiaries of a welfare scheme are given a platform to raise their voice against malpractices. It compels those in authority, to be responsible and accountable, and in doing so, empowers the people. It flips power, even if it’s temporary, in favour of those at the lower end of the social order. Usually, the beneficiaries are petitioners asking for work and wages. They are at the mercy of the whims and fancies of the administrators. However, during an audit, owing to its public nature, the government is compelled to admit its mistakes and justify its actions.

The Andhra Pradesh Model

Taking inspiration from social audits in Rajasthan, the Andhra Pradesh government in 2009, was the first one to establish an autonomous body called Society of Social Audit, Accountability and Transparency (SSAAT) to conduct social audits. The SSAAT conducts social audits of MGNREGS, Social Security Pension, Aam Aadmi Beema Yojana and Integrated Watershed Management Programme. As a part of the audit, labourers are made aware of their rights and entitlements. Literate youth from the beneficiaries’ family are trained in filing RTIs, accessing scheme related documents, verifying records, conducting door-to-door beneficiary and worksite verification. This mobilization of youth in monitoring the implementation of the scheme at the ground level strengthens citizen’s participation and brings about transparency though public scrutiny.

Public hearings are held between residents of every village, their elected representatives, the media, the NREGA functionaries concerned, and senior government officers. Here, findings of the social audit of every village are read out, workers testify and the officials justify their decisions if a beneficiary makes a complaint. Administrators have to specify the nature of remedial action and the time period required to execute it. Disciplinary actions are often taken during the meeting itself. Lastly, a rigorous follow-up is undertaken in which social audit teams go back to their villages once a fortnight after the public meeting, to check if the decisions taken were enforced.

Over Rs.50 crores have been recovered in the past nine years. So far more than 6000 public hearings of MGNREGS, Social Security Pension Plan, Aam Aadmi Bima Yojana, Mid-Day Meal Scheme and Integrated Watershed Management Programme have been held. One crore beneficiaries have benefited and approximately 1.5 lakh youth, of which 20% are women and majority belong to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe have participated in conducting social audits.

Current Status of Social Audit Units

Realizing the merits of the process, the Government of India made it mandatory for every state to establish an independent Social Audit Unit (SAU), as per the Audit of Scheme Rules 2011, MGNREGA. Yet five years down the line, the performance and quality of social audits across the states have been far from uniform. The Standing Committee on Rural Development (2015-16) of the Sixteenth Lok Sabha found that very few states have uploaded the status of grievances in the public domain and that majority of the states have fallen behind in taking disciplinary action against transgressors. Other than Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, Gujarat and a few others, SAUs in many states are functioning under the Department of Rural Development while an official from the Rural Department heads some. The Committee also noted that states have fallen behind in the appointment of Ombudsmen, who are in charge of grievance redressal at the district level.

The map below indicates the status of Social Audit Units (SAUs) across the country. The colour green shows that the state has established an independent SAU. The colour pink shows that the SAU is functioning under the department of rural development. The colour white indicates that an official from the Department heads the SAU.

Status of Social Audit Units in India[3]

 

india-social-audit-of-mgnrega

 

This brings us to the question: Why have not other states institutionalized the process of social audit, in spite of its virtues?

Andhra Pradesh has been successful in institutionalizing the process of social audit for the then Chief Minister, Y.S Rajasekhara Reddy, had taken initiative in order to fulfill his electoral promises and to build his own image. He wanted to outsmart his tech-savvy and popular political rival, Chandrababu Naidu. He built a team of top-notch bureaucrats and civil society leaders. Thus, the political context in which development programmes are implemented may perhaps be a deciding factor in the effectiveness of its implementation.

 

In the absence of political will, the media and CSOs, who have been involved in disseminating information on the rights of citizens and holding the government true to its commitments, need to play an instrumental role in creating awareness about the significance of social audits and bring forth the issue within reform discussions. Social audit has created a legal and institutional framework to bring about transparency and accountability in social protection policies. CSOs and media, having broader access to information on the functioning of state establishments and their policies, can rouse the government from its state of apathy and demand accountability and transparency.

Lastly, it is important for states to recognize that social protection offered by programmes such as MGNREGA, is not a favour from the government and neither can it be treated as a service to be delivered. Unless social protection policies are considered a human right, the relationship between the governed and those governing shall be unbalanced; for it is difficult to hold a person accountable when he is doing you a favour.

 

[1] Excerpt from the paper titled Accountability From Below: The Experience of MGNREGA in Rajasthan (India) by Salim Lakha, 2011.

[2] Quote taken from the paper titled Accountability From Below: The Experience of MGNREGA in Rajasthan (India) by Salim Lakha, 2011.

[3] http://www.financialexpress.com/economy/mgnrega-no-annual-social-audit-in-majority-of-states-finds-cag/245759/

 

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