The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which has revitalised the rural landscape across the country, stands diminished in the land of its birth, Rajasthan, hijacked and held to ransom by vested interests and stripped of its backbone of an open social audit. As the Andhra experience has shown, there is one ingredient that can bring back its vitality: institutionalising citizen audits. But, is the Rajasthan government up to it?

The scene was at Jhalon ki Madar Panchayat, Rajsamand district, Rajasthan, year 2002. C.P Joshi, the then Panchayati Raj Minister of Rajasthan, retorted to an unhappy pradhan at a jan sunwai of public works — “The right to information is here to stay. It has become a part of the Constitution, whether we all like it or not. These social audits will happen. The sooner we accept this, the better we will be able to use our rights.”

Today, C.P Joshi is at the helm of the Rural Development Ministry for the entire country. Call it irony, the turning of tide or coincidence, but social audit of the Rs. 40,000-crore Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in his own home state is on the brink of collapse.

Sarpanches and gram sewaks are out on the streets, rioting and striking, refusing to do what has been ordained by the government as a state-wide social audit of all MGNREGS works in every village in the state. The social audit, scheduled to begin on August 26, has proved an utter non-starter with sarpanches boycotting it widely and gram sewaks (Panchayat secretaries) going on strike. All of a sudden, the sarpanches — seen as the mascot of decentralised grassroots governance — are playing just this card to assert their ‘rights', the right to procure materials under the MGNREGA so that their pockets don't dry up, and the right not to do social audits. The Opposition parties have of course, jumped in to do their bit of politicking, with ex-Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and 60 to 70 BJP MLAs courting arrest, following the arrest of four MLAs and BJP-rebel Independent and Dausa MP, Kirorimal Meena, all openly sympathising with the sarpanch protests. Quickly, the entire matter has burgeoned into a huge political game, with the real issues getting lost in the din.

In a matter of five years, the entire conception, formulation and practice of social audits in the state as an independent, open, inclusive, fair and participatory process where people — whether from inside or ‘outside' (read activists, researchers, concerned individuals etc.) — could objectively facilitate and enable labourers to assert their rights has been systematically attacked and dismantled. In its place has crept up a debilitated and senseless version where the corrupt system will audit itself and still call it a social audit! And to give all this a legal backing, the vested interests have an ally in the centre, which has quietly and strategically amended Section 13 b, Schedule I of the Act (read on for details), keeping ‘outsiders' at bay in the whole social audit process.

How the cookie crumbled

A step by step construct of how this happened:

The NREGA 2005 historically made social audit mandatory under Section 17, vesting these powers with the Gram Sabha. Section 13 of Schedule I (at the end of the Act) reiterated that “every scheme shall contain adequate provisions for ensuring transparency and accountability at all level of implementation.”

In addition, the Operational Guidelines 2008 of the NREGA 2005 envisaged Social Audit Forums, defined as “periodic assemblies convened by the Gram Sabha as part of the process of social audit” where a mandatory review of all aspects of the social audit would take place at Gram Sabha meetings to be held at least once in every six months, solely for this purpose.

Thus, although the ‘social audit forums' were seen as special purpose ‘Gram Sabhas' (which is the entire body of voters in the Panchayat), the guidelines explicitly stated that the forums would not be presided by the sarpanch (who is usually the chairperson of the Gram Sabha), ward panch or anyone to do with the Panchayat or any implementing agency. It also specified that the secretary of the forum must be an official from outside the Gram Panchayat and the person responsible for presenting the information should not be a person involved in implementing the work.

At this juncture, neither the Act nor any specific government order refrained activists or NGOs from playing a role in mobilising people or participating in social audits. In the meanwhile, the Campaign for Right to Work and Right to Information (or SR Abhiyan, a loose network of NGOs and activists in the state) initiated a series of social audits in the mass padyatra mode with the local people in districts like Dungarpur, Udaipur, Sirohi, Karauli, Banswara, Jhalawar and Bhilwara. While the initial social audits went off without much of an opposition, the backlash started visibly from the Banswara social audit. The Bhilwara audit was the first attempt by the Abhiyan and government to come together in a participatory mode and conduct an audit of each and every village in an entire district. The intention then was to replicate this in every district of the state. It thus came down as an inescapable reality to the corrupt elements that social audits were here to stay and it would be their ‘number' too one day.

The progressive resistance from vested interests came from those immediately affected — the sarpanches and the gram sewaks — and they were also the most vociferous in their protest. Following the Bhilwara social audit in October 2009, which uncovered huge frauds in the material component alone, they mounted pressure on the state government with strikes and gheraoes and even went to the High Court. The state government acted decisively by taking away their responsibility of making material purchases and giving it to the block offices instead. This was more than what the sarpanches could stomach, and the protests exploded.

This is where the amendment to Section 13, Schedule I of the Act came to their aid. The amendment itself was done surreptitiously, and discovered much later by activists only when it was used against them. Done by the Central Government through a gazette notification dated December 31, 2008, it played right into the hands of sarpanches in Rajasthan who specifically used the clause 13(b)(xi). It stated “the social audit process shall be open to public participation. Any outside individual person apart from the Gram Sabha shall be allowed to attend the social audit as observers without intervening the proceedings of the Social Audit (bold added for emphasis).” The sarpanches gained respite with the High Court staying the entire social audit process in the state, ruling that Section 13b had to be followed to the letter. With this, the social audits as done earlier in a campaign/participatory mode, came to a standstill.

An outcry by the Campaign and worries on account of corruption established in previous audits led the government to announce ‘special audits' in all 36 districts (one Panchayat in each district was chosen) in December 2009. Irregularities to the tune of Rs. 6.2 crore were discovered, averaging around Rs. 21 lakh in each Panchayat.

After the Panchayati Raj elections early this year and increasingly succumbing to pressure, the state government came out openly and announced a state-wide social audit exercise — their way. Section 13(b) became the guiding light for all social audit in the state, and any outside participation became a strict no-no. The entire onus of conducting the social audit was placed on a social audit committee, to be appointed by the Gram Sabha in every Panchayat. Everyone, the government included, knows that the Gram Sabha is a wonderful concept that remains to date on paper. Besides, the sarpanch is the Chairperson of the Gram Sabha, so this amounts to saying that he would have the final say in forming a committee which would audit works implemented by him! What's more, the state announced social audits sought to restrict any participation from outside, paradoxically, quoting the rights of the Gram Sabha (a weak institution in reality) as supreme.

“The restricting of participation of anyone with informed opinion and data, in the social audit process is the denial of a citizen's right to monitor public funds. The decision should be taken by the local inhabitants of the Panchayat in the Gram Sabha, but authentic information cannot be denied voice or blocked in any review of public spending…. citizens of India cannot be restricted from contributing to the process and sharing information with people,” wrote NAC member and social activist Aruna Roy in a recent communication to C.S. Rajan, Principal Secretary Rural Development, Government of Rajasthan.

But what renders the State Government's present social audit framework entirely unworkable is that it goes against the basic tenets of audit, which calls for a total separation of the implementing and the auditing agencies. A perusal of circulars and orders issued by the state government on its scheduled social audits shows that this principle stands completely violated — everyone from the social audit facilitators at the Panchayat level to the grievance redressal authorities have been drawn from the very system that it is supposed to audit. How can one then even remotely expect the process to be free, fair or meaningful? Sure enough, for these reasons, combined with open resistance, the social audits planned in the state from August 26 onwards flopped.

Diluted

In the meanwhile, the working group on transparency and accountability of the Central Employment Guarantee Council, headed by Aruna Roy, submitted a report to the Central Government in July highlighting the shortcomings of the social audit process in the light of the section 13b amendment. Significantly, a communiqué from C.S. Rajan to the Rural Development Secretary, Government of India in February had actually provided the basis for a reformulation of section 13b, upon which a set of recommendations were jointly worked out by the working group members and the rural development department. They envisage a government-supported but autonomous Directorate of Social Audit in every state, the formation of social audit committees independent of the implementing agencies or persons and an open and inclusive process where any individual can participate, testify and place on record their observations at the social audit forums. However, in a later communication to the Central Government on July 22, the Principal Secretary has suggested further modifications, once again introducing scope for serious dilutions.

The working group's report has been discussed in three rounds of meetings so far with C.P. Joshi and other representatives of the Central Government. Even prior to this, Aruna Roy had written to C.P. Joshi twice, flagging the urgency of bringing in social audit rules and reformulating Section 13b. On December 30, 2009, she wrote emphasising the violation of the principles of audit by Section 13b as it stands and the lack of openness it implied, calling for an immediate change. A draft of NREGA Social Audit Rules, as worked out by a working group of the MoRD in March 2008 was also sent to him, that, if introduced immediately, wouldn't have given any scope for the surreptitious amendment to section 13b. In March 2010, she again wrote to the Minister along with the interim recommendations of the CEGC working group, stating, “The group, in the light of the above deliberations, has passed a resolution to request MoRD to amend the clause 13(b) of Schedule of the Act immediately as per the attached recommendation, so that public monitoring and effective social audits face no legal bottlenecks...” Over two years have passed since the MoRD working group's draft social audit rules were framed and close to a year since urgent requests to rework section 13b have been repeatedly sounded out to the Minister. This silence and inaction can only be seen as an affront and plain disrespect for people who depend on the MGNREGS for their sustenance.

The present impasse

Clearly, the social audit of MGNREGS works has reached a deadlock which doesn't augur well at all for the scheme and the lakhs of people who depend on it as their lifeline. In Rajasthan, which had a head start in the process compared to many other states, the SR Abhiyan realised early on that going it alone had its limitations. The reach was limited, the follow-up was often slipshod and nothing much happened beyond suspending the lower level functionaries and political representatives. While the strength and awareness that the local people acquired by these one-off social audits was immense, it needed an institutionalised mechanism to keep it sustaining and truly empowering. On its side, the government has the reach and resources to take social audits to every corner of the state. The wall painting of MGNREGS works down to the last detail in each and every Panchayat is a case in point. Moreover, the government also realised the advantages of ‘partnering' with the NGOs with their prior experience in conducting such audits, but it has been unable to stick to its stand in the face of constant pressure from vested interests and the Section 13b amendment.

Silver Lining: The Andhra Experience

For those who see this as a hopeless situation, there are important lessons to be learnt from Andhra Pradesh. AP has put in place a system where an autonomous Society for Social Audit, Accountability and Transparency (SSAT), led by a social activist (and not a government servant) has institutionalised social audit of MGNREGA in such a way that maximises government support but minimises its interference. Importantly, it has kept up a separation of the implementing and auditing bodies and proved that ordinary labourers when imparted with the right skills can conduct effective social audits. Today, social audits are done regularly in all districts of AP. Social audit teams are selected from among villagers based on a randomised process and trained by district resource persons, themselves selected and trained by SSAT. They are then allotted villages to conduct the social audits, thus avoiding the pitfalls of Gram Sabha selection, auditing in one's own village etc.

The effects, to say the least, have been dramatic. As of June 30, 2010, Rs. 82 crores worth of misappropriated funds have come to light, of which around Rs. 15 crores has been recovered; 33,807 field-level functionaries have been implicated; 3,842 staff have been dismissed based on the social audit findings and 1,430 suspended. A total of 548 FIRs have been lodged and 1,220 departmental enquiries have been initiated. All this has been possible by 60,000 village social auditors (wage earners trained in social audit) trained by 700-odd district and state resource persons largely drawn from civil society organisations and 22 technical resource persons. Nothing could establish with more clarity, the benefits of institutionalising social audit in an open and participatory way. Andhra Pradesh's initiatives and its outcomes silences in one stroke all the opponents of social audit in the rest of the country. It is noteworthy that this approach to social audit is expounded in the ‘NREGS-AP Conducting of Social Audit Rules' adopted in 2008, based on the very recommendations of the MoRD working group which is facing clandestine resistance at the central and other state levels.

In conclusion, it appears that the single most important ingredient missing in the social audit attempts in Rajasthan is the absence of a strong political and administrative will. Andhra has shown what a state can achieve with a strong resolve, versus a weak one.

The Rajasthan government in turn could spin the present impasse it sees itself in, into a golden opportunity by taking a bold step to bypass the sarpanches with their corrupt intentions and reach its voters directly. If the voters will not forgive the government for running a fund-flushed scheme for vested interests rather than for its actual intended beneficiaries, they are also bound to be won over if the benefits actually accrue to them. It is a hard decision to make, but institutionalising social audits in a foolproof way, rather than bending to a bunch of sarpanches, is the only way out.