An oft-repeated criticism against the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme is its alleged high rate of corruption. But the scheme’s inbuilt mechanism to combat such corruption — the social audit units meant to detect any cases of malpractice — has not been backed by the effective recovery of embezzled funds.
As per the statistics available with the Union Rural Development Ministry in the ongoing financial year, less than 14% of the amount flagged by the auditors has been recovered so far. The figures for the previous financial years are equally dismal.
In the ongoing financial year, the social audit units have flagged misappropriation to the tune of ₹27.5 crore. After action was taken in some of these cases, the amount came down to ₹9.5 crore out of which only ₹1.31 crore has been recovered so far, merely 13.8% of the total.
The financial year 2022-23 has a similar story; after taking rectifying measures, the recoverable amount was pegged at ₹86.2 crore but the recovery amounted to only ₹18 crore, just 20.8% of the total. In 2021-22, one of the social audit units flagged one of the highest amounts of misappropriation at ₹171 crore but only ₹26 crore, 15% of the total, was recovered.
Section 17 of the Act governing the scheme says that the gram sabha “shall monitor the execution of works”. Each State has social audit units which are supposed to work independent of the implementing authorities.
Fund-starved audit units
To take stock of the situation, the Ministry held a day-long seminar on Tuesday inviting the social audit units from States, MGNREGA commissioners, civil society, and other stakeholders.
A bleak picture emerged at the seminar, of fund-starved social audit units, working without training or adequate personnel. The social audit unit’s sole responsibility is to flag cases of malpractice. Recovering the money, and reprimanding the officials responsible, is up to the State governments.
A dismal recovery rate threatens the credibility of the audit process, since it makes the entire exercise futile, said Rakshita Swamy fromthe Social Accountability Forum for Action and Research (SAFAR), who attended the seminar.
“The Union government has weaponised the lack of social audits to withhold funds for MGNREGA for the States. But the Ministry, which directly funds the social audit units so that they are able to maintain their independence from the States, is not getting funds to them in time. For example, units in Karnataka and Bihar have not got funds for nearly two years now,” Ms. Swamy added.
Over the last three years, there has been a consistent trend of the same States reporting “zero number of cases” and making “zero recoveries”. The BJP-ruled States of Gujarat and Goa, the northeastern State of Meghalaya, and the Union Territories of Puducherry and Ladakh have been on this list for all the three years.
There are other States such as Telangana, where an active social audit unit has flagged several cases, but the recovery rate remains low. For example, in the ongoing financial year, ₹6.6 crore was flagged by the auditors to be recovered; so far, only a measly ₹2,087 has actually been recovered.
“We welcome the vigilance by the Centre and their pressure on the States to recover the misappropriated money. But the States that identify several cases of misappropriation are taken to task for not making the recovery. Worse than these States are those that show no cases at all. Which clearly means, there is no monitoring here,” said Nikhil Dey, founder member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, who also attended the seminar.