Social audits key to finding issues in govt schemes

Social audits key to finding issues in govt schemes

At an MGNREGA work site in a Gram Panchayat in Rajasthan, many 80-year-old women report for work in the morning and sit there doing nothing till the end of the day.  The wages received by the women are then shared with the officials who allow this. Hence, the important land and water conservation, flood and drought-proofing works that could have led to the sustainable development of the area remain undone even as crores of rupees are shown as having been spent on NREGA work. 

Even reputed civil society organisations working in the area against corruption are unable to get the women to desist from collecting the illegal wages as the old-age pension being received by them is so low that these additional amounts enable them to lead a somewhat better life. There is also the stranglehold of entrenched vested interests. This is happening though the MGNREGA Act requires social audits of all expenditures to be done by citizens.

The Comptroller & Auditor-General (CAG) of the country, too, has given a call that social audits in partnership with civil society organisations should be institutionalised as Panchayati Raj and Nagarapalika institutions are handling an ever-increasing flow of funds, Rs 17 lakh crore in 2013-14. To give effect to this, the CAG developed Auditing Standards of Social Auditing. Not many are aware that the establishment of an independent Social Audit Unit under MGNREGA in every state is now mandatory. The same unit is to facilitate social audits of programmes in several departments, such as the PDS, pensions, sanitation and housing schemes, etc. 

In 2018, the Supreme Court, too, in its ruling on the petition on the Building & Other Construction Workers’ (BOCW) Welfare Act, directed the central and state governments to conduct social audits on the implementation of the Act, given that the fund of almost Rs 70,000 crore accumulated in the BOCW Welfare Boards has failed to reach the workers.

Consequently, two massive social audits were conducted in Rajasthan in September-October 2019, in Beawer City and Bhim Bloc. The audits revealed that eligible workers had to allegedly bribe E-Mitras/middlemen for applying to register with the BOCW Board and for submitting applications to avail benefits. An average of Rs 5,000-10,000 was allegedly siphoned off by E-Mitra operators/middlemen from the benefits received by beneficiaries. Applications, even from non-construction workers, submitted through certain E-Mitras were processed quickly by the Labour Department, thereby indicating a nexus. Many eligible workers were not registered as they were unable to prove that they worked for 90 days as construction labour, as their ‘employer’ changed frequently.

A pilot social audit on the National Food Security Act (NFSA) conducted recently in Chengal Choola colony of Trivandrum, Kerala, by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences found that several beneficiaries were deprived of their true entitlements from the PDS. 

In 2017, the Asraya project in Kerala was restructured into a more comprehensive program called ‘Destitute-free Kerala’ to uplift the poorest out of poverty. It outlined nine multi-dimensional poverty criteria to identify the destitute and aimed to provide them food kits, medicines, educational support, assistance for house and toilet construction and repairs, drinking water supply, etc.

The audit report, full of poignant pictures of the living conditions of the destitute, revealed that food-kit distribution had been discontinued but was resumed a week before the audit, many receiving them for the first time. Though all Asraya beneficiaries were eligible for Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), the audit found that only 44% got them. The distribution of educational kits worth Rs 1,000 each was all that was being undertaken, with no further support for skill training and further education. About 40% of families did not have active earning members but no livelihood opportunities had been created for them.

The audit found that close to 30% of women, unmarried, deserted or widows, were living alone, many in small, dilapidated houses. Many were eligible for pensions but were not getting them. A majority of houses had leaking roofs, cracked walls, broken doors and damaged flooring that led to a dust-filled, squalid environment. Approximately 15% of beneficiaries did not have toilets and had to resort to open defecation. Damaged water closets and lack of water and electricity in the toilets were observed, including in homes with the disabled and elderly. A majority of beneficiaries depended on well water and reported water shortages in summer. Many were highly dependent on firewood, but they had not been enrolled under the PM Ujjwala Yojana.

Meghalaya is the first state to pass the Meghalaya Community Participation and Public Services Social Audit Act in 2017. An analysis of the Action Taken Reports on the findings of five social audits that were conducted revealed that departments did not follow up properly on the findings. The Social Audit department was not willing to be transparent. Though the State Social Audit Council’s chairperson is supposed to be “an eminent person with rich experience in the development sector”, the Deputy Commissioner is the principal authority at the district level as the District Social Audit Coordinator. A senior bureaucrat in the Karnataka government opined that the Social Audit Units should come under the CAG itself -- if the findings of the social audit were to be acted upon -- and not be part of the government departments which were themselves responsible for the maladministration.

In Karnataka, the chairperson and two other members of the Village Monitoring Committee (VMC) are GP members themselves. How this committee can work independently when the audit is about the usage of the GP funds by the GP members is an open question. 

In urban areas, one sees the dire need to empower citizens to conduct social audits of the garbage, road, drain, flyover, white-topping and other capital intensive works, notorious for the humungous scams they generate.

(The writer is Executive Trustee of CIVIC, Bangalore)

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