Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Observations from the field: Sehore, Madhya Pradesh

Peeyush Agarwal

As an intern at the Accountability Initiative one of my assignments was mapping, with the help of GPS technology, the public services at the six villages that were being covered under the PAISA project. These villages are located in the Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh, approximately 60 kms from Bhopal, the state capital, and have been chosen due in part to Madhya Pradeshs’ history with decentralisation (of public function) as well as language and accessibility.

Amirganj, Sehore, MP: View from the highest point

The objective of the visit to Sehore was the mapping of all public services delivered to these villages, and the development of new templates to relay data on the status of primary schools in these areas. The work that was done can be accessed from the Accountability Initiative website shortly.The following are a few notes on the observations I made during my trip to these villages.

The villages of Dhaba, Palaspani, Amajhir, Amirganj, Sirali and Bhilai are located in the Narsullaganj block in Sehore. The public services made available to them are provided by Central Government Schemes, the Village Panchayat or the Van Vibhag. Basic services include the provision of hand-pumps, wells, roads, work under NREGA, schooling and access to toilets built under the Total Sanitation Campaign. While large amounts of funds have been released for each of these, the success of some of these campaigns is questionable.

Van Vibagh - Forest Department Office, Sirali

Take for example, the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) - the objective of which is to “to ensure sanitation facilities in rural areas with broader goal to eradicate the practice of open defecation.” One of the facilities to be built is the Individual Household Latrine where toilets are built for every Below Poverty Line (BPL) family. The government has released Rs 2200 per family while beneficiaries are to contribute Rs. 300 for the project. The project aims at building a basic low cost unit with a superstructure for these households. While most of these facilities have been cited as completed by the local worker at Dhaba and the sarpanch at Bhilai, none of these units have doors and most of the residents consider them to be unusable. The worker maintains that to provide doors additional funds of approximately Rs. 700 are needed. Though superstructures can be seen at most households the ultimate aim of providing villagers with sanitation facilities is not being met.

Schools in these villages are run admirably under the Sarva Shiksha Abhyan (SSA) but teachers have a gargantuan task of educating students who need special attention and handling their administrative work at the same time. Student attendance in some of these villages is very low while many students in Grades 6 and above have problem with elementary Math. This leads to a class where student needs vary greatly, and teachers cannot standardise their teaching assignments and finish school text-books within the academic year. More importantly, they fail to deliver quality education to children.

Rural connectivity has improved drastically under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) while work under the rural employment guarantee scheme is not very visible as most workers are engaged in agriculture during this period. The village of Palaspani is easily one of the most neglected villages in this area. With only one 100m road in the whole village and no connectivity to other villages, Palaspani is bereft of even proper sanitation and drinking water facilities. There are only two working handpumps located in one corner of the village.

Due to some of the many problems listed here, villagers are often disillusioned and disheartened. They understand that community involvement is necessary to improve the status of these villages but have little information on how to do so. Problems like not having proper knowledge on grievance redressal mechanisms irk them and render them helpless and, later, apathetic. The government is investing a lot in rural development but they also need to see the work through to the end. Better accountability measures need to be implemented as a means to achieve this end and village residents need to be provided with easier means to access information and redress grievances.

Satellite Dish on the house

Despite all these problems, a sight that strikes you immediately is the pervasive satellite dishes mounted over most households that provides villagers access to satellite television! It makes you wonder whether the provisioning of more basic services that need to be provided through the government will improve, or whether private players will find solutions in the near future. I do believe that villagers are more than ready to pay for these “better” facilities as shown by their propensity to subscribe to satellite TV. The important thing here is how we find means to provide them access to these.

Peeyush Agarwal is a student at Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. He interned at Accountability Initiative in December 2009.

Monday, 14 December 2009

On why we don’t govern ourselves better (Alternatively, are we just crap people?)

Bala Posani

Why do some societies govern themselves better than others? While this is a key question that animates much debate in the political economy of development, in my everyday musings I have considered variants on the theme. And invariably, with the cynicism and frustration that often characterizes my own experience of living in India, I find myself looking for answers to the question “what would it take for Indians to govern themselves better?”

At an everyday level, take our traffic sense, for instance. Presumably a pet peeve of everyone that is reading this post now. And each one of us has probably at some point wondered why we behave the way we do on our roads? Why do we honk so savagely? Why is the right of way always “MINE”, and our roundabouts veritable Russian roulette? Why do we violate the rules with such impunity? And complain that the traffic policemen don’t do their jobs, and join in as accomplices anyway by bribing them when they try to fine us for our faults? Why do we chuckle and shrug all these questions off 5 seconds later? Why the casual tolerance of the ordeal that driving on our roads is?

But this is not a rant on our collective traffic sense – or even the lack of it.

One of our colleagues, who participated in the recent NREGA social audits in Rajasthan, recounted to us how spectacular the event was and how successful it was in uncovering large amounts of fraud. But there were also instances he recounted where the Sarpanches had co-opted some of the villagers and gave them wages for 40 days without needing them to work at all, and kept the remaining 60-days worth of wages, and declared those villagers as having worked the whole 100 days. In this web of co-option, everyone stood to gain – the workers got money for doing nothing (and presumably could use those 100 days to work some more elsewhere and earn further) – the Sarpanch got to keep the money that was never his. It is highly unlikely that a fraud such as this would come up in a social audit, as the co-opted villager has little incentive to speak against the Sarpanch because he himself is accomplice in the crime. The only room for suspicion is the asset that needs to be created at the end of the day as part of the NREGA – a well, a road etc. But with a bit of discretion and ingenuity, anybody can see that there is much scope for the Sarpanch to continue exploiting the goose, one golden egg at a time.

But this is not a post about social audits either.

There are dozens of other instances, ranging from the quotidian to the profound. What is it with our casual fly-tipping? Our defacing of our heritage monuments? Our men peeing on the roads with impunity? Our dismal sense of queuing? Our bakshish to the guy who comes to take the electricity and water meter readings? Our politics? Our almost inhuman acceptance of social discrimination as one’s lot? Our little and not-so-little everyday corruptions and collusions that give expression to our ‘mistaken view of the state as a vehicle for personal aggrandizement’?

Looking for an all-encompassing diagnosis of what ails us through all of these symptoms is a complex academic exercise. At some level of abstraction, theories that have tried to answer questions like why some societies govern themselves better than others, or why some countries develop while others remain trapped in low-growth high-poverty equilibria, have done related things. In the literature on these questions, the possible answers like Geography, Trade, Culture and Colonization, have been found either to be instrumental or to not stand rigorous analysis. The current status of the argument proposes institutions as an explanatory variable to account for differences between societies. Institutions defined simply as rules of the game - the norms of behaviour that structure how people in a society interact with each other. In our public lives, there are formal public institutions like the Constitution, the Law, the Civil Services and so forth, and then there are the everyday informal institutions – the norms and traditions that govern our interactions with one another. Our system of beliefs, our faith, and our caste system in practice being some examples. The theory says progressive institutions are those that create incentives in a way that maximizes the collective benefit for the society as a whole. Regressive ones are those that make it possible for a select few to exploit others.

While that is a plausible explanation, there is something to be said also about the reverse direction of the causality. That is, not only do institutions influence how a society works, but a society and its people – you and I - also influence how our institutions develop over time. Some institutions that suit the more powerful among us are kept that way even if they hurt most others. The caste system is one enduring example of a bad institution that continues to be with us in myriad ways. In other words, institutions – formal and informal - are not always a given. They are a living breathing animal, shaped and reshaped by its people, and by how they affect their incentives. So in a society where bad institutions give scope for economic, social and political discriminations, its people should also at some level be held culpable. Perhaps every society gets the institutions it deserves? This is not unlike saying that every society gets the politicians it deserves, or the journalism it deserves, and the criminals it deserves, perhaps even the traffic it deserves. “We must be crap people”, then, is arguably a fair diagnosis in itself of why we bribe and collude and discriminate and drive badly.

If that seems plausible, what can we do about it? Can we legislate against it? But then we have. And we always find ways to work around the laws and ‘outsmart’ the system. Can we legislate some more? Implement better? Enforce better? Perhaps. But is this merely about legislation? The government? Is this an instrumental matter for policy? Or do we need to dig deeper? Should we go into in the realm of ethics and morals where laws by themselves have limited impact? Go on a collective soul-searching mission? Why are we the way we are, and why can’t we all be better people? Perhaps.

But the point is, any approach to accountability (better governance) can only be partial unless it aims eventually to internalize accountable behaviour. As if it were a norm. And for such an approach it is perhaps not enough to look at accountability as making a rule, and making people follow it, “if not…”.

Perhaps what we also need is a discourse on accountability that invokes it positively – as a responsibility. A moral and ethical responsibility of each and every one of us, as much as it is a legal obligation. A duty as much as a right.

If this is idealism, perhaps we need a bit of idealism in our pragmatics?

Bala Posani is Senior Research Analyst at Accountability Initiative

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Social Audits and why they matter?

Yamini Aiyar

In a rather worrying turn of events, the Government of Rajasthan, which in September had unveiled a grand plan to set up a social audit cell to monitor the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in the state, called off a series of social audits that were being undertaken in 16 districts of the state in the last week of November. Newspaper reports (see here) seem to suggest that the state government succumbed to pressure from Sarpanches and Gram Sewaks who had rallied against these audits. This move is a serious blow to efforts to institutionalize social audits in the NREGA and internalize transparency and accountability in our administrative systems. But it also raises important questions. Why do social audits matter? Do they really prevent corruption? And what have they achieved?

Do social audits matter? And do they reduce corruption? There is little hard evidence available to empirically answer this question. What we do know from experiences both in Andhra – which is now the only state to have successfully institutionalized social audits in the country – and across the country where sporadic social audits have been conducted, is that stories of corruption are unearthed. Andhra in its early days of social auditing reported a ‘recovery’ of Rs. 60 lakhs of embezzled funds. This money was physically handed over to NREGA beneficiaries at public meetings that followed the social audits. More recent unconfirmed figures seem to suggest that over 28 crores worth of corruption has been unearthed by the social audits of which about 4 crores has been ‘returned’ (to use social audit lingo). But what happens after? Has this uncovering of corruption and public naming and shaming that follows acted as a disincentive for corruption? The answer isn’t clear. Professor James Manor, a well known political scientist, whose been studying the NREGA in Madhya Pradesh argues that the transparency mechanisms in NREGA, of which social audits are one important element, have made it harder to steal from NREGA than from nearly any other government program. This fact was reiterated to me by a rather ‘honest’ Sarpanch on a recent trip to Madhya Pradesh who said he disliked NREGA precisely because it was difficult to steal from it! But at the same time there are studies that suggest otherwise - and this applies to Andhra as well.

But social audits do much more than reduce corruption. My first encounter with social audits was in 2006 in Andhra Pradesh when curiosity led to me to spend a couple of days with a social audit team. At the end of the two-day audit, a public hearing was organized where the teams and villagers shared their findings and evidence with the government. At least 200 people came to the meeting. The conversation was animated. Many villagers grabbed the mike to register their complaints, some were even shouting at the dais. On the dais were the Program Officer, the Post Officer and other sundry government officials. I don’t speak Telugu and had no idea of what was actually going on but for me this was extraordinary. Most villagers rarely get to see a government officer let alone talk to one (or in this case shout at one). At one point, and after much shouting and commotion, one of the field assistants (the worksite managers in NREGA) who had apparently embezzled some wages was openly fired by the Program Officer. Never before (and never after) had I – let alone the villagers- seen any arm of the Indian government act with such speed! For me this was a fine example of a responsive, accountable government.

A few months later, a former colleague and I undertook to study the effects of these audits and public meetings. The results (for details see link) tell an important story. More than 80 percent of those interviewed said they felt that social audits were a powerful tool to resolve grievances and problems with the government. But more important, almost 90 percent of the beneficiaries said that they felt more powerful and able to influence government officials after social audits. So social audits matter, and not just because they might reduce corruption, but because they can be empowering - they allow the poorest the opportunity to interact and speak to government officials and be heard.

But of course there are larger questions. At a recent social audit in Bhilwara, Rajasthan, while helping with logistics for 2,000 people to go out and conduct the audits, I found my self wondering if this is what it ought to take to make sure that the poorest guy gets his wages? It is hard work and a constant battle… and, really, are we resolving the fundamental, systemic issues that cause corruption in the first place? Perhaps not. But social audits give people information, they induce transparency – people finally get a peek into ‘the government’, they create platforms where people can engage with government and through all this they can (and arguably do) empower people to exercise their rights and that’s why they must be promoted not in one village or one state but all across the country. After all, only an empowered citizenry can demand accountability from the state.

A few years ago I wrote an article arguing that NREGA is not just about guaranteeing employment but also good governance. I had travelled around the country and was struck by the fact that transparency and accountability measures built into the Act have acted as a catalyst for state governments to innovate with measures for accountability. I went to Jharkhand, Andhra, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu to participate in social audits. And it was not just social audits. The techies began experimenting with biometric identification, bank accounts were opened for beneficiaries – men and women - the list was endless. It seemed then that the NREGA could kick-start at least the beginnings of a revolution in governance. By preventing social audits and changing its mind on the institutionalization process, the government of Rajasthan has set a very dangerous precedent – one that doesn’t bode well for the potential of the NREGA and for the future of governance in India.

Yamini Aiyar is the Director of the Accountability Initiative.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Scaling Up Social Accountability: Accountability Scorecard

Sruti Bandyopadhyay

Strengthening accountability relationships between policy makers, service providers and citizens is at the core of the public accountability effort. After many years of practice, piloting and trial and error, efforts are now increasingly focused on how to scale-up and mainstream these interventions. To address this, I'm proposing a new tool called Accountability Scorecard. An “Accountability Scorecard” would identify and provide information about the factors that determine the long-term success of a Centrally Sponsored/Central Sector Scheme. The score card can be used as a checklist while drafting a new scheme or can be used as a performance measurement tool for already existing schemes.

My initial thoughts are that it should include five elements namely-

1. Strategic Planning,
2. Expenditure Management, Financial Controls and Reporting-Implementation
3. Accountability to Oversight Bodies
4. Monitoring of Service Delivery
5. Handling of Misconduct, Corruption and Maladministration.

Sample questions might include:

* Has adequate/accurate data been collected about the sector and presented in the plan document?
* Does the plan nominate a responsible official for all the activities?
* Does the scheme have a clear guideline for state govt. and autonomous agencies to release a minimum grant amount every month?
* Is there list of districts for which the budget data not available?
* Is the reason for the non availability of the data is also specified?
* Is there a specific set of officers who can be held responsible if the minimum monthly grant does not reach the primary delivery unit (e.g.-schools/panchayat) ?
* Are there mechanisms for dispute resolution without going through the courts?
* Have the state governments’ views been solicited?
* Is the performance management scheme for the bureaucrats linked to the service delivery outputs of the Department?
* What kind of incentive structure is there to compliance with timely delivery of the output?
* Did the Department report adequately on cases of misconduct and corruption in its Annual Report to the Legislature?

And so on...

To start with there would be 50 questions in a score card. Each of which have a "yes/no" answer and each of which should be backed by a more detailed definition to make clear whether the answer is yes or no. A consolidated score can be generated on the basis of this.

Unlike a Community Score Card, here feedback won’t be sought from the local level community. For an example, if a civil society/Research organization wants to develop a scorecard for National Rural Health Mission, then it would invite a panel and the panel should consist of: State Facilitators for National Rural Health Mission, Accountant in the State Department , who is working on NRHM, Representative of a local NGO working on NRHM in the state, NRHM official from Delhi, Representative of an International NGO/organization who has worked on same scheme in different country, Academician. The panel would give their individual scores on each of these 50 questions and thus a scheme can be categorized either as a Non-compliance scheme, or as an Extremely Poor Compliance or a Full Compliance scheme.

For anyone interested in thinking seriously about how to scale-up social accountability efforts, I believe this can be a good beginning of a necessary conversation.

Sruti Bandyopadhyay is a Researcher at Accountability Initiative

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Social Audits: Field Notes from Warangal

Diane L Coffey

Earlier this month, a group of eight students from Princeton University travelled with our professor, Dr. Jeffrey Hammer, from Princeton, New Jersey, USA to Duddungi block in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh, India.

The purpose of our trip was to learn about the social audit process that has been instituted in AP to monitor the implementation of NREGA, the national employment guarantee act. According to the 2005 act, each rural Indian household should be provided with 100 days manual labour per year. A unique feature of the act is that work should be provided on demand. There are other salient features of the act as well, which distinguish it from previous government employment programs. NREGA workers are supposed to be paid the state minimum wage, in cash, within 15 days of completion of a job. The national NREGA guidelines stipulate that social audit audits should be used to monitor NREGA implementation. As yet, however, only AP has done social auditing on a wide scale.

Before travelling to Warangal, a rural district about 5 hours east of Hyderabad, we met with Ms. Sowmya, one of the main coordinators of AP’s social audits. Ms. Sowmya, an activist originally based in Rajasthan with the NGO MKSS, told us about the social audit team and the social audit process. She described a process whereby literate young men (and sometimes women) are recruited from families who have worked on NREGA projects and trained to scrutinize muster rolls and other documents pertaining to NREGA work. These “village social auditors” then worksites and workers’ homes crosschecking the documents, which are obtained using India’s new Right to Information Act. The auditors make notes about discrepancies in payments and measurements, and inform workers about their rights under the act.

The culmination of the social audit process is the social audit forum, an occasion for the social audit team and for villagers who choose to attend to share the findings of the social audit. We Princeton students had the fortunate opportunity to attend a social audit forum while we were in Duddungi. The forum was held outside the block development office. Preparations for the social audit forum began in the morning, with the raising of a large tent, and the assembly of tables and chairs for the attendees. People arrived throughout the morning, and the program got underway around 11am. The employees of the BDO, the district level program officer, members from many levels of the social team, field assistants and technical assistants, villagers, and curious neighbors attended the forum. There was even a police presence; we were told that the last social audit forum in Duddungi had been tense, so this time, extra precautions were taken.

To begin, a member of the social audit team sang a song about the NREGA. After that, different district level resource persons read out complaints from the notes they had prepared about the social audit. The district level program officer moderated the discussion and the block level program assistant took notes. The complaints involved issues of worksite mismeasurement, overreporting of the number of workers, and discrepancies between days worked and wages paid. Some villagers waited several hours for their complaints to be discussed. One woman said that she was waiting to talk to the officials about compensation for an injury that her husband had sustained on an NREGA worksite.

By 5 o’clock, it was beginning to get dark, but the forum was still in full swing. We decided that it was time for us to head back to Hyderabad. As we piled in the cars, we were left with several questions: How will the issues raised at the forum be dealt with? What will happen to the people who spoke out at the forum? Will the implementation of the NREGA be affected by this process? We hope that our analysis of a dataset collected by the Accountability Initiative in 2007 and 2008 about social audits and the NREGA in Andhra Pradesh will help shed light on the answers some of our questions.

We are grateful to the Accountability Initiative and to the Ministry of Rural Development in Andhra Pradesh for arranging this unique opportunity for us to learn more about government accountability and to see a social audit forum in person.

Diane is a student at Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Right to Information: File Notings In, Amendments Out!

Mandakini Devasher Surie

US Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis famously said “sunshine is the best disinfectant”. Right to Information laws or “sunshine” laws, by opening up government decision-making to public scrutiny, bring a much needed dose of sunshine to the otherwise opaque dealings of governments. The last decade has seen an explosion of information laws around the world as governments and civil society recognise the value of providing citizens with access to information. Today there are some 90 countries with laws and regulations that provide citizens with a legal right to access information and records held by government departments. Closer home, the Indian Right to Information Act (RTI Act) of 2005 recently celebrated its 4th birthday. Since its enactment, the RTI Act has been used by a range of people including activists, civil servants, NGOs, lawyers, doctors, students and ordinary citizens. According to a recent study conducted by RAAG (Right to Information Analysis and Assessment Group), in the first two and a half years of the RTI Act, 1.6 million applications were filed in urban areas and an estimated 400,000 applicants from villages made requests for information. Overall, RAAG estimates that in the first 3 years of the RTI Act some 2 million RTIs were filed across the country. This number alone speaks about the value of the law in providing citizens with an avenue to approach and seek answers from governments.

Despite the wide usage of the law there are currently efforts within government to amend the law to exclude key provisions from public access. The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the nodal agency responsible for implementing the Act, has recently confirmed that the government is considering amending the law to exempt “file notings” and “frivolous and vexatious” requests for information. File notings are essentially the opinions and notes of civil servants on government files that sum up the decisions taken on a particular matter. You don’t have to think too hard about why bureaucrats do not want you or me to have access to these! As for “frivolous and vexatious” requests, it is really anybody’s guess what such requests may be. Presumably, if I want to know how much money the Municipal Corporation of Delhi spent last year on repairing roads– it may be considered vexatious by the Public Information Officer who has to gather the information but it would certainly not be frivolous.

The key question is who gets to decide what is or is not frivolous or vexatious? In the UK, government departments get a fair number of the so called ‘frivolous’ requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. In 2006, the Hampshire Police received a request from “ilikemeninuniform” seeking information on the "eligible bachelors within Hampshire constabulary between the ages of 35 and 49 and details of their email addresses, salary, and pension values". Taking the request in their stride - and with a big pinch of salt - the office replied that they did in fact have 210 eligible bachelors on the rolls but sadly could not give out their personal information! In another case the Ministry of Defence got a request from an ex-sailor wanting to track down "an old Royal Navy recipe for sauteed kidneys and curried meatballs"! There are undoubtedly similar requests in India (which sadly we do not get to hear about) and I imagine they can be annoying but do we really need to amend the Act to deal with them?

These are some of the concerns that were voiced at a dharna organised last weekend in the capital by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI). In a strong letter to the Prime Minister, activists have affirmed that the “... amendments are not to strengthen the law or improve its implementation. On the contrary...the proposed amendments, if introduced, will emasculate the RTI Act....". “An amendment in the Act would be an obviously retrograde step, at a time when there is a popular consensus to strengthen it through rules and better implementation and not introduce any amendments.” The Department of Personnel and Training has recently said that it will follow a process of public consultation before any amendments are passed. But the question remains as to why these amendments are even necessary? Amendments per se are not bad - if carefully considered and well drafted, amendments can in certain cases improve the implementation of laws, rules and regulations. But amendments designed to fundamentally water down the essence of one of the strongest information laws in the world is simply retrograde. The government would do better to take on board the findings of the recent RAAG study which shows that more than file notings and vexatious requests – weak implementation, lack of training and capacity building and poor records management are the major constraint faced by the governments today.

Amendments to the RTI Act have been on the government’s agenda for quite some time. As early as 2006, civil society groups and leading RTI activists rallied against government attempts to amend the law. Round one went to civil society and to the RTI Act, as the “Save the Right to Information Campaign” caught the attention of the media and successfully stalled the Union Government from pushing through the amendments. The outcome of round two still hangs in the balance. But surely, we can all agree that what we really need is more sunshine not more darkness.

Mandakini Devasher Surie is a Research Associate with the Accountability Initiative.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

AI's New Working Paper - 'Enhancing Accountability in Public Service Delivery Through Social Audits: A Case Study of Andhra Pradesh, India'

Accountability Initiative's new working paper examines the effectiveness of social audit as a tool to enhance accountability.

Using a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods, Ritesh Singh and Vinay Vutukuru measure the impact of social audits on the implementation of National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the flagship employment guarantee program of of India, in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

The main research questions addressed are: what is the impact of social audits on the size of the program and the payment process? Are social audit results a good indicator of the overall quality of program implementation? How does the performance of Karnataka, a neighbouring state, which has not taken up social audit, compare to that of Andhra Pradesh in the overall implementation of the program? And what are the reasons behind the successful scale up of social audits in Andhra Pradesh?

The results show that there is a statistically significant improvement in the size of the program as measured by the mandays generated. There was no statistically significant improvement in the proportion of timely payments, which can be attributed to technical problems in scaling up the payment process. It was found that the qualitative reports provided useful inputs on the process related aspects (performance of functionaries, maintenance of muster rolls etc) that were missing from the quantitative performance reports. It was found that the program is not in a very stable position in Karnataka, given the fact that there has been a decrease in the size of the program in the current year, and a comparison with Andhra Pradesh would not be a fair. An important insight was that the social audit program generated a great deal of public support in Andhra Pradesh, as manifested by the huge turnouts in the sub-district level meetings, which resulted in political support cutting across party lines. Another critical strategy was co-opting the lower bureaucracy in the entire process, so that there were no major problems during roll-out.

The overall conclusion is that social audits are indeed an important tool in building social awareness which results in a greater demand for work which translates into increased size of the program. The process also exposed corruption in the implementation of the program and a total amount of Rs 20 million of program funds was recovered.

The paper recommends that the Andhra Pradesh experiment with social audit can be replicated elsewhere in the country, provided that the learnings from its example are internalized, the program is launched in an incremental manner, and political issues generated by the process are carefully handled. It is specifically recommended that the Government of India should finance a pilot social audit project in two districts in each state of the country, roughly modeled on the Andhra Pradesh example. The states could then do a comprehensive roll out across all districts based on the state-specific learning from the pilot projects.

The paper can be downloaded by clicking here.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Dissent Economics: Thoughts on an inclusive future

Hindol Sengupta

Accept it. Deep down, perhaps even precariously near the surface, in your heart you love the fact that being well-off is slowly returning to vogue. You heap scorn at the fashion weeks (no, you couldn't have missed them because India had four, or maybe five this year) but you are enormously glad that someone, somewhere had enough money in India to celebrate leggy models and largely unwearable clothes so many times.

Chances are you love the fact that the downturn is coming to an end - unless you belong to India's Communist parties and were trashed in the polls - and are delighted to know that you will not lose your job after all.

But, as Jeffery Sachs says, most likely the lessons of the downturn are fast being forgotten and no matter which way you read the alphabet soup of recovery ('L', maybe 'V', why not 'W'?), there is little doubt that bubbles are forming once again even as the first champagne bottles, in a year and a half in some cases, are being uncorked.

So what lessons are being forgotten post the downturn?

In July, in a special issue, The Economist pointed out that how the bubble burst is fundamentally altering economic theory, arguing that macroeconomists, especially central bankers, "were too fixated on taming inflation and too cavalier about asset bubbles".

Now, as the US economy reports growth for the first time in about a year, officially, as some newspapers have reported, ending the "longest since World War II" recession, the question to ask is what forms asset bubbles, why are they ignored and is it possible, somewhere, even at this moment, more asset bubbles are forming but there is little chance that we will know what they are until they burst spectacularly?

The downturn has brought several theories of melting pedestals of finance and macroeconomics and rethinking, more dramatically, the basis of neo-liberal capitalism. The question - many have asked - is, is capitalism now on an irretrievable collision course with the greater common good and has it now been irretrievably proved that left to itself, un-shepherded capitalism is apocalyptic?

The answer of course is yes, and yes.

In our terror-ridden world, economic and political apocalypse is, assuredly, intertwined.

If you peer closely at the debate that surrounds analysis of Wall Street greed to Maoist violence in India's infamous Red Corridor, from terror recruits in dysfunctional, and one is being kind here, North Africa, to the new great game for oil, friction and finance are constant bedfellows.

Look closely at what India's considers the biggest threat to the nation state these days - Maoist violence. With an estimated one-third of the country controlled continuously or intermittently by Maoists and ever increasing instances of violence, including the heavily politicised train-jacking, there is reason for real concern.

But at the heart of the battle is a deep service delivery failure. Decades of poor delivery of resources and opportunities in India's large tribal swathes have turned them into a battlefield where argument for a different, inclusive model of development have reached bullet-point.

For evidence, listen to the latest statements of Kishenji, the ever-elusive but omnipresent Maoist chief, always shot with his back to the camera and a gun strategically slung on the shoulders (so that the gun faces the camera even if he does not) who has challenged the West Bengal government to finish development faster than the Maoists.

Among the Maoist brag: they would sink 100 tube-wells in the next month and also set up 15 temporary hospitals. All this barely 200 kilometers from Calcutta.

Rebels are doing what the government has not in 60 years.

In Peshawar, widely known as Pakistan's (Asia's?) Wild West, Pakistani diplomats have often told me why there is so much support for the Taliban. They bring security and a sense of the fair rule of law which the corrupt administration has always failed to deliver.

So while asset bubbles are created in one part of the world, another breeds violence devoid of basic guarantees of the nation state and the two are in constant path of collision.

There is a big common ground between conservative politics and neo-liberal economics - an almost fascist disdain for dissenting views. In India, this has meant that as the country squeezes 20 years of Western growth in two or three years, there is little space of questioning this development model.

In this arrogance of development, dissent is not merely derided, it is treachery.

The big lesson of the post-downturn debate is whether in the world of Maoist violence and terror attacks, in a world of the debris of once-great banks, can there be space for Dissent Economics?

In his prophetic essay 'The Future of Dissent' on the 'Futures' edition of India's leading thought journal Seminar in December 1997, historian Ashis Nandy wrote:

"It is the responsibility of the citizen-futurist... to defy and subvert the 'inevitable' in the future, only another name for a tomorrow which dare not be anything other than a linear projection of yesterday. Students of the future owe it to themselves to create a gap between those whose idea of the future is modelled on the Wall Street share market or on nineteenth century Europe and those ideas of the future that could be called contemporary versions or reincarnations of the prophetic."

As Wall Street alchemists now know, the future might often not be the linear projection of the histories of the past.

Through the idea of Dissent Economics, I want to argue that our collective future can be far better prophesied if space is made for dissent. Dissent Economics, formalised as part of mainstream debate, will ease radical pressures on the system and would aid cooperative negotiation that are more effective in bringing change.

How can Dissent Economic Theory be statistically integrated to mainstream analysis?

The beginning must be far away from the data charts, on the field, by allowing and indeed enabling processes bring together dissenting viewpoints into mainstream debate. Provisions such as these already exist in government programs in education, health, employment guarantee schemes etc, but need to be implemented better.

Dissent Economics seeks to understand and extract from what initially might seem to be fringe criticism of popular notions but through micro-analysis is able to extract clues and forecast scenarios that takes a more holistic picture of the future, not so much as a linear projection of the past, but the sum of total of collective experience and opinions where even a breakaway radical critique centre might be explosive enough to derail the 'inevitable'.

Dissent Economics at its core of course is about democracy.

Hindol Sengupta is Associate Editor, Bloomberg UTV

Friday, 6 November 2009

Show Me the Money – The trials and tribulations of finding budgetary data in India

Avani Kapur

Every year on budget day, millions across the country tune into their television or radio-sets to hear the verdict of the budget. We want to know how much money has been allocated for various schemes and how the government has been fairing on its promises during the previous years. Yet, apart from that one day where basic budgetary data is clearly spelt out for us in a language everyone can understand, for the most part, anyone who has tried getting budgetary data on the social sector knows the arduous task it entails. A quick look at the Ministry of Health Website gives a clear indication of this!

As part of my work at the Accountability Initiative, I have been involved in trying to collect and disseminate information on social sector expenditures (see here). The importance of understanding social sector budgetary data becomes relevant by the quantum of money that it involves. The fact that the Indian economy has been growing at an incredible rate is a well-known fact. And this has been accompanied with large increases in social sector spending. According to the Economic Survey of India, Rs. 2,39,340 crores was spent in 2006-07 (the latest year for which actual expenditure figures are available) on Social Services including health and education. But how much of this actually reaches the service provider?

For the most part, tracking expenditure through budget documents requires an understanding of the expenditure responsibilities within and across Central and State governments. Budgets usually involve codes and although since 1987 budget codes have been harmonized, the process and documentation of budget-making has not kept pace with the changes over the last two decades.

Broadly there are 4 places to look for budgetary data, but each comes with its own set of limitations. One of the first places to look for budget documents is the Central Government’s dedicated budget website- www.indiabudget.nic.in. However, while the detailed demand for grants provides the Revised Estimates (RE) and Budget Estimates (BE), the final accounted expenditure is not available. Second, there is the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), which gives information about the amount of money allocated under different sectors and states, but here too, there is no detailed information on how, and on what, the money is being spent.

In order to get details about expenditure one needs to go to a separate document called the ‘Finance Accounts’, which is not easily available online. Moreover, there is a 2 year lag in reporting, i.e. for 2008-09 financial year, actual expenditure is available only up to 2006-07.

Similarly, while budget documents of the State governments and relevant government ministries do provide actual expenditure, they are not always publically available online and even when they are, they are not easy to navigate as there is no standardization in the presentation of budget documents across states or departments along with the time-lag problem already mentioned.

Apart from the difficulty in finding information, even if the information is available, there are problems of different reporting styles, lack of reliable and up-to-date information.

To take the example of education, while the RBI reports it under the budget head of ‘’Education, Sports, Art and Culture’’, the Central Government budget website puts education under the head of General, Elementary, Secondary and Adult Education. This makes it difficult to know which is the right source and the data naturally doesn’t match, making cross-verification difficult.

Moreover, for social sectors such as education, there may be multiple departments delivering the service. For example, in Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, schools in tribal-dominated blocks come under the domain of the Tribal Welfare Department. This means that the total expenditure for education is generally higher than the expenditure incurred by the Department of Education.

The problem is further intensified in cases where fiscal responsibility is devolved to the lower levels of government. Significant portion of grants coming from the Centre go directly to the panchayats through the State budget. While the State budget documents mention the quantum of block grants to panchayats made by various departments, they often do not mention the purpose of the grants. Moreover, the lack of documentation by the Panchayats along the lines of a national system of accounts makes reconciling the grants coming from the Centre and the State, with panchayat records, virtually impossible.

The lack of regular and reliable data is evident from the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Web Portal wherein, till date, expenditure under the various heads is only available up till January 2009. There is also no way of knowing when the website would be updated .

In the absence of a centralised information database tracking, the allocation and expenditure of funds (even for the government) becomes an extremely tedious exercise, having implications for planning as well as efficiency. The (often) big difference in revised estimates and budget estimates indicates that there are problems in the planning process, often caused by the inability to incorporate the spillovers of unspent funds. According to estimates, more than Rs.50,000 crores that were committed to flagship programs such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, National Rural Health Mission etc, in previous years, are lying unutilized.

A centralised information system would assist in mitigating this problem by catching mistakes and inefficiencies and also ensuring transparency.

With the advent of the Right to Information Act (RTI), we now have a legal duty to provide information including budgetary information. Section 4(2) of the RTI, calls for the proactive disclosure of information of public authorities and mandates, “it shall be the constant endeavour of every public authority….. to provide as much information suo moto to the public at regular intervals through various means of communication including the internet, so that the public have minimum resort to the use of this act to obtain information”. Websites such as the Andhra Pradesh Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (APREGS) website, with its well-organised and up-to-date information for various heads right up to the mandal level indicate that creating such a system is possible. Now it is time we step up to the challenge!

Avani Kapur is Researcher and Coordinator of PAISA project at Accountability Initiative

Monday, 2 November 2009

Thoughts on Types of Accountability

Nirvikar Singh

In the context of governance, accountability means that members and agents of government, i.e., politicians, employees and contractors are ultimately answerable to the citizens who provide the funds for their functioning, through taxes, fees and loans. Therefore, persistently poor public expenditure quality and inefficient delivery of public services, beyond what can be attributed to unavoidable constraints placed by financial and human resource limitations, must be traceable to weak accountability mechanisms operating for individuals (politicians and government employees) and for organizations (ministries and various public sector enterprises). Weak accountability also is central to the problem of corruption, which contributes to poor quality of public services.

Accountability is implemented through the provision of appropriate incentives for performance. For most of government, incentives and accountability are quite indirect, operating through organizational hierarchies. Only politicians are directly answerable to citizens through elections, and these are based on aggregate and incomplete assessments by citizens of politicians’ performance. Day-to-day accountability of politicians works through mechanisms such as the answerability of the executive to the legislature, the oversight of the judiciary, and general checks and balances within government. A federal structure adds the electoral dimension of accountability to subnational governments, but this can complicate the task of citizens in trying to assess performance.

To elucidate, one can categorize two fundamental types of accountability in governance: (1) that of elected officials to citizens and (2) that of other government employees to elected officials. The first can also be termed accountability through “voice”, political accountability or external accountability. Voice typically works through the electoral process, but one can also view direct appeals to the judiciary as a form of voice. In India, the broad use of public interest legislation can be seen as citizens’ using the judiciary to improve accountability of politicians, where electoral accountability is weak. An additional mechanism that provides external accountability is what Hirschman termed “exit.” Citizens may exit in two ways, either by shifting jurisdictions, or by going to the private sector for fulfilling wants that the government fails to provide adequately or effectively. In either case, the key enabler of exit is competition, between jurisdictions or between public and private provision.

The second type of accountability is more complex, since there can be vertical and horizontal chains of accountability within government as a whole, and within specific parts of government. Thus, this type of accountability includes “hierarchy” as a mechanism as well as checks and balances within government. One can also term this as “internal” accountability, broadening the standard usage of that term, which focuses on internal hierarchies, to include checks and balances.

Checks and balances are ignored in analysis that treats government as a dichotomous entity of elected and non-elected officials and neglects the broader dimensions of within-government accountability. For an example, consider the functioning of the Indian national parliament as an institution of accountability for the executive – its role in practice is weak, though it is supposed to have this function.

In considering forms of accountability, public interest legislation can also be interpreted as a hybrid of external (government-citizen) and internal accountability. One can possibly also distinguish “social” accountability, referring to the accountability of front-line service delivery units of government to clients. It seems that this is really a derivative of joint political and internal accountability. Yet another aspect of accountability is a division along quasi-functional lines: political, fiscal and administrative. Again, it seems that fiscal accountability, while very significant, is a joint product of political (external) and administrative (internal) accountability.

Nirvikar Singh is Professor of Economics at University of California, Santa Cruz.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Annual Forum of the UN Solution Exchange Decentralization Community, October 2009, Lucknow

Bala Posani

The Annual Forum of the UN Solution Exchange Decentralization Community was held this year between 22nd and 24th October in Lucknow. It was attended by 135 participants from 23 states, among whom were elected representatives from Panchayats in 15 states across the country. I had the opportunity to attend the forum, and in this post I have summarized my takeaways from it.

Solution Exchange (SE), is an initiative of the UN Agencies in India to harness the power of Communities of Practice to help attain national development goals and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Decentralization Community of SE is facilitated by the UNDP and connects practitioners across the country working on Decentralization and Local Governance in India, providing them a non-partisan platform, helping them share and apply each other’s knowledge and experience, thereby increasing the effectiveness of their individual efforts.

The theme for this year’s Annual Forum was ‘Rights and Local Governance’. This was in consideration of the rights based framework within which various new initiatives of the government like the Right to Information Act, the Right to Employment, the Right to Food Security, and Access to Justice through Gram Nyayalayas have been conceived. The theme was timely and important, as all of these have direct implication for the local governance as local governments have a major role to play in realizing the objectives of these initiatives.

The plenary session on Day 1 had engaging talks centred on the ‘rights and local governance’ theme. Prof Meenakshisundaram, (Former Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development) spoke about how, so far, the local governments in India have not been recognized in practice as any real ‘unit of governance’, and how the increased role for them in the rights-based service delivery framework might help bring that recognition.

Mr. S.M. Vijayanand (Principal Secretary, Department of Local Self Government, Kerala) talked about the theoretical implications of the rights-based framework. He said that this kind of framework by definition involves a ‘covenant’ between the government and its citizens. On the one hand it recognizes citizens’ agency in asserting it, and on the other, forces the government to intervene in cases of non-compliance by making it a violation of a legal right.

Dr. S.C. Behar (Former Chief Secretary, Government of Madhya Pradesh), drew attention to the urgency of efforts to scrutinize and make suggestions to the Right to Education Act, the details of which are being formulated currently. He pointed out that even though in the new framework the funds are to be shared between the Centre and the States, there is yet no consensus on how these funds are going to be raised at these levels. He also suggested that local governments must go beyond their duties of governance and take up advocacy as well, to ensure that higher levels of government live up to their promises.

Dr. N.C. Saxena (Former Secretary, Planning Commission), spoke about the Food Security Act, and its three aspects – availability, accessibility and absorption, and pointed out how Panchayats have a rather limited role in all of these. He said that we must think beyond the 3Fs (functions, functionaries, and funds), and work to build Panchayats as institutions. Panchayats need to be able to generate their own revenue, which would foster responsibility and make them more directly accountable to the people. He also suggested that indicators need to be developed in health, education, nutrition etc., and Panchayats need to be graded along these indicators, and funding could be made contingent on these grades. He gave examples of ICDS in Himachal Pradesh and Education Programmes in Chhattisgarh where such indicators have been implemented. Also, citing the example of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly which met only 25 days in a year, he pointed out that the MLAs seem not to be interested as much in their legislative duties, as they are in doing more visible things like spending the MLALADS money, and sharing in the implementation of local level programmes – something which is the mandate of lower tiers of government. To reduce the conflict that this might create between the MLA and the Sarpanch, he made a pragmatic, if adventurous, suggestion of merging the MLA with the Block Presidency.

Following the plenary session, there were parallel sessions on the different working groups on rights and local governance, namely the Rights to Information, Education, Employment and Food Security, and Access to Justice. I attended the RTI session, in which some interesting suggestions came up on how Panchayats can improve transparency and proactive disclosure of records in their villages. One suggestion was that one day in the week could be designated when all the Panchayat records would be made available freely for anyone t o come and inspect. Nikhil Dey of MKSS cited the example of Delhi where this practice has been successfully implemented for the PDS records. Another suggestion was to designate a day in a month when a ‘local secretariat’ would be conducted where representatives of government department would come to the Panchayat office with the current records pertaining to the village, which would be open for inspection by anyone in the village. Steps like these, it was felt, would not only improve the transparency and ease of access of information, but also consolidate the importance of the Panchayat as an institution, as it requires the bureaucrats from higher levels of government to come there and be answerable every month.

Day 2 had sessions where we got a chance to hear from the elected representatives from different states about their experiences of running a government at the local level. There were also women representatives from Goa, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Among other things, many Sarpanches spoke about their desire for public service which motivated them to contest the elections, and their everyday experience of being in office. They also spoke about the difficulties of dealing with the bureaucrats at the higher levels. Day 2 also had presentations by members on selected themes of decentralization like ‘Land, Water and Empowerment’, ‘Urban Governance’ and ‘Local Governance – the Way Forward’.

An interesting feature of Day 2 was the ‘Knowledge Mela’, which was a highly interactive way of learning from experiences. Members could walk around 6-10 tables and meet Resource Persons to network with and understand themes/topics that he/she was presenting. The themes ranged from gender equity in Panchayats, teaching local governance as an academic subject in higher education to climate change and local governance and capacity building through technology. There was also some discussion on how to take the Decentralization Community forward, and how to decentralize the decentralization community itself, so that there was greater ownership and diversity of voices from the local levels.

Forums such as these provide an important opportunity where policymakers, elected representatives and practitioners from local level, researchers and academics share a common platform. This enables a rich discussion full of perspectives from different stakeholders in governance, especially the practitioner perspective from the field. The 73rd and 74th Amendments may have set in motion the possibility of making governance meaningful at the local levels, but it is through deliberations and learnings from forums such as these that we can keep the momentum of reform going, so that local government is not just an electoral reality but also a substantive, capable, and responsive government for the citizens.

Bala Posani is Senior Research Analyst at Accountability Initiative

Monday, 26 October 2009

Experiences from the Bhilwara NREGA Social Audit

Abhijit Patnaik

The NREGA guarantees certain rights to all workers - 100 days work to each family in a year, full pay for full work, unemployment insurance if work is not given in the first fifteen days after applying, work within 5km of the village, the right to inspect employment registers and muster rolls at the panchayat office being some of them.

The recently concluded Bhilwara NREGA Social Audit Padyatra involved over 1600 Block and district resource personnel from all over Rajasthan, NGO workers and other volunteers from different parts of India including Orissa and Mizoram. The Social Audit has become an important means through which people can get involved in the planning, execution and monitoring of various aspects of the law. The experience of implementation of the law over the last three and a half years has shown that people’s involvement is crucial to the better implementation of the law and people’s ability to access their entitlements.

The 4 day training period involved explaining what the teams were supposed to do during the audit, a day of ‘’shramdhaan’’ involving physically working on NREGS worksites (in our case- digging holes ) to experience firsthand the effort involved in earning Rs.100 a day, distribution of teams (125 in all), speeches by representatives of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangatahan (including Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey) and the Government of Rajasthan on the importance of the NREGA for the rural poor and the Audit and how we were supposed to go about conducting it .The entire exercise was made possible by the cooperation, at various levels, of the government and especially the District Collector Manju Rajpal (the NREGA Social Audit in Dungarpur district of Rajasthan was also conducted when she was the DC there). However, there was news floating around of how prior to the audit various sarpanches and officials had gotten together to oppose it, and had purposely stopped all worksites during the audit to make inspections more difficult to conduct.

Our team consisted mainly of Block Resource Personnel from the Udaipur area. The teams were flagged off by the Panchayati Raj Minister Mr. Bharat Singh. 11 Special teams were also sent to the various blocks to conduct in-depth audits where muster rolls, job cards, works undertaken etc were scrutinized with a fine-tooth comb. Since the rest of the teams were spending 1.5 days per panchayat, in-depth technical audits of the work carried out under the NREGS was not always possible. However -armed with mobile microphone’s, flags, banners and more importantly, the Management Information System files for the villages (which includes financial and work-related information on all Job cards, construction works etc conducted in the villages) - we set out into our 3 panchayats. Staying in the village school, walking around taking complaints on job card or payment irregularities, requesting villagers to have one or two team members over for meals, inspecting and writing reports on the quality and efficacy of the work sites, checking whether standard practices were being followed by the ‘mate’ ( worksite in-charge), meeting the village secretary and doing a full check of all records -bills, job card information , employment registers etc- relating to the NREGS were all carried out by each team.


In general, worksites do not have boards with information on the amount of money spent on them (a requirement), workers are not divided into groups when working, are given more than the prescribed amount of work to earn Rs.100 a day ( and even then are not being paid the full rate) . In every village we went, workers were being paid the average rate, usually between 60-80%. Most mates were not properly trained on how to take measurements at worksites to judge each worker’s due.

Many job cards are not filled in properly. The payment column in job cards is usually missing. A majority of them are kept with the mate, a clear violation. Muster rolls have a lot of mistakes and things are crossed out, which is again against the rules. Information on payments made to job card holders and also on works in the village which are supposed to be displayed on the walls of the panchayat office are generally missing.

Form 6, which is to be used by those seeking employment, is basically never filled. Workers simply go and talk to the mate for work and he asks people to come by in an ad hoc fashion. This means that if they do not find work in 15 days, they are not eligible for unemployment insurance. In two villages people told us how some family members of the sarpanch were picking up payments for work but never show up. In fact, in Hurda block, the audit teams found 15% of job cards were forged. Of course, many people who are eligible for job cards don’t have them, and a large number of people had not received payments in over 3-4 months. In one extreme case in village Haled, someone who had applied for work and not received it for over 1.5 yrs received over Rs.4000 in unemployment insurance when this was discovered by the audit team. The worksites we inspected (mostly watershed management related) had been beneficial for animals in the area.

Knowledge of the public about their rights and entitlements under the NREGS is very poor. The teams walked around the villages spreading information and leaflets, talking to villagers about the same, but more needs to be done in this respect.

Reports from many villages came in that teams had to deal with sometimes unfriendly sarpanches and other village administration. In the village Bada Mahua we visited, the Sarpanch’s brother and loyalists constantly shadowed us as we made rounds through the village meeting people. As a result they were not willing to talk openly about issues they had. In fact, in the Aamli panchayat, around 50 sarpanch loyalists even slept in the school where the audit team was and interfered in their work. In Peepli village, the entire village administration work had been contracted out to one Madan Lal , a farmer, by the village secretary. Reecchda was one of the other villages assigned to us. Along with the illegal use of JCB (earth-digging) machines, we also uncovered financial fraud there. Apparently the ‘firm’ from which 6000 units of cement has been procured for a worksite was nothing more than the local cycle- repair shop!!

Several cases of untouchability practices were unearthed. Members of a certain caste were not allowed to sit under the shade provided at worksites or drink from the same vessel. Another major issue was that most procurement was done through ‘kuccha’ bills, with no CST, TIN or other tax /registration number for identification. Payments were made in cash which makes tracking problematic.

The audit was somewhat successful in its attempts at highlighting the problems within the implementation of the program -many FIRs were filed against officials, a lot of blocked payments were made, job cards issued and awareness created. Some of the useful recommendations that came out of this were the use of technology to overcome problems in payment using biometric methods (as done in parts of Andhra Pradesh), conducting social audits twice a year in all villages, adding photographs to passbooks to prevent any fraudulent handling of them, and most importantly the setting up of a social audit directorate within the Rajasthan government.

For more, see a recent article in the Hindu.

Abhijit Patnaik is Senior Researcher, Accountability Initiative

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

On Data, and its Relationship with Accountability and Transparency

Zainab Bawa

Notions of transparency and accountability have been evolving since late 1980s. It was advocated that people must be given information about budgets, especially details of heads where money was allocated and how it was spent. This would aid in enforcing transparency, accountability and participation. In the late 1990s, as cities developed, pressure on urban infrastructure increased and municipalities became unable to respond to people’s expectations owing to a variety of reasons. The prevalent view was that municipalities and local politicians are inefficient. Elected representatives were criticized for being corrupt and favouring their vote-banks by distributing city resources to them. It was also believed that use of discretionary powers perpetuates corruption. Contemporary accountability-transparency paradigm is aimed at making transparent to the public how and why discretion is exercised in different circumstances. This (presumably) will curb discretion as much as possible and tighten decision-making.

Publishing data in public domains as a way to enforce and enhance transparency and accountability has gained greater momentum in the current decade owing to the Right to Information (RTI) Act through which various kinds of information can be acquired. In this post, I am interested in exploring the concept of data to understand how accountability and transparency are reified by using data as a primary tool. With the help of examples, I will put forward the contention that what is presented as data is in fact produced through multiple histories and contexts. Organizing /interpreting data without an understanding of some of these histories can only enforce existing stereotypes and/or lead to oversight.

The Case of Discretionary Funds: In India, elected representatives are given discretionary funds annually. They can use this money, as per their discretion, to create infrastructure which will improve the condition of their constituencies. Information on how this money was spent has been gathered and made available in popular media. PRAJA Foundation has organized this information for Mumbai and has shown that most of the funds were spent on constructing community halls, anganwadis/crèches, toilets, roads and in the repairs of dilapidated buildings. It is evident that elected representatives have been spending part of the discretionary funds towards developing amenities for poorer populations in cities. This tends to get labeled as vote-bank politics. At the same time, this information is important for people residing in slums settlements so that they know of the claims they can make on their elected representatives.

Information of where and how discretionary funds were used cannot be interpreted holistically in the absence of geographical, historical, political, economic and social information about constituencies. Each area in the city has its own specificities. This implies that data have to be interpreted on the basis of local contexts. Moreover, administrative and institutional dynamics differ across the city. Further, some parts of the city are better endowed than others owing to age, location and patterns of urbanization. Here, we need to understand who institutes infrastructure, how much, for whom and who benefits from what. But these issues cannot be raised in the absence of contexts to the data. How then should data about the use of discretionary funds be presented? For now, it remains that discretion is exercised in particular social, economic and political contexts and therefore, presentation of latest data overlooks the historical, political and social context of constituencies in which various stakeholders and political actors are operating.

Data about Land Records: A few months ago, I met SL. He was running a garage in South Bangalore but he did not own it. One day, the owners asked him to vacate the premises. He decided to find out why he was asked to leave. The owners had invited a builder redevelop the property. SL decided to wage a legal battle to assert his claims. But he lost the case because the owners bribed the lawyer representing him. Thereafter, SL decided to find out the history of the land ownership to challenge the current owners. He found that the land was formerly part of a village. Later, different individuals and groups had reclaimed parts of the land from the nearby lake. Some of the historical records showed that at one point in time, the land belonged to the municipality but currently, it was being owned by private owners. The records which SL managed to obtain, through various means including RTI and by befriending clerks and junior officers in different administrative and planning departments, showed that at each point in time, different groups had owned, rented and/or used the land. This meant that ownership of the land was neither singular nor straightforward and that there were multiple claims on that single piece of land. SL’s findings that at a certain moment in history, the municipality was suddenly declared owner of the land put into jeopardy the ownership claims of the current owners.

SL’s story provides an interesting nuance for analyzing land record databases. Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto promoted the idea of developing national databases that contain information about transactions around every piece of land in the country. This would help to enforce the individual’s property rights. Around 1980s, new laws and regulations were being developed in India regarding land ownership and rights which individuals have over their properties. In this period, the government of Karnataka introduced legislation for regulating tenures and ownership of agricultural lands in order to transform the regime that existed in the colonial period and bring it up to date with the present. In 1990s, land records in rural Karnataka were digitized and a system was devised whereby farmers could now approach government offices in the taluks to procure copies of their land records. This system was known as Bhoomi. It was introduced to curb the petty corruption which agents and village accountants indulge in when they issue land record certificates to farmers. The goal of Bhoomi was to make the system of issuing land record certificates more efficient, transparent and accountable. However, such transparency led to drastic consequences for tenant farmers and small and marginal tillers and sharecroppers because their tenures and usufruct claims were not recognized under the new state legislation.

Information regarding ownership of land is rather sensitive because of the tremendous value associated with land and also because land in India is possessed and used under various arrangements known as tenure. Some tenure systems are recognized by government bodies but many others are not. This produces a condition of “illegality”. Further, ownership of land, as we have seen in SL’s case, is not only complicated but is also contested. This means that at any given point in time, those in positions of power and influence are able to exercise and fulfill their claims better than those who do not have the requisite political, social and economic capital. Besides this, there is never single and absolute ownership of land perpetually; possession and use of land changes hands of individuals, groups and political institutions from time to time. Databases and information repositories of land records and property transactions are situated in this highly fraught and political context. Moreover, as is evident from SL’s case, current land ownership data overlooks the multiple trajectories through which the present has been produced, i.e. there is no information about previous ownership and usufruct claims and about how the present has come to be the way it is today. But it is also rather difficult to obtain a thorough and exact account of such trajectories because official records can be fudged/appropriated/reproduced not only by the claimants but also by government officials. This is dependent on who is making what claims and which institution and/or group is more powerful in the conflict. Therefore attempts to make land transactions transparent by organizing information of past exchanges into databases can have negative consequences for those groups who do not have the resources and influence to defend their claims in the present.

My goal in citing this example is to show that data are located in temporal contexts i.e., data are produced and reproduced from time to time, by different groups and institutions, and that what is recorded as current data has several histories behind it which cannot be deciphered through streamlined databases. Data are also located in a political context – who produces what data, what is propagated as ‘information’ and who benefits/loses from the availability/publication of particular data are important questions for the accountability-transparency paradigm.

End Notes: I realize that this post is getting too long and that the discussion can be continued in further posts. However, before I conclude, it will be instructive to look into cases where data can have positive consequences for performance and accountability. In some cases, this impact may be known only in retrospect but it is useful to understand the process and to bear in the mind that sometimes, data presents a holistic picture only when reviewed over longer periods of time. In Mumbai, in 2003, a complaint management system was launched as a joint initiative of PRAJA Foundation and the municipality. The purpose of this system was to organize complaints (about civic issues) received through letters, telephone, fax, email and personal visits into one comprehensive system. This was known as the Online Complaint Management System (OCMS). Complaints were fed into this computerized system. Data regarding the resolution /non-resolution of complaints and pendency was also inputted into the system. OCMS also generated data about complaints made by citizens, top five complaints received in each month in every ward and performance of the wards in resolving complaints. OCMS thus enabled citizens and NGOs to monitor the working of the municipality and the ward offices.

In civic activism, negative perceptions of administration and government and long-held stereotypes influence the manner in which data is interpreted. The monthly complaints data was often used to shame the administration for non-performance and inefficiency. I will get into the details of the OCMS here. But it is interesting to note is that the complaints data in fact worked as a form of feedback for the administration. Four years after it had been implemented, the administration decided to take over the OCMS and to operate it unilaterally. The complaints data generated between 2003 and 2007 was collected and analyzed in PRAJA. The data about the nature of complaints made in every part of the city and the performance of each of the wards over the four-year period demonstrated that in some cases, some wards had actually managed to resolve certain complaint areas which had become chronic. At some points in time, repeated complaints about one or two issues had even alerted the administrative machinery which had managed to curb the issues in time before they could become chronic. Thus, the complaints data actually served as a form of feedback for the municipality.

To conclude then, data are situated within contexts. These contexts have been produced over time i.e., the present has come to be what it is today owing to many trajectories of the past. Therefore, data also needs to be organized and interpreted within the past and the present. Providing today’s data, whether it is weekly, monthly or annual, is only a partial account. Overlooking the histories which produced this present data can lead to short-sighted reading and action.

Zainab Bawa is a PhD student at Centre for the Study of Culture and Society in Bangalore, and Research Fellow at Centre for Internet and Society.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Four Years of the RTI Act: Aspirations and Concerns

Shekhar Singh

As “RTI” turns four, it is yet another moment to reflect on our hopes from it and the worries we have. Unlike many other countries of the World, RTI in India was not a hesitant starter. People took to it like proverbial fish to water. Over 2 million applications were filed in just the first two and a half years, with a significant proportion (over 400,000) in rural areas. More impressively, the rate at which the number of applications is increasing is phenomenal and it would not be surprising if it doubles in the next one or two years. The term “RTI” has entered the Indian lexicon in a big way and is understood across languages and regions.

However, the success of an RTI Act cannot finally be judged on the number of applications filed. Certainly the first phase of the implementation requires growing awareness and enthusiasm, reflected through fast growing numbers of applications. But, soon, systemic solutions have to take over. Governments (and other public authorities) must recognize that this onslaught of RTI applications reveals a thirst in the public for information which they have for so long been deprived of. Even more disturbingly, it reveals a huge dissatisfaction with the way public authorities are functioning and dealing with the public and their grievances.

Therefore, our first aspiration is that public authorities start seriously reviewing the types of RTI applications being received and start putting out, proactively, the types of information that the public is regularly seeking. This would not only lower the pressure of RTI applications on the public authorities but also make it easier for people to access information without the travails of filing and pursuing applications.

They also need to analyse the reasons behind these applications – which are very often about unwarranted delays, arbitrary decisions, unfair action or apathy, inefficiency and indifference. As public authorities start making the required systemic changes to prevent such grievances from arising, many of the grievance related applications will cease.

If this does not happen, one concern is that the RTI regime will translate into an RTI divide – where those who file RTIs will get relief, often at the cost of those who do not or cannot, and consequently get even more ignored.

Another aspiration is that the bureaucracy will begin to realize that, despite some irritants and “misuse”, the RTI Act has the potential of transforming governance in a way that would not only make their work easier but would increase the credibility of governments. Unless this change comes, the concern is that RTI will remain a battlefield, with information providers fighting every inch to deny information to the information seekers – and neither side winning in the end.

Finally, the RTI Act has to be protected from all attacks. It is gratifying that there is so much interest among the government to weaken the Act – at least two attempts has been made to amend it and a third is now imminent. It is gratifying because it reassures us that we have finally got hold of an important right, one that hurts where it should. For, after all, this is the first law which does not further the control of the government over the people but gives some control to the people over the government.

However, the concern is that if the government succeeds in weakening the Act, even for a short while, they would give heart to the opponents and demoralize the people. They would open the doors to a gradual chipping away at the Act till finally it falls into line and becomes a farce, along with many other so-called pro-people legislations. This, clearly, cannot be allowed to happen.

Shekhar Singh is the founding member of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information and member of Right to Information Assessment and Analysis Group

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Grama Swaraj in Karnataka: How is it going?

Jeffrey Hammer

Checking in on the ongoing Gram Swaraj project in northern Karnataka recently raised a few interesting questions, re-enforced some prejudices of mine and pointed out some trouble spots of which we should all be aware.

The Grama Swaraj Project (GSP) is simple: it gives each Grama Panchayat 5-7 lakhs rupees to do with as it sees fit. The main requirement for spending the money is to make sure a Grama Sabha takes place ahead of the Grama Panchayat meeting that decides what to do with the money. 5-7 lakhs doesn’t sound like much in comparison to, say, NREGA funds (whose use was intended to be decided the same way but, in Karnataka, usually isn’t) but these are often the only untied, fully discretionary funds a GP has. Lots of money flows through a bank account with the GP’s name on it but almost all of that is earmarked for specific uses (they have to pay the teacher, they have to fund the digging of borewells). GSP money can be used for anything except a very short list of forbidden items like religious buildings, guns, drugs and other obvious restrictions.

How’s it going? Well, formal evaluations are currently in progress but I can tell you what I saw and heard while visiting.

First off, there were no complaints about misuse of these funds. Mention NREGA and you’ll get an earful of complaints but mention Grama Swaraj and you’ll hear “oh, that’s working much better”. Now, it is fully possible that GSP involves such small sums that it’s not even worth the trouble for the usual suspects to go after them. A perfectly good question to ask is what would happen if local autonomy were granted for spending substantial chunks of money. The sharks could certainly rise to that bait. But, so far, that hasn’t been an issue.

Second, people seem genuinely pleased to be able to fund items that would be too small for the relevant line ministry to even think about but which make a big difference in the lives of villages. In northern Karnataka, water and sanitation are perennial issues (even before this year’s disappointing monsoon) and these were common areas for the use of these funds.

Third, the technical quality of the work appears to be much higher under GSP than NREGA. Roads that look several years old and are an inch or two thick (checked scientifically by kicking at the edges of the road and seeing what pops up – literally) built within the past few months under NREGA auspices were noticeably worse than those built with the GP’s own money. NREGA funds are supposed to be their own money, too, but no one seemed to feel responsible for how that money was spent. In contrast, money that was perfectly transparent in the amount spent and the purpose to which it was put in GSP yielded solidly built and usable infrastructure.

So, is everything going just fine? Does this devolution of purchasing autonomy solve everything? Well, no – some problems are clearly worth worrying about.

The first is the interference of higher levels of government and bureaucratic processes that, actually, were not allowed under the design of the project. So, for example, one village wanted more public toilets. They figured, given that water was in very short supply, that covered pits were the most appropriate. There are plenty of designs for safe covered pit toilets. However, the Junior Engineer, with support from district health authorities, said they had to have a water-intensive septic tank system. This made the village change their minds (they knew they couldn’t spare the water for this) but they were not allowed to change projects though there is nothing in the program that should have prevented them changing their minds. So there is a lakh’s worth of well constructed but useless sanitation infrastructure sitting in the village. Local decisions were fully accountable. District and state decisions were not. Local discretion could have saved lives from water borne illness. State rules stopped it from happening.

So that I don’t sound too much like an advocate for local autonomy: the second problem is one of “too much” local discretion. Those good GSP roads with proper drainage ditches along the side we saw in a village in Gulbarga district stopped right in front of a little settlement of Scheduled Caste residents. Even with only the light early monsoon rains, the hamlet required stepping carefully to avoid puddles caused by those good-looking roads. The standing water is a health hazard for the SC residents of the village. Local autonomy doesn’t solve the problem of caste. That’s going to require checks and balances between governments than mere devolution of investment decisions won’t be able to handle.

But at least there will be roads in the village for a few years to come.

I’ll get back to you to report whether these observations are supported by systematic research or not. For the time being, it’s food for thought.

Jeffrey Hammer is Visiting Professor in Economic Development at Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University

Monday, 5 October 2009

Going Nowhere on Human Development

Anit Mukherjee

The latest Human Development Report released yesterday (5th October 2009) is depressing for every Indian. The Report ranks countries – 180 in total – in terms of three basic indicators of human development: per capita GDP (adjusted for purchasing power of the local currency), literacy rate and life expectancy at birth. They are meant to capture at an aggregate level the well-being of people in a particular country in terms of income, education and health. India ranks 134, below Bhutan and Laos, and just above Solomon Islands and Congo. This should be reason enough for the nation as a whole, and especially the politicians, bureaucrats and policy makers, to hang their heads in shame.

The usual practice of the apologists is to say that the rankings themselves are unfair – that the HDR does not take into account factors such as democracy, freedom of press, rule of law and other aspects of governance that India prides itself with. But the fact of the matter is that there has been no change in our HDI rank since last year, and a decline in the rank from the beginning of this decade. So, while in absolute terms the HDI index has increased by a few percentage points, our relative performance compared to other countries has become worse. At the same time, China’s HDI rank has gone up seven places in just one year – from 99 in 2006 to 92 in the latest one.

The data also shows that India’s GDP per capita rank is in fact higher than the combined HDI rank – 128 as compared to 134. This is even more worrying because the usual excuse of linking low human development and poverty does not strictly hold. The comparative figure for Sri Lanka is 14 and China 10, indicating that these countries did better at education and health than their comparative per capita GDP ranking suggests.

It is time to ask the hard questions: why is India going nowhere in human development in spite of large allocations to education, health and livelihood security? Why are flagship programs like SSA, NRHM and NREGA not delivering improvements in our comparative performance vis-à-vis other (supposedly much poorer) countries of the world? Why is there no revulsion at the complete impunity and lack of accountability of the political and administrative machinery using tax payers’ money for noble purposes such as education and health? What does it mean for our long-term standing in the world community? In short, who is (are) accountable for this dismal state of affairs and what is being done to fix this?

P.S. India’s HDI rank is common both in G20 and BRICs group of nations – LAST!!

Dr. Anit Mukherjee is a Fellow at National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Gram Nyayalayas: a cause for optimism?

Nicholas Robinson

Union Law Minister M V Moily recently announced that 200 gram nyayalayas will be operational by October 2nd 2009. This initiative is taken under the 2008 Gram Nyayalayas Act. The Law Ministry envisions setting up some 5000 gram nyayalayas across India over the next three years, with the hope to fundamentally reshape the lower judiciary in India. The 2008 bill states that eventually every intermediate (i.e. block) panchayat will have a gram nyayalaya. The gram nyayalayas will then form the new lowest layer to the Indian judicial system and the first point of contact for many, if not most Indians. If fully implemented, it is here that the majority of legal disputes in India will be resolved. Who will be these Nyayadhikaris, will there be enough of them to significantly bring down the estimated 30,000,000 cases currently pending in the judicial system, and will they be accountable?

In the 2008 bill it states that these Nyayadhikaris’ qualifications are that of a first class judicial officer, or essentially just a lawyer. He or she will be appointed by the state government in consultation with the High Court in the state. In essence, the imagined recruitment pool is young lawyers, not particularly well trained, aspiring to be magistrates and then later district court judges. Although they may not be seasoned lawyers when they start, many of the problems they encounter won’t be that complicated and if paid well enough the job could start attracting some talented young lawyers. It will be critical to watch over the coming months and years the quality of lawyers being appointed and what sort of prestige the position gains, which will influence the ability to attract future talent. However, given the low quality level of some (but certainly not all) judicial magistrates, session court judges, etc. there is definitely reason to worry that these appointees may not have the skills necessary to do the job and be susceptible to corruption.

Tempering these concerns though, Nyayadhikaris can only impose a sentence of up to two years and the amount they can fine or grant in a civil case is capped as well. The District Court judge is given the responsibility to appoint a judicial officer to inspect Gram Nyayalayas in their district at least every six months. Both these measures are designed to limit the potential harm corrupt or incompetent Nyayadhikaris could do.

A party can appeal the Nyayadhikaris verdict to a sessions court judge for criminal matters which must be decided by that judge within 30 days. For Civil matters it goes to the District Court which must decide it within 6 months. Vitally, the Bill states there is no appeal past this stage (except in cases that involve a claim of a constitutional violation). Effectively, for almost all matters a Gram Nyayalaya can hear there is only one additional appeal you can make afterwards. This appeal is to the judicial officers who in the current system are generally the first to hear a case. Another layer to the judicial system has been added to screen off matters of perceived smaller importance and limit the ability of affected persons to appeal and clog the system at the High Courts and Supreme Court.

This system could work effectively if both the Gram Nyayalayas and the subordinate judges these cases will be appealed to were competent and clean from corruption. Yet, the track record for the subordinate judiciary in India is not perceived to be strong on either of these fronts. The worry is that persons will have fines or criminal sentences improperly imposed against them and find that their avenues for appeal have been shut past these often low level subordinate judicial officers. Even if the sessions court or district court judge is very talented, the time limits imposed for resolving an appeal may mean they can’t give the attention to a case it deserves and so leave many cases of injustice done by Gram Nyayalayas untouched. Two years’ imprisonment may not be the same as the death penalty or life imprisonment, but it’s still a long time to be wrongly put in jail. Similarly, even moderate fines can destroy many families’ savings in India.

Finally, even if all 5,000 Nyayadhikaris are appointed over three years, this still may not be enough to bring India’s judicial backlog under control. To give one a sense of the scale of this endeavor there are currently about 650 working High Court judges and almost 14,000 district judges, assistant district judges, magistrates and other judicial officers in the rest of the subordinate judiciary. Almost all observers agree that there simply aren’t enough judges in India for the cases currently in the system. Further, many observers think Indians don’t litigate enough – i.e. there are many cases of wrongs that should be litigated that aren’t brought to the courts because of the clogged courts. 5,000 Nyayadhikaris is substantial, but probably not enough to take on all the current cases or the cases that aren’t being brought yet should be.

Despite these concerns, we should watch the development of Gram Nyayalayas not only with some degree of skepticism, but also optimism. If the Act is well-implemented and taken in step with broader efforts to strengthen the lower judiciary, Nyayadhikaris could prove vital in bringing the rule of law to millions of Indians.

Nick Robinson is a Visiting Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, and teaches at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore