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.

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