If Brazil has its Bolsa Familia, and Mexico its Progresa schemes for alleviating poverty that have caught the fancy of international organisations something that India has done recently is making news internationally. Indias system of social audits, that is, independent but local auditing of social programmes to fight poverty, like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), is attracting world attention.
A 42-member delegation from 33 countries was in Rajasthan recently to study the unique way of auditing schemes through direct participation of people. The delegates represented countries as diverse as Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Costa Rica and the Phillippines. This programme is part of the international audit training conducted by the CAGs International Training Institute.
Social audits like the hugely successful model in Andhra Pradesh, which has set up an independent and autonomous Society for Social Audit, Accountability and Transparency (SSAAT) to help ensure proper working of the MNREGA, have excited people in various countries, especially Africa.
The problems of inherent corruption trouble countries in the third world. We have trained hundreds of auditors abroad. For example, in Changamwe, in a slum in Kenya, we organised hearings to audit the constituency development fund. The local MP did not come, but as the hearing progressed, he was called by some participant, who realising the buzz it was creating amongst the constituents, ensured that he rushed there, says Sowmya Kidambi, who heads the SSAAT and has just returned to Africa. Kidambi was also invited to work in Bangladesh, which has recently introduced its version of the Right to Employment Act and is keen to get local but independent auditors trained for it.
Vivek Ramkumar of the International Budget Project (IBP) based in Washington DC, which works to strengthen citizen-based independent oversight mechanisms around the world, says the social audit scheme has been getting a lot of global attention. He even cites US President Barack Obama, who in his address to the UN last month specifically mentioned India, Kenya, and Brazil as countries that have enabled local communities to track service delivery.
At the UNDP recently, Amita Sharma, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development, in a paper claimed that MNREGAs mandated use of social audits by the village assembly (gram sabha) goes beyond the right to information and serves to ensure accountability and corrective measures. Partnerships between government and civil society, the training of local resource persons, social mobilisations around the social audit forum and gram sabhas and the use of community-based organisations are just some ways in which social audits are sought to be made more effective.
However, despite the accolades, a piquant situation has arisen as regards social auditing. Aruna Roy, who heads the working group on transparency and accountability of MNREGA in the Central Employment Guarantee Council, says that despite the Andhra Pradesh model having been so successful and having uncovered irregularities of up to Rs 88 crore, with the work of over 4,500 officials found to be irregular, there is an attempt to not allow independent monitoring of the programme here.
In a controversial move, the Centre, by amending Section 13(b) of MNREGA in December 2008, ended up making social audits illegal. As a result, despite repeated promises that all states will be mandatorily asked to independently get the schemes audited, the gram sabha alone acts as the implementor of the programme and audits itself something that is not just against the principle of auditing but goes against the spirit of the MNREGA.
While the issue was discussed at the recent meeting of the Central Employment Guarantee Council, there seems to have been no assurance that it will be amended soon. Hyderabad-based activist Satyababu Bose says: Unless these social programmes have auditing, which is local but independent embedded in them, corrupt practices will take seed and end up sabotaging the programme.