The Centre for Policy Research (CPR), Delhi in association with the Global Integrity Anti-Corruption Evidence Research Programme (GI-ACE) hosted a workshop focused on ‘Audit and Anti-Corruption Measures in India’ with a special focus on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY). The workshop took place on Tuesday, 24th September 2019 and was conducted at CPR. The co-conveners of the workshop were Amrita Dhillon, who is currently Professor of Economics at King’s College London and Yamini Aiyar, President and Chief Executive of CPR.
The workshop sprung from a belief in the necessity to bring together government officials, policy activists, and researchers to deliberate on finding possible complementarities with two seemingly opposite methods of ensuring transparency and reducing inefficiency in government schemes. While policy activists have focused on the power of public audits as a forum to bring to light inefficiencies and corruption and have sought to formalise them into schemes thereby empowering beneficiaries, the government seems to have shifted to a technology based approach to deliver greater efficiency and target corruption. With a view towards securing a holistic view of this question, the workshop was successful in bringing together participants from the government, civil society, and academia. They ranged from organisations such as the Ministry of Rural Development, Comptroller and Auditor General’s Office, Indian Statistical Institute, Social Accountability Resource Unit, IDInsight, Azim Premji University, Accountability Initiative and the Brookings Institution to name a few.
The first session was chaired by Farzana Afridi from the Indian Statistical Institute and titled ‘Leakages in Central Schemes, Centralised Monitoring and Interaction with New Technologies’. It featured speakers from academia, policy practitioners, and the government who each sought to contextualise their experience within the ambit of either framing anti-corruption policy or studying its efficacy on the field.
Yamini Aiyar from CPR began the session by recounting her experience gleaned from having observed the implementation of MGNREGA since its inception and closely studied social audits in MGNREGA. She pointed to the importance of the scheme as an experimental ground for governance and citizen engagement through vehicles like social audits. However she also cautioned against an overemphasis on corruption at the cost of building state capability for effective implementation and the tensions between greater decentralisation and anti-corruption efforts. To reduce leakages, she underscored the importance of the need for enhancing capacities of the panchayats while roping in the government to be a part of the social audits which can be a rich source of feedback to judge the workings of their technological interventions. This was a point also echoed by Karan Nagpal, an economist at the consulting group IDInsight, who drew upon the firm’s groundwork experience as well as his own doctoral thesis research that emphasised the need to build capacity at the grassroots to overcome the difficulties that arise from a technological intervention.
The government officials who attended the session provided an invaluable insight into how the establishment looks at the issue of corruption through the lens of auditing and how technological innovations are conceived, adopted, tweaked and finally institutionalised.
Alka Upadhyay, Additional Secretary at the Ministry of Rural Development, detailed how the Ministry has moved to plug the main sources of leakages in MNREGA—namely wage siphoning, creation of fake beneficiaries and assets not getting created. According to her, aside from the oft cited Direct Benefit Transfer, an important technological intervention to obtain a finished asset has been geotagging- particularly in the PMGSY. She also highlighted the Ministry’s efforts to ensure transparency across multiple levels while still acknowledging that more needs to be done in this matter; an example cited was the possibility of making data on road maintenance mapped through geotagging and MIS publicly available thereby making it a powerful tool for social audits. Another area of improvement mentioned by her was in empowering citizen monitoring and building better mechanisms to track their complaints.
Sunil Dadhe—Director General of Audit (Central Expenditure)—sought to demystify the Audit approach to handling corruption. He explained the three approaches that Audit employs: a system-oriented approach which focuses on the system that creates a scheme where delivery doesn’t match expectations, a result-oriented approach which is focused on meeting pre-decided targets, and a problem-oriented approach which looks at specific instances that enhance audit risks. He highlighted the need to embrace technology in audits and bring about correlating data sets across various fields—something China has done to better combat air pollution.
An interesting point that arose during these discussions was the role of the citizen in demanding accountability. Keshav Desiraju, who retired as Secretary, Health & Family Welfare, spoke about how the state expects the citizen to demand accountability and is not predisposed towards providing it; a factor which perhaps explains the social audit falling out of favor as an anti-corruption measure.
The second session was chaired by Amrita Dhillon and titled ‘Accountability Initiatives’. The speakers in this session were practitioners and civil society activists from the social audit sphere who provided an incisive view on how grievance redressal works at the ground level and the multiple roles played by social audits as mechanisms for increasing awareness, providing a platform for complaint redressal and, formulating processes for grievance redressal against mistakes caused by technological intervention.
Rakshita Swamy from the State Accountability Resource Unit (SARU) built on the points made in the previous session by Sunil Dadhe and pointed out that Social Audit reports have great potential to be used in compliment to CAG audit reports—a practice already in place in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. While highlighting the importance of an audit as a mechanism for spreading awareness and demanding accountability, they are also rich sources of qualitative data which can explain the ‘who, why, and how’ of scheme operations.
Anjor Bhaskar, faculty at Azim Premji University, drew on his fieldwork experiences in Jharkhand to illustrate the role social audits play as grievance redressal mechanisms when technological interventions create a plethora of new problems, probably most commonly seen with the stories of starvation deaths coming out of Jharkhand due to PDS denial caused from inefficient Aadhar linkage. Rajendran Narayanan, also at Azim Premji University, provided more detailed case studies expressing what he termed his ‘wariness about the techno-utopian way of making schemes efficient’. An interesting observation that Narayanan brought up was the use of messaging services like WhatsApp by frontline bureaucrats to convey decisions which obfuscates accessibility and erases trails which citizens cannot appeal against later.
A second point that Bhaskar sought to underscore was the availability of multiple datasets of rich data with the government but none of them are available for public scrutiny. The most obvious one he highlighted was the lack of Action Taken Report (ATR) availability in the public domain or on the internet. Another opaque avenue rich with data that he mentioned was the possibility of studying Gram Panchayat Development Plans (GPDP) to better understand the workings of the panchayat as well as its priorities.
Anindita Adhikari, currently a PhD student at Brown University, shared experiences from fieldwork conducted in Bihar as part of her ongoing doctoral thesis. She sought to explain the widespread adoption of Jaanch culture or a culture of inspections, often unplanned, random ones, comprising of surprise checks, individual checks, Lokpal inspections and, social audits. It was found that a lot of these random visits and checks are not explicitly audited but a way of maintaining a regular flow of work. However, it was observed that some of the reports coming out of these social audits were ambiguous and difficult to take action on. Another important factor was that panchayats were being kept out of the process of the social audits pointing to the need for giving them more formal responsibility when it comes to social audits.
The workshop culminated with a note of thanks delivered by co-convener Amrita Dhillon who drew notice to the breadth of topics covered throughout the day as well as appreciation for the sheer diversity of experts around the table. The daylong session was a fascinating, and rare, insight into a topic where two major stakeholders- the government and civil society are often at loggerheads, unable to see the other’s side. By bringing not just representatives from these two sectors, but also formal academics and private practitioners, the workshop helped foster substantive discussions based on a holistic understanding of the sector and generated avenues for further improvement, study, and implementation.