By: Farzana Afridi
It hasn’t led to reduced corruption and improved MGNREGA delivery.
The recent pronouncements by the AAP on measures to hold public officials accountable have brought into sharp focus people’s participation and social accountability as mechanisms to foster transparency and improve the delivery of public programmes. However, so far, there has been an absence of rigorous evidence on the effectiveness of the country’s sole community monitoring initiative espoused by the MGNREGA back in 2005 — social audits. Mandatory social audits prescribed by the MGNREGA intend to empower beneficiaries to scrutinise expenditures and keep track of delivery. In spite of the widespread acclaim of social audits as low-cost and powerful participatory tools, a key question is whether community monitoring has reduced corruption and improved MGNREGA delivery. The assessment of the impact of the only largescale and systematic social audits in the country, in Andhra Pradesh, raises some key issues.
Even if a state government publicly announces regular social audits, the first round of auditing, because of limited state credibility, is likely to take public officials (or transgressors) by surprise and reveal large irregularities in basic programme delivery. Furthermore, local MGNREGA beneficiaries are expected to have high stakes in employment availability and in timely payment, while having sufficient initial capacity to detect transgressions. We can thus anticipate an evolving dynamic process, with more effective local participation through learning, and improved auditing after repeated audits. The drawback is that transgressions may also become more sophisticated. Monitoring may result in the substitution of one type of irregularity for another, as transgressors learn to manipulate the new system.
Given these assumptions, if audits effectively detect malpractices and the threat of punishment is credible, the easy-to-detect irregularities (non-payment of wages or ghost projects) should decline. At the same time, we can expect more hard-to-detect irregularities (those related to procurement of materials) in later audit rounds.
Analysis of data from official audit reports of almost 100 mandals during 2006-10, however, shows that repeated social audits of MGNREGA projects did not reduce the number of corruption-related labour complaints, while there was a substantive rise in material-related complaints. While a modest decline in administrative complaints related to the non-provision of work was observed, there was an increase in complaints of missing records on material expenditures. The impact of audits on other programme outcomes — employment generation, targeting of the SC/ST population — was absent. Increase in local stakeholders’ awareness levels or in the number of MGNREGA projects, selective repeated audits in the more corrupt mandals and possible biases in complaint registrations do not explain this.
The findings suggest that, despite increasing awareness of beneficiaries and the greater capacity of the audit process to detect irregularities, the overall social audit effect on reducing easy-to-detect malpractices was mostly absent. One can interpret continued…