In contrast to its rhetoric, the current government’s record on transparency, accountability, and citizen participation has been uninspiring. Even essential laws such as the Lok Pal and the Whistle Blower Protection Act are yet to be operationalised. However, recent developments on social audits, the conduct of which actually finds a place in the BJP’s 2014 manifesto, open up an opportunity.
The recent report of a joint task force on social audit has made unanimous recommendations that have opened the possibilities of social audit becoming a vibrant, independent and citizen-based monitoring system. The Supreme Court too in an ongoing PIL has taken a note of these recommendations and is exploring strengthening social audit as a systemic solution in law.
With its roots in rural Rajasthan, social audits refer to a legally mandated process where potential and existing beneficiaries evaluate the implementation of a programme by comparing official records with ground realities. The public collective platforms of jansunwais or public hearings that social audits conclude with remain its soul. In the course of a social audit, individuals and communities get empowered and politicised in a way that they experience the practical potential of participatory democracy.
The proceedings cannot be scripted, and the entire social audit is often a dramatic process of redistribution of power based on evidence and fact. For instance, when it is publicly read out that many workers who worked under the MGNREGA are still waiting for their wages, whereas family members of the sarpanch who never visited, let alone worked on a NREGA worksite, receive uninterrupted wage payments into their bank accounts, the reaction could range from anger to a firm determination for answers.
It is important to build on the current momentum. Where social audits have been able to take place effectively, they have served as an important tool to detect corruption and influence redress. Nearly Rs 100 crore has been identified as misappropriated funds through social audits under the MGNREGA, out of which nearly Rs 40 crore has been recovered. Nearly 6,000 field personnel have been implicated/removed from duty based on findings of social audits. The impact of continuous cycles of social audit in deterring potential corruption is beyond quantification.
However, not all is rosy and hurdle free. Institutionalisation on the ground has been inadequate, and has faced great resistance from the establishment. The lack of adequate administrative and political will in institutionalising social audit to deter corruption has meant that social audits in many parts of the country are not independent from the influence of implementing agencies. Social audit units, including village social audit facilitators, continue to face resistance and intimidation and find it difficult to even access primary records for verification.
In spite of challenges, social audit moved tentatively, but surely towards becoming an accepted part of audit, and a discipline in itself. Nothing demonstrates that better than the fact the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2016 laid down “auditing standards” for social audit. This, as the CAG office states in the introduction is, “the first ever such exercise for the formulation of standards for social audit in the world”. It is indicative of a remarkable trajectory in the expanding theoretical and practical framework of social audit over the past two decades.
In an age where phrases such as open data and open government are used in any conversation around governance, social audits should serve as a critical point of reference. An open and transparent system involves the presence of real platforms for people to be informed by official statements and records, with an opportunity to compare that with ground realities. Websites and twitter handles run by the government cannot replace the responsibility of the state to set up, fund, and foster practical processes and mechanisms.
The government can decide to use these interventions and harness peoples’ energies in facing the vast challenge of implementation and monitoring. Or it can choose to be reluctantly pushed along. Social audit is no longer a choice. Along with other transparency and accountability platforms, it is a legal, moral, and democratic necessity The writer works with peoples’ campaigns and government on social accountability practices. She has worked with the Ministry of Rural Development on social audit