Over the last four years, Social Audit Units (SAU) under Rural Development Departments (RDD) across India have found financial misappropriation of Rs 935 crore under various schemes of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), according to data obtained by The Indian Express through the Management Information System (MIS) of the Rural Development Ministry.
Only about Rs 12.5 crore of this amount — 1.34% — has been recovered so far, the data show.
Although the data is in the public domain, accessing it is difficult because of frequent “network issue”. The Indian Express accessed the data from FY 2017-18 to FY 2020-21 through a source in the government.
SAU audits have been carried out in 2.65 lakh Gram Panchayats (GPs) in the states and Union Territories of the country at least once over the last four years, since the data began to be uploaded in 2017-18.
The Centre released Rs 55,659.93 crore for MGNREGA in 2017-18, and the amount has since risen every year to reach Rs 1,10,355.27 crore in 2020-21. Total expenditure on the scheme has risen from Rs 63,649.48 crore in 2017-18 to Rs 1,11,405.3 crore in 2020-21.
One of key findings of the audit is “financial misappropriation”, which includes bribery, and payments to non-existent persons and to vendors for material procured at high rates.
Social audits are seen as a powerful tool to enforce accountability. Union Rural Development Secretary Nagendra Nath Sinha emphasised this in a letter to all state chief secretaries recently, and asked why state RDDs have made only “little recoveries”.
“Yes, we have written to all the states… Lack of attention on this aspect is certainly one (of the issues). Another is the determination of culpability of the persons concerned for the irregularities — and in absence of SOPs to handle such cases such determination is not easy,” Sinha told The Indian Express when asked why recoveries have been low.
There were often not enough people to ensure payment of amounts shown as recoverable, Sinha said. “But ultimately it boils down to lack of attention and lack of sensitivity in taking social audit to its logical conclusion,” he added.
Indeed, no accountability was fixed for the misappropriation in many states. Consider:
Section 17 of the MGNREG Act mandates social audit of all works in gram panchayats. The Audit of Scheme Rules were notified in 2011, and The Auditing Standards for Social Audit in 2016. The Rural Development Ministry has released a Financial Management Index, in which social audit is a key parameter to judge the efficiency of states in management of finances. The 2011 Rules say the state government will facilitate the social audit of work done under MGNREGA in every GP once every six months.
Experts said the ‘real’ misappropriation could well be three or four times the identified amount, as in many GPs, audits have been done only once.
One of these experts who is based in Jharkhand, said: “Also, in 2020-21, the data uploaded are not significant, as in many states, including Jharkhand, concurrent audit was done and there is no provision to upload the data in the MIS of RDD. Combined with the fact that in many states GPs have been surveyed only once, the total misappropriated amount could be at least three to four times (the identified amount).”
A key requirement is for the SAU to be independent. Releasing the Social Audit Assessment Index report in June 2020, RDD Secretary Sinha had said: “…Disconcertingly, it has been noted that half of the SAUs are not independent and that the quality of audits and intensity of action on the findings needs to improve.”