ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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NREGA Social Audit: Myths and Reality

Much has been said and written about the social audits conducted in Andhra Pradesh under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. But on the ground these audits have achieved much less than advertised and they have ignored many important aspects of implementation of NREGA. The social audit process has a long way to go before it can claim to have contributed to transparency, empowerment and good governance.

K S Gopal ( ) is at the Centre for Environment Concerns, Hyderabad.

Social audit is a dynamic tool by which people are able to make officials accountable for their performance in the delivery of legally enshrined rights. Based on struggles by people’s movements, NREGA, which is a law unlike others that are only schemes, has social audit built into the legislation. But whatever the euphoria, AP has to traverse much ground before it can serve as the pathway to transparency, empowerment and good governance.

The basic change NREGA confers on people is guaranteeing a right to employment and making the government accountable. But the functioning of this cardinal feature of the legislation is not part of social audit scrutiny in AP. Officials do not acknowledge the applications for work, while the government does not bother to monitor its delivery. On the other hand, the government has repeatedly placed obstacles on implementation by issuing unofficial instructions on when and where to provide employment.

Our expectation was that the system would make transparency easy, simple, quick, low cost and would be based on the different needs of users. Officials even agreed to have village NREGA web sites wherein all works and budget sanctioned and payments effected would be posted. But when it came to implementation, the government ignored this unique opportunity for proactive provision of information. Instead, SA emerged as the source for the people to know how the money was utilised.

In instances where civil society persons sought to be proactive in providing wage payment and other NREGA information, they faced hurdles, obstacles, pressures and resistance. When the issue was raised in a meeting with the chief secretary, the officials agreed to outsource the responsibility of providing village web sites but nothing happened.

When asked why the government was not proactively providing information and posting them in the village, one is told that the data is available in the Andhra Pradesh Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (APREGS) web site. Internet data may excite transparency “busy bodies”, whereas the reality is that villagers have to meander through a cobweb of data to search and find what they are looking for. For instance, some information is in English, others in Telugu, culling and cutting parts of data from the web site is not easy and the search time is too expensive for villages using telephonebased connectivity. Cumulative data cannot be verified while much other information, for example, on who got what money for workplace facilities or received work tools, etc, is simply not placed on the web site.

The purpose of proactive information provision was to strengthen SA and help it focus on making workers’ rights real and officials accountable. This would help the community to realise the value of information, deter manipulators and embed in a short time a process of owning social audit as it will be a source of strength for the poor in their struggles in tackling bureaucratic intransigence. But AP chose the seemingly savvy social audit route with teams of trained government-led “independent” social auditors to inform, provide and verify NREGA data. The vicarious thrill to be had by flogging petty officials in public gaze is no doubt exciting for these auditors.

The government plans to handover social audit to communities and that is hailed. After two years of a government-led social audit, they have refused to be proactive information providers and ignoring the opportunities for people to experience the value of information, it is passing this responsibility to the community.

Many workers’ issues emerge in SA but due to little remedial action, it is leading to frustration among them. The issues include information status on pending wage payments or of the employment applications submitted at the social audit public meeting (even here it is accepted but not receipted), cases where the measurement sheet is not the basis for payments as the financial payout data is generated by computers, or provision of workplace facilities like crèche, etc.

The non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who have actively associated with and assisted the initial SA effort doubt its purpose. The government is working on building the technical capacity of villagers to conduct social audit, while choosing to ignore the issues of preparedness, leadership and confidence of the people in its value in protecting their rights. Another aspect is also ignored. The Act stipulates that gram panchayats will undertake SA but they have all the time been ignored in SA and in the implementation of the NREGA.

A larger governance issue at stake is that having detected fraud and brought it to the knowledge of officials, should not the supervisory officials be hauled up for dereliction of duty? One finds delay and inaction in most cases. How long can one accept the pretence of “action underway” when the facts are well documented and established in a SA as provided in the NREGA done under the aegis of the state government? Even as a deterrent to corruption, the SA exercise seems to falter.

At a seminar in Delhi an adviser to the Planning Commission boasted that NREGA has done well on two key planks –

AP civil society is derided for being lukewarm to a unique, historic and pathbreaking SA march in the state. The tool has assumed primacy over the purpose and the way it is currently pursued could defeat the very intent of building on this proviso into the Act. Modern information and communications technology, an assertive mood among the poor, and the availability of young and educated people make transparency, the first step in , possible. But as experience suggests it serves only as conversation among veteran development professionals.

The experience of AP needs closer examination in order to make SA a success. One must be clear on the purpose of SA to direct its course.

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