Monday, October 12, 2009

National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) of 2005: "Social Audit" in Rajasthan, 2009

For the past fortnight (30 October to 12 September 2009), as required every six months by the central Government of India (GoI) according to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) of 2005, a "social audit," or continuous process of public vigilance, of the NREGA work schemes, was conducted in the Bhilwara District of Rajasthan State, to hold government officials to account. Nearly 2,000 citizen and social activist volunteers forming 135 teams of around 15 people participated as volunteers. Teams were assigned three panchayats each, which they reached by walking nearly 8-10 kilometers per day, where they were lodged and fed by local people, as paid for by the central GoI. In every tenth panchayat, one team conducted an intensive all-inclusive audit. The other teams scanned records and only investigated select cases.

To conduct the audit, the teams reviewed public records, including muster rolls (or attendance sheets) receipts for promised work, household job cards and post-office payment records. The teams had a "check-list" of things to look for. Such objectives were to ensure that each worker was paid the correct amount and on time; that no "ghost workers" were paid; and that all materials purchased for each 15-day work project were made according to the specifications of the Act, such as not hiring private contractors, or over purchasing materials, or quoting old prices for materials, etc. The teams also measured construction projects (roads, holding walls) built by NREGS workers to confirm the dimensions stipulated in the records matched what was actually built. Above all, the auditors were to watch that public officials did not seek personal financial gain through skimming off public funds for themselves - an all too common form of corruption still plaguing the NREG Schemes and other government programs in India.

On Saturday, 10 October 2009, teams convened to host a panchayat (village-level) public hearing or "Gram Sabha" (conducted in Hindi) to inform district-level administrators in Rajasthan of their findings, with town residents present as witnesses. Any findings of discrepancies in records were detailed with supporting-evidence, and the panchayat-level government official who signed the record was called forward to present his/her case. In the Gram Sabha conducted in Bulerias, Rajasthan, one public official was found to have fudged records and taken Rs. 1lakh 330 INR (100,330 rupees) or $2,090 USD. When pressed, he returned the money to the panchayat; however, there were questions as to how he had sourced this money, and whether it was a legit return of funds to the State.

The next day, Sunday 11 October 2009, a larger "Jan Sunwais" or district-level public hearing was conducted in the city of Bhilwara itself. Key figures such as Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey were present. Shri CP Joshi, Central Minister of the Indian Naitonal Congress (INC) Party from Rajasthan, gave a statement that came across as a bit controversial, suggesting the "social audit" is not meant to be 'punitive,' but rather 'corrective'--meaning that if those officials who took money would return it, they would not be prosecuted for charges of corruption, stealing from public funds. Thus, the "social audit" uncovered incidents of corruption - yet the work continues to recover the funds, and find the right incentives to prevent corruption occurring between now and the next social audit. Indeed, following the lead of the State of Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan State is planning to institutionalize the social audit even further.

Participating in this innovative, grass-roots movement, which involves citizens directly in monitoring of corruption in government, was fascinating. In addition to meeting many smart, funny, kind and hard-working people, one of the perks for me was getting a personalized autograph from Aruna-ji herself, who I found to be inspiring and very committed to this important social justice cause.

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