Social audit: A corruption slayer

Last Updated: Sun, May 15, 2011 10:22 hrs

Amid incessant controversy that continues to riddle the Lokpal Bill significant questions on how to ensure downward accountability to eliminate vicious and rampant hold of corruption at the micro level - are still not being effectively raised or discussed. While macro level corruptions, like a 2G scam, may be harrowing for the economy, it is micro level corruption that impairs lives of people directly. If India is serious about containing corruption it must not only concentrate at the macro level policy making process but also raise pertinent debate on the processes, structures and policies that need to be implemented at village level institutions to mitigate unbridled corruption that prevails there.

Without undermining the importance of the Bill, the million dollar questions, waiting for a response therefore are, "Can an anti-corruption Bill alone eliminate corruption across all echelons of democracy?" If not, "how must one tackle widespread grassroots level corruption affecting lives and livelihood of people?"

The answers maybe lying in successful initiatives like mobile-aid-transfer in Kenya, (a system by which cash aid is delivered directly to beneficiaries via mobile phones) or social audits, in Afghanistan (where villagers trace the money trail of developmental aid, detect corruption immediately and hold their leaders accountable for any misappropriation).

India with an integrity score of 3.3 (considered one of the "highly corrupt") has admittedly a very tough challenge ahead. As per the Corruption Perception Inde, CPI, 2010, issued by Transparency International, India is 87 out of 178 countries, indicating a serious corruption problem. At the micro level endemic corruption puts a spanner in the development process itself, further aggravating the matter. "Of the Rupee spent for development programmes in the rural areas, only 15 paisa reaches the beneficiary", Rajiv Gandhi had once said. Today it would be even less, considering corruption in the form of bribery has increased exponentially in the last decade or so.

Marred with corruption, the governance system at Panchayat level in India is very dismal and crying for appropriate policies to ward off this scourge. A glimpse of the ground situation emerges from a recent government-sponsored study on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). It is the biggest poverty alleviation programme in the world, with a Central government outlay of 40,000 crore (US$8.88 billion) in FY 2010-11. The report has unearthed large-scale corruption and irregularities in the implementation of the NREGA programme. In several states, authorities have been found "misappropriating central funds and threatening workers to keep their mouth shut."

If India needs any consolation, unstable governments like Afghanistan with a legacy of conflict, continue to dominate the bottom rungs of the CPI with a score of 1.1. That is precisely why it makes an interesting study to see how a war-torn nascent, democracy like Afghanistan has proactively introduced strong initiatives in tackling micro level corruption lately. Incidentally, Afghanistan imported the concept of social audit from no other country but India. This tool failed to culminate into a mass movement here, remaining largely localized in Rajasthan where it was introduced by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, MKSS. In Afghanistan, however, more than 900 such audits in 5 major provinces have created a national stir.

This remarkable initiative spearheaded by Aga Khan Foundation, AKF, is now being replicated countrywide at the behest of the World Bank and ministry of rural development. It has been hailed for the significant level of transparency it has achieved at the village level governance, in a short a short span of time, and mandatory, for every village accessing public fund. "Initiatives to strengthen local governance, such as the social audit program, will be key in helping to build a modern democracy in Afghanistan", says John Dempsey, a legal expert with the United States Institute of Peace, a think tank.

It is ironic to find an Indian experience reaping such large scale benefits in a remote country like Afghanistan. It is at the same time heartening to see serious Indian professionals contributing to the changing landscape of Afghanistan. Sujeet Sarkar, regional advisor with AKF, instrumental in introducing the concept of social audit in Afghanistan, claims that there is far less corruption in Afghanistan today compared to Panchayat in India.
While decentralization of power is essential in devolution of high-level corruption, it invariably leads to decentralization of corruption as well, reminds Sarkar. The concept of social audit is an empowering and participatory process, whereby the power to hold the government accountable for vanishing development money lie with the aid beneficiaries themselves.

Citizens assemble in a common platform to scrutinize the performance of their immediate agencies (NGOs/Gram Panchayat) on wide range of issues - from the quality of development services extended to the benefits trickling to the community. "It fixes downward accountability of local institution, elected by the community and goes a long way in contributing significantly towards promoting good governance," says Sarkar.

Among all the people-centric tools available, social audits provide stakeholders an opportunity to raise common concerns and collectively look for solution. It is something India desperately needs to promote if India wants to make a difference in the life of the ordinary people. With the RTI constituted there is tremendous scope to advance social audit and other people-centered techniques to promote transparency at the grassroot level. As recently as Jan 2011, in the MKSS program area, an embezzlement of Rs 56 lakh was exposed in a social audit of MGNREGA in Todgarh panchayat, Ajmer district. Such excellent citizenry effort need to receive robust media support to galvanize them into mass movements, spurring a countrywide commitment to eliminate corruption. But rarely do they make it to the headlines.

With discussions rife on how to contain the corruption conundrum it is a perfect moment to assess grassroot situations. Specific laws and policies at the macro level are essential in creating the right environment for taking processes forward. A simultaneously effort in formulating and implementing systems and mechanisms to fix downward accountability will ensure the issue of corruption is addressed and attacked from all sides.

Enabling institutions like nationals bureaus to tackle corruption, strong measures against corrupt officials, an efficient judicial system with speedy trial of corruption cases, tough policies and popularization of e-governance, all will contribute to preparing the perfect backdrop to corruption-free society. The final actors in containing corruption, according to Sarkar, must however be the people themselves. Such process which makes the local development agencies accountable to the common citizens will not only yield high governance dividend but also make the system corruption-free. Time the biggest democracy learnt a lesson or two from the youngest democracy, to take its crusade forward.