Friday, 7 March 2014

Haarisian Archives - An Essay on the CAG

Note from H: I wrote this essay in June 2011, or so my diary says. It was an investigation into the functioning of the CAG at a time when it was firmly in the spotlight with the grim emergence of a number of scams in the country. The content was mostly written in one sitting but it was never shared on any public platform. I look back on it and find certain points that I could have possibly added, and some other arguments that would have made my stance more rigorous. That's probably the hindsight bias in play and I believe that I wrote as well as a person could write in a day with most of the research coming from general knowledge rather than proper research. This feature then, shall be a compilation of the innumerable pieces, short stories, essays and accounts of contests that I wrote at some point in time. I hope you enjoy them. I have made no changes and all errors that were present originally are maintained in these reproductions.

Role of CAG in Meeting Challenges of
Good Governance

There was once a time when India’s occasional embarrassments could be shrouded under the pretext of it being a young country. Even then, more than sixty years back, we were instantly the largest democracy in the world. Add to that the prospect of having a heterodoxy consisting of enough languages and cultures that could not be matched even with the Euro nations considered together as a single entity. For the world, it was an interesting case study, an experiment into the viability of universal adult franchise. Democracy is not an easy term to define. It can be interpreted in a plethora of manners and each such definition carries subtle differences that simply change the fabric of the governance structure of that country. It is no wonder then that the statesmen who framed our Constitution took great pains in ensuring its efficacy in all eventualities and contingencies. The debates that rang between the members of the Constituent Assembly were spirited enquiries into the nature and implications of individual articles, of possible improvements and safeguards that could enhance the various constitutions of countries like France and the United States.

The Constitution is a remarkable document. It is an exhaustive “manual” for each citizen of our country and leaves very few areas of doubt as to the responsibilities, rights and mandated powers accorded to all stakeholders in the Indian democratic system. The Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary have the job of ensuring the smooth functioning of the government, and they act as counterbalances to check any errors or excesses committed on any side. Of course, the beauty of our country’s Constitution doesn’t stop here. The document provides for the formation of a few important independent statutory bodies, whose functioning involves an impartial outlook towards indispensable functions of state, such as that conducted by the Election Commission and, as the subject of this essay, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.

Current Role in the Indian Governance structure
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) is the supreme auditor of the Indian government, and it is his job to ensure that the revenues collected from the people as well as spending of public money is carried out in a way that follows all laid down rules and regulations. It is also his prerogative to check if the policies adopted by the government are the most efficient ones and that they give the best returns whether they are tangible ones, such as revenue collections from spectrum auctions, or intangibles, such as the state of public hospitals across India.

Naturally, the CAG has an enormous responsibility in the Indian polity. To a certain extent, it mirrors the operations of a corporate auditor. The main aim of any corporate auditor is to give assurance to the management that all transactions and operations are in compliance with the laid down policies and procedures.

However, the CAG’s role doesn’t end here. A properly functioning democracy is one which has the elements that keep a check on it. In India’s case, these are constitutional bodies that act as self-correcting mechanisms in the government structure. It is imperative that these bodies are given full autonomy and just as importantly, that the results of their investigations are made completely public. In the current context, the potential for the CAG to become a weapon of choice against corruption is immense. Its mandate allows it to audit State and Central revenue collections and expenditures and raise questions about any impropriety occurring therein. It can be a part of the larger framework in administrative, legal and investigative vigilance. Everything procurement or transaction should be liable for independent scrutiny.

In an increasingly volatile world, where wars have been replaced by economic turmoil, problems of inflation, and ever increasing accounts of corruption, it is necessary to look at the challenges facing the CAG in the 21st century.

Challenges, realities and expectations
As mentioned at the beginning of the essay, India is starting to run out of excuses for its recurrent failures in improving socio-economic conditions of the country, not to mention the exorbitant excesses committed by the public and private sector alike.

With the recent mass outcry against corruption culminating into a national debate over the Lokpal bill, the writing on the wall is clear. Corruption has to be tackled immediately. People, even at the grass root level, are giving more weightage to the malaise of corruption in the Indian system. The ongoing 2G scam, the over the top Commonwealth Games expenditure and the mining land fiascos have firmly brought the issue into the limelight.

The role of CAG is especially important here. After the 2G scam reports, it was clear that a growing number of dubious deals are arising as a result of a nexus between elements in the private and public sector. The value of these deals has in all probability caused a massive loss to the public exchequer. The earlier phase of India’s corruption story focused mostly on small time bureaucratic corruption. We have now entered a phase of large scale embezzlement and unfair trade practices.

In this situation, it is becoming more important for the CAG to monitor such public-private interactions, especially when it concerns auctioning or allowing usage of valuable national resources, such as spectrum or mineable land. It would be a good step to allow the fulfillment of these deals only after the approval of the CAG and after giving the green light over any possible mal-utilization. India is relatively fresh into the domain of a liberalized economy and hence close monitoring of private gains through the government has to be constantly questioned and checked, before completion. The assets of our country are valuable and even an unfair deal cannot be acceptable.

Another area of attention is in the proper implementation of poverty relieving programmes. A pertinent example of this is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). The programme has been well received, and in principle, is an excellent step to ensure employment for a large number of Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. Another such example is the Public Distribution System, which is much older, and aims at providing basic nutrition to poor families. In fact, there are several such programmes which aim at the people at the bottom of the pyramid, and work towards improving health, hygiene and sanitation while also improving mortality rates. The Integrated Children Development Scheme (ICDS) is yet another programme that targets malnutrition in children. Malnutrition is in itself a problem that is often forgotten, but it claims a number of lives every year.

The biggest problem associated with these programmes is the misappropriation of funds at all levels. The CAG should be given a much larger responsibility in this regard, so that audits of the fund allocation can be achieved. The problems of rising inequality have been a persistent feature of growth story and better monitoring of the system is required. It would be very difficult to have direct auditing in each village but a way out can be formulated. In particular, social audit by the local community can be thought of, which can be in turn reported to each district, where the auditing process through the CAG can begin. It is important for funds to reach the poorest sections of society and in a way which conforms to the guidelines stipulated in the act governing the scheme.

New avenues
India is a welfare state and hence, special emphasis is laid on public expenditure often in the form of Five year plans. These schemes are present in a multitude of domains and they are often very complex and have a wide scope. This presents a problem in measuring their results. The feedback from such projects is of two types. The first is the human development, socio economic changes which measure the benefits or failures of the plans. For example, on this basis a child nutritional scheme such as the ICDS shall be judged for its effectiveness on the basis of child mortality rates and on the number of cases of various deficiency diseases. This is a fundamental aspect of any development programme. It also falls outside the purview of the CAG.

The other feedback is about the efficiency of such programmes. This includes proper deployment of allocated funds in the right areas, and on targeted groups that are comprehensively covered by the implementation team. It is very important for such public expenditure to be monitored. Old schemes that aren’t producing results and are sucking away public money should be flagged for suspension or eventual termination. The participation of the CAG should begin right from the annual budgeting stages when funds are allocated for various sectors. It is the responsibility of the CAG to ensure that the funds are being used effectively and efficiently. This is a complex task. For it, output and output expenditure has to be defined. The costing and budgeting of this also involves the quality of output. Realistic estimates have to be made and must be compared with actual performance on an annual basis. It might not be possible for the CAG to monitor all such sectors but it can always consider taking a few select cases on a rotational basis. A public revelation of a scheme’s impact will do wonders for our democracy. In fact, it would be best if the CAG takes on itself the task of ensuring fiscal prudence in every budgetary session.

CAG is also expected to undertake more non-routine audits. It is time that it tries to expand its definition of audit from merely an account of collection and expenditure to one where socio-economic parameters are considered. India is not a corporate house. It is a country with a strong mandate for the promotion of the welfare of its people. Similarly, the supreme auditor of our country has to expand its purview to cover issues that are relatively difficult to audit, such as the effectiveness of acts and policies passed by the government.  Social audits are required which can judge how the formulation and implementation of a policy can be executed in the most efficient manner.

As another example, we have the case of poor reserve food grain storage which was in the limelight recently. Government godowns across the country store food grains in silos which are improperly constructed, have issues of excess moisture and are inadequately protected from pests. An audit report of the measure of damage inflicted on the people can act as a timely jolt to our decision makers. The crucial aspect here is that all such reports should continue being available publicly.

The accompanying ecosystem
A lot has been said and suggested about the future role of CAG in the improved governance of our country, even in this essay. CAG’s success in these respects however, depends tremendously on the ecosystem in which it operates. As stated by the present Comptroller and Auditor General in an interview, a vibrant media is a must.

This fact cannot be stated enough. It falls upon the citizens of the country and on the fourth estate to keep a vigilant eye on what’s going on around them. The media has in the recent past, exposed several cases of mismanagement and profligacy in various dealings of the government structure at the State and Central level. Some credit has to be given to the various media agencies that brought the issue to the fore and helped develop a strong public opinion against it. As is evident today, the issues that were often relegated to the backburner are now irrepressible as a result of the continual campaigns of media fronts.

As the CAG engages itself in more areas and fields, it is necessary for it to maintain a good system of collaboration with the other autonomous bodies of our democratic system, such as the judiciary and the election commission. This ensures that the process of auditing can be conducted without any friction between other statutory authorities. Also, in exceptional cases, a good relation with the other bodies expedites an impending issue more efficiently. Conflicts will surely arise in the future, as government dealings become even more complex, and involve more than one aspect of governance.

CAG should also look to be a pioneer in the web domain. It can have a public interaction forum, or a redressal portal online. People, especially those with access to the internet, are extremely pro-active in reporting issues of concern and in providing inputs and suggestions on a regular basis. The image of CAG has heightened immensely after recent events. The trust that the people have on it should be rewarded by increased activity on the web through the auditing body. Public dissemination is a valuable avenue to increase awareness and develop an objective public opinion.

At the farther end of possible measures, laws already passed should be revisited for their efficacy in remedying existing problems. A lot can be achieved by empowering CAG with more powers to investigate issues of common public interest. For instance, in the past several years India has had a large fiscal deficit. In such cases, it falls upon the CAG to ensure fiscal prudence in public expenditure. In the short term, routes such as disinvestment can help keep the deficit in check. It, however, leaves much to be desired in terms of better planning of expenditure and austerity in certain other domains. The CAG should be empowered to keep a tab on fiscal prudence so that the dangers of heavy deficits do not mar the future of our nation.

It is a time of great turmoil in our country. Only this time the upheaval is concerned with a changed mentality of the common citizens of India. Issues such as corruption and public accountability have taken centre stage; people pay more attention to issues of profligacy. It is under this setting that CAG takes enormous responsibility for the aspirations and hopes of a billion people. Self correcting mechanisms such as CAG rekindle the faith of the common man in the spirit and power of democracy. Earlier the concept of auditing itself was held as a negative activity done only to expose wrong-doings in a system. That perception has now come round to the opinion that the process of auditing is an indispensable tool for the health of our democracy.

India is still growing. We have our share of worries- rising inequality, poverty, high inflation and back breaking corruption. We have hope, however, and faith (to varying extents) in the power of democracy, in the safeguards that our constitution has provided us and in independent authorities such as the CAG.