Social audit

back to issue

‘When the General Assembly becomes a bourgeois theatre, the bourgeois theatre must become the General Assembly!’

– Poster at barricades during the Students’

Revolt in France, 1968

INDIAN democracy is celebrated worldwide for its resilience. The political stability it has provided over the past fifty years contributed in large measure to enabling economic growth and development in the country. Commentators often explain this stability by referring to different features of electoral politics in India, increasingly viewed as a game of numbers. In such a reckoning, the fact that interest articulation of different sections of the people, associational acts, political discourses and policies of government at critical junctures in history have had a lot to do with establishing and preserving democracy, tends to get blurred.

We need to remind ourselves that underlying the impulses for democracy is the human urge for freedom and equality. Without conditions of freedom and continuous efforts towards ensuring a modicum of equality between different sections of society, the entire apparatus for justice, dialogue and bargaining to resolve conflicting interests in a matrix of power relations can collapse. The right to information is inherent in the fundamental right of every citizen to life, liberty and freedom of expression without which democracy is unimaginable and social audit is a means of collectively probing and understanding information instead of this being the exclusive preserve of any single person, power elite or institution.

These should not be viewed simply as managerial devices to improve the efficiency of delivery systems for public and private goods. Of greater significance is the enhancement of the public sphere to create spaces for people to directly engage and attend to public issues. These empower citizens – not only marginalized sections like the poor, minorities, tribals and women – but also those who find themselves on the margins in the everyday exercise of power by state processes. The historicity of the movement for social audit and the right to information with its wide remove from electoral politics needs to be first understood to explore its significance.

In current discourse, while psephologists wax eloquent about an ‘anti-incumbency’ factor in election results to reassure us that it is indeed a competitive political framework that is in evidence, several observers point with concern to communalization of electoral politics on religious and caste lines which threatens democracy and political stability.

A student of history would wonder whether without the Indian Penal Code being enacted in 1860, which established the principle of equality before the law, the very idea of democracy could have ever captured the Indian imagination. He would also wonder if the Poona and Lucknow Pacts in the course of our national movement, as bargaining between Ambedkar-Gandhi and Jinnah-Gandhi on the issues related to separation or constituting common constituencies for Hindus, Muslims and Scheduled Castes, were important to establish a secular democracy in India. Further, he might ponder the moral weight of the national movement to figure that aspirations of the peasantry to better conditions of life had to be realized immediately after independence. Sagacious measures for land reforms in the 1950s provided a settlement without which political democracy with ‘one-party dominance’ or any other ‘competitive’ configuration may have been short-lived.

Unfortunately, land reforms were not thoroughgoing in implementation. Coupled with drastically reduced land revenue rates and price subsidies for agricultural output, in sum, the maaliks gained far more than the mazdoors. However, the package deal helped the state to gain preeminence. This was fortified by reserving the commanding heights for government in the industrial sector and state trading. The bureaucracy proliferated and, appropriately crafty for comfort, bandied a socialist rhetoric to rule the roost. Its natural propensity to corruption was fuelled by the preeminence of the state.

The economy started grinding to a halt by the mid-sixties. A small peasant uprising of 1967 in Naxalbari sounded an alarm. Measures such as splitting the ruling party in two, bank nationalization, coercive population control, anti-poverty programmes (all under the rubric of ‘garibi hatao’) and going to war in 1971 were the means for Indira Gandhi to regain popularity.

The excesses of this totalitarian regime were challenged by the JP movement, a confluence of widespread strikes by industrial workers and students’ movements in Gujarat and Bihar against corruption. Declaration of a state of internal emergency in 1975, the defection by the leadership of the scheduled castes away from Congress for the first time, the fumbling with governance by a motley group of populist leaders for a short while and the resumption of power by Indira Gandhi are a familiar story. The short point for present purposes is that Indian democracy has in fact teetered on the verge of collapse. A social movement, and not electoral politics, managed to prop it up again.

A well-positioned bureaucracy was further entrusted huge funds through district rural development agencies for anti-poverty programmes since the early 1980s. These funds were governed neither by budgetary procedures of the state governments nor any statutory framework of devolution for local self-government. They were propelled only by schemes trotted out by the central government and delegation by means of administrative orders alone. The bureaucracy naturally ran riot with its power and corruption. The scale of corruption reached such proportions that Rajiv Gandhi was forced to remark that of every rupee only 15 per cent reached the targeted beneficiaries of programmes.

The financial crisis by the end of the decade and a structural shift of the economy towards capitalism in a changed world scenario with its ideological challenge to socialist rhetoric was an opportune moment for the political elite to step in by arousing communal sentiments, both on the basis of caste and religion. Mandal and Mandir surfaced as the delusions of a headless people while governments were trussed up and collapsed in quick succession. A climate of coalition brinkmanship, rather than a framework of competitive electoral politics, prevailed at the time India faced its worst financial crisis.

The economic reforms of 1991, followed quickly by the constitutional amendments in 1992/93 for statutory devolution of powers for local self-government, ushered in some hope for stemming corruption of the bureaucracy. It was at this juncture that the concerted struggle for the right to information and social audit also began at different sites of the Indian state.

Prior to this, human rights activists had for long agitated over the right to information against the nefarious practices of the police in handling political prisoners. As one of them put it, the right to information always existed under the constitution; what was needed was a right of access by the ordinary citizen to information unmediated by any public institution. A Ministry of Information and Broadcasting undertook publicity. Questions could be asked by elected representatives in the legislatures. Courts could summon information and the press could ferret it. The CAG had a special right of access to all government records. But these institutional preserves crowded out the locus standi of the ordinary citizen to directly ask for information. Two of the struggles in the 1990s, notable for the issues they highlighted and the public interest they have generated, deserve mention.

The first was the public outcry against fast track power generation projects in the context of reforms in the power sector. It was well known that the theft of electricity, aided and abetted by officials, had led to mounting distribution losses suffered by state electricity boards. This resulted in their inability to pay for the power purchased by the boards from NTPC and NHPC who, incidentally, were very efficient generators of power. Curiously, instead of tackling theft by means of changes at the distribution end, reforms in the sector were initiated by first inviting private sector participation in generation of power.

As news of the power purchase agreement of Maharashtra State Electricity Board with an Enron subsidiary for the Dhabol Thermal Power Project came in, questions about the terms of the contract were raised in newspapers and fears were expressed about the runaway cost of electricity in the post-reforms scenario. It was a matter that touched everybody. People from different walks of life engaged in social audit of the terms of the contract, trying to understand phrases such as ‘negotiated price’ as against ‘notified tariffs’, paying for ‘deemed generation’ of power, ‘guarantees’ by the state government and ‘counter guarantees’ by Union government.

Information was slowly laid bare by the efforts of the association of employees of the electricity board, pressmen, knowledgeable engineers and financial analysts. The weak ineffectuality of the remonstrances by the Central Electricity Authority, a regulatory body, came to light. The CEA complained to Ministry of Power that sufficient disclosures had not been made by the Dhabol Power Company about the cost estimates underlying the price at which the company was offering power. This remained a closely guarded secret of the government of the day until information was gathered, marshalled and made intelligible to petition the courts in Mumbai. While The Times of India ran an ad-campaign by Dhabol Power Company of Enron titled ‘Truth About Power’, The Indian Express contributed the power of truth by way of plucky exposures in a controversy that was continuously featured in the media for over a year until the cancellation and renegotiation of the contract by the Maharashtra government.

With the collapse of Enron in the USA due to exposures of its failure to include loans taken by its subsidiaries in the balance sheet of the holding company and the unethical practices of well-reputed professional auditors in certifying such accounts, the entire struggle carried on in India was vindicated. When the eerily similar case of accounting irregularities with the complicity of professional auditors in Worldcom was added on soon thereafter, the issue of the ethics of professional auditors came sharply into focus.

On another site of the Indian state, a struggle had already begun in 1990. A demand for minimum wages to be paid to women workers at famine relief works near Dev Dungri village in Bhim tehsil of Udaipur district in Rajasthan led to an interesting development. The demand was refused on the grounds that ‘they did not work’. The workers protested, but were told that the measurement books for the works filled in by junior engineers of PWD showed they had not worked. Their hard labour had been penned off! The stupefied workers naturally demanded to see the records. Administrators, who quoted the Official Secrets Act of 1923, told them that they could not see the records.

The need to access records was hammered home and rural workers organized themselves as a union – Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) – to struggle for ways and means of wresting their right to know from government. The struggle illustrated that the right to information was not just a component of people’s right to freedom of speech and expression but was also a part of their fundamental right to life and liberty. It was needed to obtain the basic living wage, entitlements under the ration quota at the fair price shops, the medicines the poor ought to receive in public health centres and for contending with coercive abuse by the police.

Communicative action characterized the movement for social audit and the right to information. When the initial phase of agitation began with a sit-in, the Government of Rajasthan reluctantly passed an order whereby people were given the right to inspect records. Certified photocopies were later grudgingly allowed. While inspecting the records of a panchayat, the MKSS found that irregularities and malpractices were evident. To share the documented evidence with illiterate rural workers, a public hearing was organized. Known as a jan sunwai, this became an incredibly powerful step in revivifying face-to-face democracy.

Leading up to a jan sunwai, typically, the MKSS first obtained the records related to the public works carried out by the panchayat. Once the documents were accessed, the Sangathan took the records to each village where the works were supposed to have been executed and checked them out by asking the village residents and the workers who had been employed on the site to authenticate the records. On the day of the public hearing in front of the general assembly of the village residents, the details were read out and testimonies sought. A panel of ‘men of letters’ from different walks of life, like lawyers, writers, journalists, academics and government officials, were invited to the public hearings to act as a jury. In the presence of officials from the district administration, an effort was made to arrive at appropriate corrective measures for the irregularities identified.

Jan sunwais have touched a social chord. The malpractices usually uncovered at sites for anti-poverty employment generation works are over-billing in purchase of materials, fake muster rolls, under-payment of wages and, in some very interesting cases, ghost works (construction works that are there on record but do not exist on the ground). Workers denied payment after repeated visits to the sarpanch over years have been often paid overnight at the mere announcement of a jan sunwai. Cases where, after an embezzlement being proved at a public hearing, the sarpanch has promised and has in fact paid back the amount into the panchayat account are not rare. Action has sometimes been initiated by government against officials without whose complicity the embezzlement could not have occurred or remained unnoticed.

The willingness of people to testify at jan sunwais against persons in power who often belong to a higher caste with a social standing that is intimidating, is in stark contrast to the phenomenon of witnesses turning hostile at formal court hearings. Jan sunwais are now being arranged by many activists and NGOs in the country to probe information related to ration cards and registers, electoral rolls, accounts of municipal corporations and agencies for slum development.

Those who dismiss jan sunwais as merely kangaroo courts would do well to ponder the fact that arbitration plays a major role in the world of commercial contracts. There is no reason why it cannot be applied in the realm of the social contract. The only regulatory requirement, to stave off mere settling of accounts between political rivals at jan sunwais, would be that acts of popular justice be clarified politically under the direct supervision of the mass gathering. Acts of popular justice by the people have a purging and educative effect whereas ‘the historical function of a court is to ensnare popular justice, to control it and to strangle it, by re-inscribing it within institutions which are typical of the state apparatus.’1

Social audit assumes even greater importance in the context of democratic decentralization since 1992-93. Structures for accountability are the weakest in panchayats and municipal bodies who are implementing anti-poverty programmes and providing basic social services. Half-hearted devolution of powers by most state governments continues to stymie their effectiveness. Planning by district planning committees as envisaged in the constitutional amendments has hardly been operationalized. At the sub-district level of taluk and gram panchayats, poor book-keeping is coupled with audit certification by Examiners, Local Funds of the state governments, which is by and large no more than an exercise in stamping and signing inadequately authenticated accounts. Hearing the complaints of residents before certifying accounts, as is the audit convention for local authorities in Europe, is nowhere even on the agenda in India. The sheer spread and numbers of the local bodies, to be considered against the availability of ethical auditors, are daunting.

Union and state finance commissions that are charged with the responsibility of recommending the allocation of funds for the local bodies have little information to go by on the existing revenues and expenditures of these bodies. At the behest of the Union Finance Commission, the CAG has recently undertaken an exercise in providing technical guidance and supervision to Examiners, Local Funds, which needs to be supported by a vigorous movement for social audit. It must be remembered that, as against the concerns of departmental auditors for classification of transactions under relevant schemes and programmes, citizens are interested in the veracity of the details in BPL surveys, vouchers and muster rolls. The actual construction of permanent assets along proper specifications also matters to them.

We now have the right to information acts in seven states and recently, notification of the Central Act with important amendments was passed in the previous session of Parliament. As the battle’s lost and won, it is natural to wonder if like so many pieces of enlightened legislation in the past, this too will soon start gathering dust. Will more and more people take heart from the legislation to investigate the details of how things work at the level of their ongoing subjugation in different domains? Or will they continue to only condemn the ‘entirely rotten system’ to rationalize their own participation in corrupt practices that help them negotiate and survive in such totalizing systems? It is perhaps too early to tell.

There are, however, indications that electoral politics is being increasingly viewed as divisive by citizens and the networking, in place of the separation envisaged by the Constitution between functionaries of different organs of the state, has become a cause for disaffection. Alternative channels are being sought for participation in face-to-face direct democracy or engagement with information technology-based portals and web sites by citizens to investigate, inform and deliberate creatively on matters that touch their lives.

Constitutional amendments in 1992-93 for local self government which introduced provisions for accounts to be placed before the gram sabha and municipal wards are a revealing pointer to the need for accountability, not to a hierarchy of officialdom or representatives of the people but increasingly to people themselves, since they are the only stakeholders. That is the writing on the wall.


1. Michel Foucault, ‘On Popular Justice: A Discussion with Maoists’, published in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-77, Pantheon Books, 1980.