Nothing ventured, nothing learnt

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GUDIPIVALSA is a remote forest hamlet nestled in the hilly agency area of Vizianagaram district. After a four hour trek through thick dense forests and no sign of habitation, we arrive at a clearing with low thatched huts. Children gather around and stare at us with wide-eyed curiosity. A man who sees us approaching, comes out of his hut to talk to us.

As we settle down under a huge tamarind tree he asks, ‘Have you also come to do an enquiry?’ Taken aback, we ask him what enquiry he is talking about. He says, ‘A few weeks ago a group of people came here with records and checked our job cards and passbooks. They told us about the 100 days work scheme and that we were supposed to keep the cards with us and not give them to anyone else. Earlier all our cards lay with the field assistant and the branch post master, who distributed the money to us.’ When we ask him what else he has been told, he says, ‘They also told us that we would get our money from the post office and that we did not have to pay any money to anyone. They told us a lot of things that we did not know. Officials rarely come here. It is too far and there are no roads for a vehicle to come. Besides, there is the threat of Naxalites.’ Finally, he asks us, ‘Is it part of this new programme? Will the government continue to send people to enquire if we are getting paid properly every week? Will they have a big meeting every month?’

The ‘enquiry’ that he mentions is in fact a social audit which had taken place in his mandal a month ago and the big meeting that he is referring to is the social audit public meeting he attended at Pachipenta, the mandal headquarters, a month ago. ‘It took us almost four hours to get there. We had to leave at five in the morning by foot. We reached the village from where local transport is available after walking for almost two hours. There were 15 of us, so we hired a tempo, which cost us Rs 20 each to and fro (in AP it is a quarter of a day’s minimum wage). We reached home at one in the morning the day after the meeting.

‘The meeting was very exciting. There were more than a thousand people; the tent and surrounding area were packed. They talked a lot about the scheme. There were many officials present and the people who conducted the enquiry in our village read out the details. The field assistant of the gram panchayat next to ours paid back a total of Rs 2000 to all those workers from whom he had collected money. One post master also returned money which he had taken from people in his village. It’s the first time I have seen anyone return money. This is good; why should anyone take our money in the first place? What do we have in any case except our sweat?’

In a village almost 200 km away a young girl who has just been given the money that had been siphoned away from her by the branch post master after she testified at the social audit tells us, ‘The people who worked in my group testified after I did and we all got our money back. However, the other groups who were working at the site were apprehensive and did not testify. But after we got our money they have been fighting with us.’ When we asked her why they were fighting with her group she said, ‘They feel that they have been cheated and are angry that we got our money and they didn’t. How will they get their money if they don’t tell the truth? They chose not to speak up. I told them we spoke and so we got our money. Suppose we had been beaten instead, would they have shared the beating with us?’

These are just some of the many reactions to the social audit process that is taking place in Andhra Pradesh. For the past 18 months, trained resource persons from civil society groups and workers’ unions with literate youth from labourers’ families have been going through this exercise, covering mandal after mandal, looking closely at the functioning of the NREGA, throwing light on the successes and failures, the highlights of the programme as well as the loopholes. There have been many tense moments as the process of government opening itself up for public audit is unprecedented, but the path traversed has been full of learning and change.

Since the inception of the NREGA, there is unanimous agreement on the fact that its biggest enemy would be the dual ‘C’ words – contractors and corruption. Most economists and ‘so called’ development specialists were quick to damn the act. The rural poor for whom the act is a potential lifeline, activists, academics and political groups who believed in its positive potential, worked to put in strong transparency and accountability measures into the act. They knew that these measures could change the face of a public works programme, especially one that is being implemented on such a grand scale. As these basic transparency measures, such as maintaining muster rolls at the work site, glaringly absent in states like Andhra Pradesh during the National Food for Work Programme, came into place, people’s participation and monitoring began to dramatically increase. This was augmented with requirements to provide information regarding the NREGA within seven days from the day a Right to Information application is filed, and a clear provision under Section 17 of the act for mandatory social audits to be carried out in the gram sabha.

The clause for mandatory social audits is a new radical addition to the Indian legal framework, and the gram sabha is the ideal institution for public audits. However, the non-functioning gram sabha has been suffering such a crisis of credibility that any power and responsibility placed in its domain seems to get lost in the miasma of decentralized governance. This has been the case of social audits too. The responsibility of ensuring that social audits take place lies with the government, but the excuse for non-compliance that most state governments have used is that the gram sabhas have failed to carry them out. Barring Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh and parts of Jharkhand, most other state governments are still waiting for their gram sabhas to get activated and empowered enough to carry out social audits. How this will happen and who will trigger it is something no one is quite sure about, even as apprehension increases that vested interests which have entered the NREGA system will get entrenched.

In Rajasthan too, a social audit that was to be conducted in Banswara by the government in collaboration with civil society groups hit a road block. Under mounting local political pressure, the administration decided to withdraw support and dissociate from the process, enabling vested interests to ensure that social audits mandated by the act do not take place. This was repeated in Jhalawar, where the administration not just dissociated itself from the process, but delayed providing information to the social audit groups. The final blow to the democratic process of questioning came in the form of violence initiated by sarpanches and their supporters who physically attacked and harmed the villagers who were in the social audit teams. Cases have finally been registered against the perpetrators of these violent attacks. However, if the administration continues to prevaricate and avoid involvement in the social audit process, if not create hurdles in the path of those who want to conduct these audits, the tripartite process of government, civil society groups and panchayti raj institutions working together to ensure accountability may become sharply adversarial and a great new opportunity of systemic reforms lost.

In Jharkhand, after the initial mass social audit that was carried out in Ranchi by civil society groups in collaboration with the district administration, many other district collectors carried out a similar exercise on their own initiative. In Tamil Nadu a similar effort was made earlier this year but instead of choosing to learn from it, the state administration decided that they did not need outside help to evaluate the implementation of the NREGA. No wonder the process has virtually ground to a standstill. In fact, Tamil Nadu has chosen to ignore all the warning signals that emerged from the social audit findings. What is most shocking in a state which prides itself in having fought against and done away with caste segregation is that the NREGA provides work in a week-wise rotation to labourers from the SC/ST and the BC community. While such findings in a social audit might not go down well with administration, the issue cannot be ignored, especially in a public programme such as the NREGA. It needs to be evaluated publicly in a manner such that these issues are addressed rather than swept under the carpet after being termed unimportant and rabble rousing.

In Orissa, the administration did try and work on a blueprint similar to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, but nothing much has come out of it. The real reason is lack of political will, but this is masked under the guise of the costs involved in a social audit. The fact that people’s will dictates political will has not been factored in. Nor has the fact that by doing a social audit the money saved for the system, which is otherwise siphoned off, far exceeds any expenditure. In states such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Karnataka, though there is a strong push by non-government organisations and citizens’ groups to create such forums, the administration remains non-responsive.

It was hoped that the Government of India would notify the social audit rules so that the states have a road map to follow. Yet even two years after the implementation of the act, the rules are still in the process of being finalized. The truth is that while transparency and accountability have been much touted words in development jargon, in actual terms little has been done on either count. It takes a great deal of courage to willingly submit to scrutiny and to introspect. This effectively means stepping out of the comfort zone to expose the underbelly of the system, in all its ugliness, to public gaze.

This is an opportunity to cleanse the system and expose its ugly side which every official is aware of but never acknowledges or discusses in ‘official review meetings’. In addition to empowering the wage earner, it provides an opportunity for the implementing agency as well. Social audits can be used by the executive as a management tool to assess both the success and failure of the scheme. The process provides a forum for the various stakeholders for an open and frank discussion to incorporate and initiate changes in programme implementation.

When the MKSS initially began holding Jan Sunwais of development works in Rajasthan, people from other states felt that it was impossible to replicate it elsewhere. Friends of the MKSS working in Andhra Pradesh felt it would not be possible here either. Today, after conducting social audits of the NREGA in over 500 mandals, training more than 30,000 village social auditors, recovering more than Rs 90 lakhs of fraudulent expenditure, initiating action against and removing hundreds of functionaries found to be misappropriating money, follow-up meetings are held every 15 days following the social audit to ensure action. A dedicated website with all the social audit reports is uploaded on-line and social audit rules are in the process of being framed. Even more encouraging is the increasing number of political representatives across party lines such as MLAs, who are attending and participating in the social audit public meetings. All this is to emphasise that social audits can be carried out and institutionalized in any state, provided a sincere and strategic effort is made.

During the Right to Information campaign, a civil servant remarked that ‘Rome was not built in a day.’ The RTI campaigner, Aruna Roy, responded by saying, ‘While Rome was not built in a day, let us not forget that the Aegean stables had to be cleaned in one night.’ Similarly, if we want a NREGA without leakages, and if people’s participation in development processes is to become a reality, the states need to start looking at tools of people’s monitoring such as social audits as an essential value addition to the programme. Such exercises offer a great deal of insight about the scheme. Eventually they can act as a trigger to ensure that the gram sabhas are empowered to function better.

Social audits properly carried out dramatically increase awareness among workers as well as the NREGA staff, about the non-negotiables of the act and help identify the areas where implementation needs to be strengthened. The Andhra Pradesh experience in carrying out, and in institutionalizing social audits, teaches us that ‘nothing ventured is nothing learnt.’ It remains to be seen when other states will venture into this uncomfortable yet rewarding and fast developing area of participatory governance.

Sowmya Kidambi and Karuna Vakati Aakella


Politics of history

HISTORIANS, archaeologists, and serious researchers often face hostility from sections of politically powerful elite who feel threatened by verified and verifiable facts about the historical ‘past’, because these facts can run counter to their ideological worldview. Take for instance the ongoing debate on the historical evidence about the Ram Sethu/Adam Bridge canal project and its political fallouts. Not surprisingly politicians refuse to allow this controversy to die a natural death. The Government of India has capitulated and decided to form a Ram Sethu Panel of Experts and the Supreme Court has been drawn into the Ram Sethu controversy on the basis of a public interest litigation. M. Karunanidhi, the DMK chief, has been compelled to change his opinion and conviction on the existence of mythological Ram under pressure from his political opponents. S.K. Sudarshan, the RSS chief, in his annual address to swayamsevaks on 20 October 2007, called upon all Hindus ‘to raise their voice against the UPA government’, which he claims is determined to destroy sacred Ram Sethu. All this despite the fact that the Archaeological Survey of India and serious scientific surveys have completely disproved the mythological belief of any association of the Sethusamudram canal with ancient myths and mythologies.

This is not the first time that the forces of Hindutva have raised such issues. L.K. Advani’s Somnath to Ayodhya rath yatra in 1990 was justified, not on the basis of any historical evidence about the existence of a Ram temple in Ayodhya but on the basis of ‘beliefs’ and ‘sentiments’ of the Hindus associated with Ram. Ram’s political appropriation was ‘legitimised’ on the basis of ‘faith’ of the Hindus. Faith supersedes historical facts because politicians can manipulate it for their politico-ideological goals. In the past, the British colonial rulers too, like their counterpart religious fundamentalists, constructed the ‘History of India’ on the basis of their political goals. Indians were described as ‘people without history’ and colonial rule was legitimized with a view to civilize the natives in the superior values of the rulers. Their ‘interpretation’ became a guiding principle and philosophy of their rule over colonized Indians. The project of Indian history became like a game of football between the colonizers and nationalists. The colonial rule was justified and anti-colonial struggles were fought by making Indian history a central factor in this grand contest.

The story of history-in-politics took a new turn when the post-independence government at the Centre undertook a project of writing serious history. Eminent scholars, either on their own or supported by the government, worked to produce a history free of falsifications made by the colonial masters. Expectedly, this exercise of history writing in post-independence India got sharply polarized, with historians variously characterized as ‘nationalists-secularist’ and ‘communalists’, particularly when the National Council of Educational Research and Training asked historians to write books for school children and the Sangh Parivar attacked these historians for misrepresenting Indian history. The Sangh Parivar which was the mainstay of the Morarji Desai Janata government from 1977 to 1979, got these NCERT books ‘proscribed’. Over the years the battle continued between historians known as ‘secularists’ or ‘communalists’, a division that exists to date. An unambiguous conclusion which emerges from the above narrative is that the forces of Hindutva are inventing concocted historical memories to establish their politico-ideological hegemony to convey a message that Indian history is co-terminus with Hindus who are the real indigenous settlers and inhabitants of Mother India.

What has been the political response to this challenge posed by the practitioners of politics of imagined Hindu interpretation of history? Unfortunately, nothing seems to have been learnt by political formations from their earlier experience of L.K. Advani’s Ram janmabhoomi rath yatra. While leading the rath yatra in 1990, L.K. Advani admitted: ‘Don’t be under the misconception that I have become religious because I am a politician. Nowadays people tend to misunderstand me.’ Advani further stated that ‘This (rath yatra) is a crusade again pseudo secularism and minorityism which I regard as a political issue.’ The secularists targeted by Advani, instead of confronting his ‘politics’ and ‘abuse of history’ chose to play with ‘soft Hindutva’, fearful of any direct attack against his strategy of political mobilization around the emotive issue of the Ram temple.

Today the Sangh Parivar is again engaged in the task of building political support around Ram Sethu on the basis of falsification of history. A huge public meeting organized in Delhi on 30 December 2007, warned political opponents not to play with the religious sentiments of Hindus by disturbing the sacred Ram Sethu/Adam Bridge. Not only was no alternative political mobilization launched to challenge the politics of history of Ram Sethu, the government appointed a ten member committee of experts and placed the matter for final decision before the Supreme Court. Clearly the politics of Hindutva has been handed over to non-political legal experts for adjudication, forgetting that the Sangh Parivar has never accepted that Hindutva sentiments on Ram can be resolved by so called ‘experts’. The Congress party spokesman Abhishek Singhvi observed on 31 December 2007 that, ‘All documents and technical materials have to be presented to the Supreme Court. This decision has to be taken by the SC.’ We seem to have forgotten that the absence of political response to the falsification of history in 1990-1992 led to a national tragedy and the repeat performance of so-called secularists on Ram Sethu may well create a similar situation.

It is no one’s case that there can be only one authentic and authoritative interpretation of the historical past. Eric Hobsbawm in his On History has clearly pointed out that ‘Science is a dialogue between different views based upon a common method. It ceases to be science when there is no method for deciding which of the contending views is wrong or less fruitful. Unfortunately, this is often the case in history.’ However, the problematic of the politics of history is quite different from what Hobsbawm and many other professional historians argue because history is constructed not on the basis of ‘facts’ but on the basis of assertions of authenticity.

What is the explanation for political battles regarding the writing and teaching of history? Why are politicians involved in propagating ‘myths, mythologies and fictions’ about the past at the cost of serious historiography refusing to leave history to historians? This is because the superstructure of every state is based on ideological beliefs of the ruling groups who control state power. The idea of Hindu Rashtra cannot become politically salient if the Sangh Parivar is unable to project Hindu history as superior to the periods of all the ‘foreign and outside rulers’ who destroyed the great achievements of Hindu India.

Eric Hobsbawm in his classic On History (1997) had warned that, ‘It is true, of course, that the inseparability of historiography from current ideology and politics… opens the way to the misuse of history because historical past is always appropriated and misappropriated for ideological legitimacy by the ruling classes.’ Nevertheless, historians should continue their fight by providing ‘facts’ against ‘myths’ propagated by religious fundamentalists and politicians. Equally, we must realize that political battles have to be fought by the political classes and not left to expert historians.

C.P. Bhambhri