National Rural Employment Gauarantee Act 2005 provides the citizens of India for the first time the right to conduct an audit of the scheme implemented under this Act. Until now if one felt that there was something wrong with some government work the most one could do was file a complaint with the relevant official. It was then upto that official to conduct an investigation or not. Even after the investigation was conducted whether any action would be taken or not was also the prerogative of that official. However, now citizens can demand the documents concerned with NREGS and conduct an open audit of the works performed. This has opened up a window of opportunity for citizens in our democracy and it is only a matter of time before people will demand the extension of this right to other government schemes and government offices.
First day's write-up
Yeshwant Rao, a resident of Himmat Kheda village panchayat in Unnao District filed an application on 4th December, 2006 asking for the information related to implementation of NREGS in Miyaganj Block under the Right to Information Act, 2005. He sought copies of muster rolls, measurement books, bills-vouchers for the works performed under NREGS in all the village panchayats of the Block. There is provision in NREGA for making such information available to the applicant within 7 days. However, the Block office simple refused to part with the information. When Yeshwant filed a complaint with the State Information Commission, the Block office sent him a letter in June 2007 asking him to submit Rs. 1,58,400 for the information that he had sought at an arbitrarily fixed rate of Rs. 2,400 per panchayat for 66 village panchayats. The RTI Act stipulates a fee of Rs. 2 per page for information sought. This was followed by a long battle in the State Information Commission where after over ten hearings an order was passed to provide all the information free of cost to the applicant as the Block office had not replied within the stipulated period of one month from the date of the application filed. On 7th April 2008 Yeshwant started getting the information.
Even though information has been provided for only 65 out of 66 village panchayats and is incomplete it has been a major victory for the people. Inspite of the implementation of the RTI Act, the officials are not very forthcoming in yielding to the Act. They create obstacles in the way for the applicant seeking information. In the case of Miyaganj the entire administrative machinery put up doughty resistance till the end.
Now that the information has finally been obtained citizens of Miyaganj Block are preparing to undertake social audit of the scheme in their Block with the assistance of social organizations and activists from other districts of UP like Lucknow, Hardoi, Kanpur, Ballia, Ghazipur, Varanasi and even from other states like Haryana and Rajasthan. This will be a collective democratic exercise which will have the effect of empowerment of ordinary poor villagers as they'll get to inspect the records related to their panchayats. They will find out whether they have actually been paid what is being shown on the muster rolls and whether the work measures to what is being shown on the measurement books. They may not be able to get any action taken against people who have engaged in corruption but they'll certainly expose that corruption hopefully creating an atmosphere in the process which will act as a deterrence for future corruption. This will give the ordinary villagers some more handle over things which directly impact their lives, meaning a little more democracy in their lives.
Second day's write-up
On the second day of training of about hundred citizens who are preparing to go into the villages of Miyaganj Block of Unnao District to conduct social audit of the NREGS, the District Magistrate (DM) Rajshekhar addressed a gathering of citizens of this Block. He said that he would not tolerate any discrepancy in muster rolls as well as measurement books. A number of officials and people responsible for implementation of this scheme believe that only one of the two documents can be prepared honestly, the other will have to be manipulated to fit the first. He said that NREGS had tremendous potential to transform the rural landscape and standard of living of rural poor but equally there was enough possibility for large scale embezzlement of funds. He said that if there was any embezzlement of funds found in the implementation of NREGS and people decided to go to the court even a DM might have to go to jail.
Even before the teams go out into the various village panchayats discrepancies are being discovered in the records obtained through RTI. For example, in village panchayat Nurullapur, the Pradhan of this panchayat Samim has put his signature at all places on the muster rolls - from taking attendance of the labourers to verifying the work. Usually different people are supposed to perform different functions. But he seems to be the only authority in his village panchayat. He doesn't see the role of any panchayat level employee or a supervisor for the work.
The other instance of corruption discovered is purchase of saplings at the rate of Rs. 4 per plant which can be bought for fifty paise to Re. 1 in the market. A purchase of Rs. 20,000 has been shown in each panchayat from a single supplier - Messers Paurush Priya Traders. Muster rolls have been filled for 7-10 days for plantation of these saplings and for 10-15 days for watering of these plants. In reality not a single sapling has been planted. This implies straightaway embezzlement of over Rs. 13 lakhs. Even more interestingly, in village panchayat Barha Kalan the saplings have been shown to have been planted between 1st and 12th October, 2006 whereas the purchase of saplings has been shown on 29th November, 2006.
However, the purpose of social audit in not simply to expose such corruption and discrepancy. Social audit should be institutionalized as a process within the Gram Sabhas wherein the citizens should conduct continous audit of their panchayat records. They should make their Pradhans and government employees appointed to serve them accountable to themselves. They should not just be passive observers to the rampant corruption around them but play an active role in checking that corruption. Except for this there doesn't seem to be any way that the lot of rural poor can improve. The time has come when the beneficiary of the government schemes must assert her right. RTI Act and NREGA, both implemented in 2005, are citizen empowering laws. The two laws are playing a vital role in changing the equation between the ruling elite and the common people. It is upto the people to use the two laws creatively to break the hold of corrupt officials and mafia on their resources.
Social audit in progress at Aaseewan Lok Man village panchayat.
Third day's write-up
On the very first day of social audit of NREGS in the Miyaganj Block of Unnao District by a group of citizens, the Gram Pradhans along with vested interests tried to sabotage the exercise by spreading a rumour that they had obtained a stay from the High Court against the social audit. The rumour spread like wild fire and one after another in Bhadua, Barah Kalan, Korari Kalan and Kulha Ataura, the cronies of Gram Pradhan tried to disrupt the social audit process. They were able to stall the process for a couple of hours in the afternoon. The Pradhan of Korari Kalan did not allow the team to perform its work at all. The various teams which had reached different villages to conduct social audit stood their ground and asked for the copy of the Court stay order. However, none of the Pradhans had this copy. As a result the resistance of the Pradhans gave away as fast as the rumour had spread and most of the teams resumed their work.
Actually, the Gram Pradhans are worried about the exposure of irregularities in the works they have implemented during the social audit. The abovementioned unsuccessful attempt relects the mindset of the ruling elite. Even though the people have a legal right to conduct the social audit of NREGS, the Pradhans and vested interest try to create obstacle in the way of transparency and accountability.
In village panchayat Kulha Ataura there were 108 people who came to open meeting who said that they desired to work under NREGS but they were denied Job Cards. Anant Ram s/o Bhola said that over the last two years he had submitted his photograph three times before he could finally get his Job Card made. His Job Card was delivered to him just this morning. The social audit team found that a number of people in the village had received their Job Cards in the morning just before the arrival of the social audit team. This is a usual phenomenon which has been noticed in earlier audits too.
The situation of Public Distribution System in this village was equally bad. None of the holders of 65 BPL card examined had received a single grain of food or sugar over the last five years. The Antyodaya cards show some distribution but all that is fake. The Gram Pradhan is Sudha Singh but the affairs of this panchayat have been managed by her husband Muneshwar Singh for the last 40 years irrespective of whoever is the Pradhan.
Fourth day's write-up
On the second day of social audit of NREGS by a group of citizens in the Miyaganj Block of Unnao District the Gram Pradhans continued to create trouble. They are feeling quite frustrated that their attempt to scuttle the social audit process by spreading a rumour that they had obtained a high court stay against the social audit did not work. Today a number of them sat at the Block office grumbling and abusing the social audit team in private conversations. Sudeep Singh, the son of Gram Pradhan of Virugadhi, Shukrapal Singh, barged in with a group of his friends, all armed with lathis, while the social audit team was having lunch and even tried to drive them away from the village. However, the social audit team stood their ground and ultimately when he was warned that a FIR could be lodged against him, Sudeep Singh tendered a written apology. The ten social audit teams continued to perform their work although not in the most congenial atmosphere.
In village panchayat Korari Khurd the administration had organized an open meeting of the Gram Sabha today. The District Panchayati Raj Officer came to attend this meeting from Unnao. Coincidently one of the social audit teams happened to be in this panchayat today. It encouraged a few people to speak out about the irregularities in the implementation of NREGS in their panchayat. Sachin s/o Shiv Prasad has been shown to have worked for 38 days in tree plantation work on his Job Card No. 422 whereas in reality he has not worked at all. The Job Card No. 52 of Ram Sewak s/o Jhuri shows 30 days of work whereas Ram Sewak has actually put in 14 days of work only. Durga's Job Card No. 442 shows 14 days of work performed whereas she has worked only for half a day. But when these people tried to present their case, their Job Cards were snatched by the Pradhan's men and they were dragged out of the meeting. All this happened while the DPRO was present and the Gram Pradhan was sitting next to him in the open meeting.
Today some villagers from Makhbool Kheda approached the temporary office of the social audit set up at the Block office to register their complaints. Sheetla s/o Jagannath presented his Job Card which reflects total work of 42 days. The Job Card of Matadin s/o Joddha shows 74 days of work. In reality both of them have not even worked for a single day. Shaym Lal s/o Haridas has been shown to have worked on a pond deepening work for 7 days whereas in reality he worked only for two and a half days.
In village panchayat Aaseewan Lok Man a number of people have been shown to have worked for 8 days on a drain digging work. However, Shankar s/o Neelkanth, Shivdeen s/o Chote Lal, Chote Lal s/o Deena, Ramrati w/o Shankar, etc., people whose names appear on the muster roll testified that they have not worked for a single day on this particular work.
It must be realized that exaggeration of number of days of a worker on the muster roll not only means embezzlement of funds but also reduction of number of exaggerated days from the 100 days of legal guarantee of employment under the NREGA, 2005. This irregularity ought to be treated as a violation of the law.
Fifth day's write-up
Using a stay order given by the High Court on a petition moved by Smt. Kusuma Singh, President of Gram Pradhan Sangha, Miyanganj Block in District Unnao against a letter written by the Block Development Officer on 13/5/2008, requesting the Gram Pradhans to make available all records and documents to facilitate the social audit by a group of citizens, a rumor has been circulating in the area that Gram Pradhans have got a stay on the social audit itself.
However, the group of citizens is conducting the social audit as part of the right flowing from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005. The documents pertaining to the NREGS were already obtained for the social audit purpose under the Right to Information Act 2005 earlier. This audit is independent of any instructions to the Gram Pradhans or permission of the BDO. The social audit can be carried out without the cooperation of Gram Pradhans by contacting the labourers directly and inspecting the work sites. Hence, the social audit in Miyaganj continues on its third day as a legal right of the people outside the purview of contempt of the stay order obtained by Pradhans on the letter written to them by the BDO.
The Pradhans are comtemplating moving the court again for contempt against the people still carrying out the social audit. It is unfortunate that the elected representatives do not wish to honour the sentiments of a national law meant to ensure transparency and accountability and want to stall the process aiming to establish such ideals.
Today in the morning the social audit was prevented by goons of the Gram Pradhans armed with lathis, some of them drunk, in four gram panchayats - Sindhari Khurd, Maqdoompur Shah Shafi, Mustafabad, and Deepa Gadi. Later in the day the obstruction gave away and social audit was resumed.
At the Block office in the presence of BDO a meeting was conducted between the group of citizens conducting the social audit and the Gram Pradhans. During this meeting clarification was given to the gram pradhans that the objective of Social Audit was not to target them but ensure proper implementation of NREGS. The right of the people in a democracy is supreme. The process of social audit was to ensure that people exercised their democratic right and in the process democracy was strengthened. Most gram pradhans, albeit reluctantly, agreed to respect the right of the people and offered their full co-operation to the social audit process.
Sixth day's write-up
During the process of social audit of NREGS in Miyaganj block of Unnao District, the atmosphere of uncertainty which prevailed till yesterday where the Gram Pradhans were trying to stall the social audit by any means ended today. Yesterday's dialogue between the citizen's group conducting the audit and the Gram Pradhan Sangh averted the conflict. The social audit resumed under with the apprehension in the minds of Pradhans disappearing.
Today the task of social audit was accomplished surprisingly peaceful atmosphere in village panchayats Himmat Kheda, Ahara Dadiya, Parenda, Miyaganj, Salempur, Makdumpur Shah, Mahendra, Nauhai Buzurg, Pathakpur and Purava. The Gram Pradhans who were bent upon obstructing the social audit till yesterday were seem to be cooperating in the process of social audit today. In spite of the controversial stay order of the high court on a letter written by the BDO requesting the Pradhans to cooperate in the social audit, the Pradhans decided to give in to the public sentiment and allow the audit to go ahead. This should be considered a victory for democracy and the people.
In Puran Kheda hamlet of Himmat Kheda village panchayat there was discrepancy found in work shown on muster roll and reality. The temporary road shown to have been built from the school to the field of Durga Maurya has dimensions 1350 ft. length, 20 ft. width and 3 ft. height. In reality the road is only 560 ft. long, 20 ft. wide with an average height of 1 ft. Gaya Prasad s/o Ram Shankar has been shown to have worked on Veer Baba pond and tree plantation work for eleven days each whereas he has not worked for a single day on either of the work. His total workdays on Muster Rolls have been shown as 64 where he has worked for 16 days in reality.
In Nauhai Buzurg the labourers first admitted that there was discrepancy between the records and reality but when they were threatened by the goons of Gram Pradhan they retracted. However, some of the workers stood their ground. Munna s/o Jia Lal has been shown to have worked on a link road for 14 days on his Job Card whereas in reality he has worked for only six days. Similarly on tree plantation work his Job Card shows 12 days of work whereas in reality he has worked only for 2 days.
Except for some minor incidents today the audit was smooth and people are coming out to speak more openly about the discrepancies in their respective village panchayats.
Seventh day's write-up
The social audit team completed its seventh day of audit despite being a stormy and rainy day in the areas. Rain cleared the sky, so did the process of social audit by uncovering the realities in the implementation of NREGS. Today gram pradhans cooperated fully in the audit, nevertheless at some places the 'cooperation' became hindrance and it affected the audit process as well. The gram pradhans are commendable for their constructive role and has helped in strengthening the democratic process. The audit was completed by the audit team in the gram panchayats of Arairr Kalaa, Mahendra, Shirsh Kanhar, Mawai Brahmnaan, Tajpur, Amethan Gadhi, Miyaganj, Sarai Chandan, Lag Lesaraa, and Kotraa.
The villagers narrated the sufferings in the implementation of NREGS to the audit team as soon as it arrived. The laborers of panchayats - ShirshKanhar, VawaiBrahmnan and Tajpur complained that they have to pay for the photo which is already prepaid by the NREGS. Ramchandra son of Paggal of Miyaganj panchayat is shown in the records to have worked for 71 days whereas he has worked and was paid for only 8 days. His site of work is shown in the records as connecting road construction and planting but the audit team found not even a trace of such developmental work.
When audit team reached Muzaffarpur Sarra the representative of gram prahdan participated was presenet throughout the audit process, however it generated apprehension among the villagers. Only 5 job cards were presented to verify by the team from a count of 487. It was obvious to the team that the villagers were afraid to tell the truth in the presence of the representative of the pradhan. When the team decided to look for the pradhan, they were informed that he is gone to open accounts for the laborers. Similarly in Saramba the audit team were refrained from verifying any job cards and were informed that the padhan is holding all the job cards. Similarly, in Mahendra village panchayat the plantation work shown in records do not even exist on ground.
As the rains after heavy storm cleared the sky, villagers of Miyanganj block are hopeful for the positive changes in near future. The social audit team is able to complete the seventh day successfully with the help of public support and awareness.