Bihar figures at the lowest rung of almost all development indices in the country, and sends a large number of migrant workers to other states. In this context National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) holds a special promise for the rural poor here. However the state has fared poorly in the implementation of the scheme, and there is a lot of criticism about corruption and inability to provide even the most basic entitlements of the Act like the hundred days of work it promises.

Experience from other states like Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh shows that people's involvement is critical in ensuring lower levels of corruption and also better implementation of the law. It is in this direction that large scale collaborative efforts have been made, by the administration and civil society to ensure that social audits (SA) be used as tools to ensure transparency and accountability in NREGA. However in Bihar, such audits - which have been mandated in the law - have been mostly taking place on paper, and the involvement of people has been minimal. In cases where it has been conducted, the efficacy of the audit exercise is questionable, as the basic social audit processes have not been followed.

It was in this context that 23 December 2009, was a special day in the history of NREGA in Bihar, for it was the first time that there was a social audit exercise where the district administration along with a people's organization (Jan Jagaran Abhiyan) organized an SA of NREGA works (2008-09) in Jamua Panchayat of Araria district. While sending out the invites for the SA we found that let alone the administration even members of civil society thought that the SA would not succeed, and may end up in violence.

This fear seemed justified when one hour into the public hearing violence suddenly erupted with the mukhiya's (elected representative of the Gram Panchayat) men brutally attacking a ward member, who was encouraging a local resident to speak honestly about the injustice of receiving lower wages than those recorded in the muster rolls of NREGA works. The ward member Tilkori Choudhary, was beaten up in front of the Block Development Officer and the Circle Inspector. We seemed helpless and the most we could do was try to protect the panelists.

Then the scene changed, as the police brought the situation under control, and what followed is a success story, which we hope will inspire others in Bihar and other under-developed and feudal states to take the SA process forward.

Fake muster rolls, bills and vouchers were the most common ways to siphon money from the NREGA funds. The faults in the records were so glaring that it became obvious that the wrong doers had never braced themselves to face a people's audit exercise. (Above: A list of NREGS works carried out being read publicly.)

 •  Where did our money go?
 •  Social audit of the NREGS

After recovering from the initial chaos of the day, several people came forward to speak. Durganand Mandal, a resident of Khamgadha mandal tola, Jamua said "A tractor was used to build a road in my tola, and the people from my tola who had applied for work were denied work". When the name of Asha Devi figured in the list of top 20 families who had got work under NREGA, people came forward and said that she had never worked on NREGA sites but her family is close to the mukhiya.

Fake muster rolls, bills and vouchers were the most common ways to siphon money from the NREGA funds. The faults in the records were so glaring that it became obvious that the wrong doers had never braced themselves to face a people's audit exercise. For example names of about 50 people were found on the muster roll and investigation showed that these 50 did not even belong to Jamua. Brijlal Das, one of the 50 named in the muster roll came to the hearing and said "I never worked in NREGA projects in Jamua Panchayat yet the muster roll has my name and money was taken out from the post office using a fake signature".

One of the major issues that came up during the hearing was that for the year 2008-09 only 8.6 lakh rupees had been spent in the GP (for 11 works) resulting in 76 per cent of job-card-holding families not getting even one day of work in 2008-09. To Ram Rai, a member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), Rajasthan who was helping in the SA, this came as a surprise, for in his Gram Panchayat back in Rajasthan about Rs.3 crores are spent annually to cater to the labour needs of about 3500 job card holding families. This remarkable contrast between Rajasthan and Bihar may be attributed to the fact that Rajasthan has a history of 10 years of SAs on the ground, much before the NREGA came to life.

The preparations for this day of the SA had started about a week earlier when members of the Jan Jagaran Abhiyan (JJA), a people's organization working in North Bihar, had set up camp at the whitewashed building of the Sanskrit Mahavidyalaya, braced with NREGA work records of the GP for the year 2008-09. The JJA group was part of the social audit exercise initiated by the Araria District administration and its young and active District Magistrate M Sarvanan.

While the administration took the responsibility of providing all relevant information for the SA exercise, the JJA team in its turn collated the information in a form understandable to the people and took it to the village residents, encouraging, persuading, and mobilising them to participate in the social audit process. The result was that at the end of a week's outreach over two thousand residents of Jamua Panchayat attended the final public hearing and deposed in front of a panel consisting of administrative and civil society representatives.

Even during the outreach process threats and abuses were meted out to members of JJA team but they did not lose hope and the successful completion of the public hearing has been a reward for the patience shown by the team, composed of student volunteers, local residents of Jamua and neighbouring areas, karyakartas of the JJA and volunteers from other parts of the country. But the final reward for the team and the local residents for their courage to speak would be that action is taken on erring individuals, people are given work under NREGA, and are not forced to migrate to different parts of the country in search of work.