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Social Audit Units

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Social audit units (SAUs) are government-led registered societies that have been issued specific guidelines and standards for their independence. While the SAU guidelines mandate independence, ethics and professionalism in their functioning, are these really working? When the government dictates that saus behave in a particular way, effectively stifling any alternative voices, everyone wants to play safe. Is this situation of curtailed independence, or independence in instalments, a contradiction?

Social audits were first mandated by law in 2005 under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Subsequently, Parliament, the Supreme Court and many central ministries mandated social audits in other areas as well. The National Food Security Act, 2013 and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 also mandate social audits. This is a progressive step taken by the government to ensure transparency at the grass-roots level. Apart from these acts, a few schemes—the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP), Swachh Bharat Mission, as well as the Fourteenth Finance Commission and others—have mandated that social audits be conducted twice a year as well. Recently, juvenile homes have also been covered under the ambit of social audits.

In pursuance of Section 17(1) of the MGNREGA, 2005, the gram sabha is required to conduct regular social audits of all the projects under the scheme taken up within the gram panchayat. The Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), in consultation with the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) notified the MGNREG Audit of Scheme Rules, 2011 under Section 24(1) of the act, which lays down the methodology and principles of conducting social audits.

These rules do say the government may identify or establish an independent organisation to facilitate conduct of the social audit. So, an established society is not mandatory as per these rules. Few states like Sikkim and Tripura do have aSAU which is identified. The act mandated that social audits be conducted twice a year in every gram panchayat. Similarly, theNSAP guidelines issued during 2014 mandated that social audits be conducted twice a year, but the standard operating procedures for initiating social audits came only in 2018 by theMoRD, again after a gap of four years.

In order to follow the provisions of the MGNREGA, bring in more transparency, accountability and involvement of community, theMoRD in consultation with the CAG constituted a task force on 22 June 2015 to look into all spheres of social audits and advise the ministry on making the social audit exercise more effective. The joint task force set up four working groups to give their recommendations. The main points emerging from these recommendations are for action and compliance, which include auditing standards for conducting social audits. The standards were introduced only in 2016 after the rules in 2011, with a gap of five years.

In the meantime, a SAU action plan was circulated to all the states by theMoRD as a result of the compliance audit by the CAG. The social audit action plan fixed July 2016 as the deadline to complete all the minimum requisites, which included setting up of independentsaus that are financially, functionally and administratively independent of the implementing agency.

The above highlights the importance of SAUs as specified in different circulars, orders and auditing standards. The auditing standards talk about independence in terms of nature of the SAU and, in notifying the governing body, selection and appointment, capacity building, finances, transparency and accountability, professionalism, management and skills, planning, reporting, grievances redressal, etc. The Supreme Court record of proceedings (Writ Petition [civil] No 857 of 2015) stated that the absence of social audits being conducted with regard to issues pertaining to the MGNREGA created an urgency for the formation of saus.

The National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj recently conducted a study (2017–18) comparing ground realities of SAUs with the specified standards, and identified key issues that need to be addressed. For the 2016–17 and 2017–18 period (up to November), only 13 SAUs registered grievances and/or detected irregularities. These have identified a significant misappropriation amount of ₹ 281 crore. However, the action taken by the state governments in response to the social audit findings has been extremely poor: only 7% of the money has been recovered and only 14% of the grievances have been redressed. Is this a case of lack of willingness or lack of ownership by the government?

The basic principle argued for here is independent functioning, not only in terms of tangible aspects but also in attitudes, behaviours, and actions indicating professionalism as per the auditing standards. The essence of independence is obtained by cultivating more responsibility and volunteerism, and active involvement in the SAU functioning. It is independence in the midst of delays and contradictions. While such delays and contradictions shield certain sections of society, they have been a major obstacle for those who want to work with a dedicated spirit and an independent mind.

K Anuradha

Odisha

Updated On : 8th Mar, 2019

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