June 25, 2012

Sikkim: implementing and social-auditing the NREGS

Jan Sunwai at Tinik-Chisupani Gram Panchayat, South Sikkim

“Social Audit is the reality TV of NREGS, it is like Big Boss,” said Mr. Sandeep Tambe, Special Secretary Rural Development, Sikkim, at the recently concluded social audit training in Jorethang held by Society for Social Audit Accountability and Training (SSAAT). Representatives from Assam, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Assam were present, to receive this training to conduct social audits in their own states.

Social Audit as a concept has emerged from the work that the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan has been doing in Rajasthan for over two decades. Social audits and public hearings logically follow in theory and process, from their work on the right to information and the national rural employment guarantee act. With the right to information there is now a regime of transparency in the implementation of the NREGS. A
social audit entails not just examining financial records, but verifying this information from the people who have worked on the NREGS sites and to facilitate monitoring of the entire process (sanction, procurement, measurement and wage dispensation) by the workers themselves. 

The annual budget for the state of Sikkim is 1400 crore, and the NREGA budget of 120 crore is proportionally large and consequently very important to the State. Not only does it ease financial pressure on the state government, but because of the relatively low population it is has the potential to benefit a majority of its citizens. Therefore Sikkim has worked hard in correctly implementing the NREGS and has embraced the Social Audit process and outsourced 
the task of conducting regular social audits to Voluntary Health Association of Sikkim (VHAS), a local NGO.   

Sikkim has a population of six lakh, divided into four districts and just one member of parliament representing it in the Lok Sabha. Gram Panchayats with populations between 2500 to 4000 people have approximately 12-13 NREGS works sanctioned per year. One ward within a gram panchayat, of around 400 families, on average has 3-4 works per year. As part of the audit and training, we looked at two Gram Panchayats, Poclock Denchong and Tinik-Chisupani, each with five constituent wards. 

The process of a social audit includes the following: consolidating information related to the NREGS (or any other welfare scheme) in a format that people understand, proactively sharing this information, holding a Jan Sunwai (public hearing) where all stakeholders are present (including nrega workers, suppliers, government officials and social auditors) and then following up on the decisions taken at the Jan Sunwai. 

The information needed for a social audit process is muster rolls, measurement books, and bills and vouchers. Though these might be accessible in a Gram Panchayat’s office, they have to be made understandable to people at one glance. Thus the social auditor looks at one persons name across muster rolls to ascertain total number of days worked in a year, looks at dates in bills to see when what material was procured, at what rate and for which work site. Once this is done, the next step is to proactively share and verify this information. A hundred percent household visit within a ward is necessary, to check with every name on the muster roll, if indeed they did work as much as the paper claims they did, ask people whether the other people on the muster roll worked or not, whether the material in the measurement book was indeed used at the work site and the on ground status of work site facilities (water, shade, medical aid etc.) To do this, the social auditors must spend time in an area, understanding its local dynamics, and making sure each house is covered to verify this information.

Apart from verifying with job card holders, checking the work sites is also necessary. At the work site, the estimates of the physical dimensions of the work constructed must tally with the measurement book, the quality and quantity of work must be assessed, the material checked against bills and vouchers and the usefulness of the work ascertained. At each stage and interaction (household and worksite visit), it is  important to explain entitlements and the social audit process itself, for it to be understood by people, for them to realize their stake in the process, and to encourage them to come to the Jan Sunwai.

The positives that came forward during the household visits, in the sample of people we spoke to in one ward, were that everyone had a bank account, and everyone received the full daily wage (Rs. 118 at that time, and now Rs. 124) for their work. All NREGS workers had pass books, and received their wages via bank accounts. The State Bank of Sikkim in Jorethang, even opened its bank on Sunday for workers when payments were due. The NREGS works selected and sanctioned were of use to the people. As part of the Chief Ministers housing scheme, the foundation work for these houses (cutting into the mountainside, leveling a base etc.) is being done as part of the NREGS. One of the works we audited was the foundation work of Bir Bhadur Rai, who himself was one of the NREGS workers who laid this foundation. When we inspected the work site, he and other workers were building the rest of the main structure of the house. 

There were several micro issues that came forth as well; none of the job cards had been updated since 2008. The defense of the Gram Rozgar Sevak (GRS) was that now that all payments were made via the bank, the amount was automatically updated in their passbooks. The importance of a job card is that the worker has consolidated information of days worked, on which work site and wages paid.  More important than the payment records, the job card is for a worker to know how many of the hundred days entitlement she has worked, so she can demand more within the year. While amounts were updated in passbooks, they were on average atleast sixty days late. Further, the payment for two to three sets of work, were coming in one go. 

Social Auditor explains his point; Junior Engineer takes notes
The Jan Sunwai is a platform where these issues come forward and it is extremely important to keep an atmosphere free of fear for people to come and speak; for NREGA workers, social auditors, material suppliers and decision making government officials to be present, and the atmosphere can be quite electric. The social auditors present their findings at the Gram Panchayat level, they give a basic statement of the works done and corresponding expenditure. They then present the problems that came forth, and the proof in the mode of muster rolls, expenditure documents etc., and at this stage, the people themselves come forward to testify (on wages received or not, on material signed off on or not). Once the situation plays out, the government official present, should ideally order action, allot responsibilities and a timeline, which can then be followed up by the social auditors and the respective stakeholders themselves.

muster rolls read out

people listening intently
At the Jan Sunwai at Chisupani, certain decisions were taken on the spot, such as for the MATE and not the GRS to take on the responsibility of updating job cards. Further, the concept of pay slips is going to be instituted, to initiate some clarity of the work payments being received. The ward panch was also present, and when it came to light that certain works went ahead without sanction orders, he became immensely angry as a defense mechanism. There was lots of shouting and throwing of papers and bottles of water on his behalf and he had to finally be escorted away. This kind of instinctive reaction, in front of a witnessing public, marks the incident very clearly for what it was; a guilty man cornered. Another issue that came forward during the audit, was that buckets for work sites, regardless of when the work was sanctioned or completed in the ward, were all bought on one day from one store. This basic bucket and mug was presented at the Jan Sunwai and the people there testified that it would not cost more than 250 rupees. Yet the buckets bought in bulk, were each billed for rupees 500. The supplier was present, and very matter of factly said that this difference was his “profit margin.” People ofcourse immediately caught on to this brazen covering up response. While on paper this might all be accurate if audited, when presented in this format to be verified by the people, it was clear to everyone that the bucket was being bought at double its market rate and there was some chink in the procurement process. For material, the Gram Panchayat places orders with a certified list of suppliers. This order and rate is countersigned by the ACF (Assistant Commissioner Forest), the JE (Junior Engineer) and the BDO (Block Development Officer).  When this material is delivered at the work site, is it verified by a material management committee, of 7-9 people consisting of labourers, sarpanch and MATE. When this fact came to light, the BDO questioned the ACF on this inflated cost of purchase, and in doing so publicly, will not only make him more accountable in future, but also force the other co-signatories to be more through in their purchase orders. 

people asked price of buckets and mugs
supplier verifies "margin"
The next step is the follow up. Hands on decisions of onus of updating job cards, issuing pay slips etc. are taken on the spot and effective immediately. Action to be taken on the ACF for the buckets, and systems of inadequate recording measurements of output have a longer timeline. At the state policy level different issues emerged; that of poor internet connectivity and the consequent inability to update the required MIS (Management Information System; details of muster rolls on the nrega website), and possible inclusion of new works under NREGS such as clearing landslides. At a national policy level, the issue for consideration  related to plantation work under the NREGS; in hill areas, which are already densely forested, it is impossible to correctly measure and monitor the planting and growth of saplings. A foolproof system for its monitoring will have to be devised.

So while social audit process is to be driven by the beneficiaries of schemes, because of potential vested interests at every stage of scheme delivery it is imperative that it  have the backing of the government. The Jan Sunwai is only effective, if facilitated correctly by government officials and if they are present at hand to make decisions and order action, or else people lose faith in this mode of rectification. Yet it is  important that it does not become a hijacked, nominal process (like the unfortunate fate of environment impact assessments). The autonomy of social auditors is crucial. Since this is after all an audit of government funds, there can be no influence or interference from within government. This is no doubt a difficult balance to achieve and sustain, but it is possible, as has been shown by the  Election Commission. The social audit directorate is thus like the election commission; set up by the government, but fully autonomous to ensure thorough and rigorous social audits and jan sunwais. While we have begun to install these directorates in certain States, there is still a long way to go before this idea is accepted, both by people and by government as a legitimate monitoring tool. 

In this oppressive environment of corruption at every stage, from the highest level of spectrum allocation to the lowest level of sourcing buckets, watching the social audit process up close proves unequivocally, once again, that designing, implementing and monitoring welfare schemes for people emerge organically from people themselves. Social Auditors are simply facilitators; in the end the process has to be owned by the people, and once this begins to gradually happen, the mechanism will gather a momentum of its own and delivery systems will self correct.  

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