Public Accounts Committee
The following article by Dr. Himanshu Upadhyay (Azim Premji University) which appeared on 21.6.2015, has a reference to Sunder’s work in the Public Account Committee in the 1970s, which I have highlighted. See: http://indiatogether.org/making-public-audits-count-government
Grateful thanks to Dr Upadhyay for sharing it with us.
We don’t listen to Audit, we just keep lecturing Auditors
This week a friend nudges me to read a report by a civil society organization which has been known for its work on studying and de-mystifying budget documents. It reminded me of my article last year, where I took an umbrage at this tendency of lecturing auditors displayed so spectacularly by legislators. It was the time for yet another biannual conference of Accountants General and PAC chairperson and Finance Minister used the stage to launch a criticism of CAG auditors.
Reporting in Public Interest, a new report penned by Nilachal Acharya, Subrat Das, Trisha Agarwala and Priyanka Samy and published by Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), appears to have been prepared as a discussion document for the same 27th Accountants General Conference in October 2014. It is not known to citizens at large if CBGA was invited by CAG of India to prepare such a document as discussion item. It was definitely an item of casual tea-break conversation as late as February 2015, with someone sharing the information that there exists such a report, adding that one would not know if the report is accessible to public at large. More than six months after, on one fine morning in March 2015, CBGA thought it appropriate to upload the ironically titled report Reporting in Public Interest on its website (http://www.cbgaindia.org/new_publications.php).
The report is divided into two portions. The first part deals with the features of this constitutional institution, its auditing and reporting process and concerns with regarding to reporting of audit findings. The second part presents perceptions of stakeholders based on interviews with selected respondents.
Too Much or Too Little
Last month at a training workshop for civil society activist in Bangalore, this author was asked “why does banking sector remain outside the ambit of CAG audit”. Without going into technicalities, we can understand the implication of the question in the backdrop of malpractices within banking sector that was revealed in a cobrapost sting. However, if the CBGA report (p. 08) is to be believed, “stakeholders” feel that it is due to volume of audit reports being so high that a proper follow up and discussions in PAC is not ensured. CBGA report goes on to state:
“However, we also need to take into account in this context the view that staff supporting the Parliamentary/ Legislative committees, who read the audit reports and support the member of the Committees in comprehending the relevant points made in the reports, might not have adequate capacity to perform their roles effectively. Hence there also needs to be some effort towards enhancing capacity of those officials”
Is CAG of India doing too much auditing or is there too little remains a moot question. We may get a proper answer by revisiting the decade of 1970s and how Public Accounts Committee was responding to growing volume of audit reports. Unfortunately, CBGA report remains conspicuously silent on giving its readers an impression of how the volume of audit work has grown progressively and what processes had been put in place so that PAC can deal with the audit findings. Certain section of civil society loves the phrase, ‘capacity building’ but we need to ask whose capacities are being talked about, when they talk about the staff supporting parliamentary/ legislative committees. Right from mid 1970s, usually IAAS officers are sent on deputation to assist these committees. One also need to understand that CAG of India is often regarded as “friend, philosopher and guide” to Public Accounts Committee and Committee on Public Undertaking and attends all meetings. He/she also can speak up in case his/her guidance is required. Within three years during mid-1970s, PAC had prepared 137 reports on audit findings, when late N. Sunder Rajan assisted PAC in his role as Under Secretary and on subsequent promotion as Deputy Secretary in Lok Sabha secretariat.
Availability of the reports on CAG website
CBGA report also contains an assertion (p. 10) which is only half-true, when it alleges that “In India, the audit reports, which are uploaded on the website of the CAG (once these are laid in parliament/ state legislatures), do not carry the date of their submission (either the date of submission by the CAG or the date of report being laid in parliament/ state legislature)”. The second part of this assertion is definitely false as the date of a specific report being laid in parliament/ state legislature is prominently displayed on the page on CAG website which contains hyperlinks to different chapters of that specific report. Those who do actually care to read CAG audit reports would also remember that the text of the audit findings usually have the last paragraph that mentions when did CAG of India share with audited entity/ ministry Draft Audit Report and usually incorporate replies, if any.
Protracted Engagement with Public sought
CBGA report cites a few consultations with civil society experts, ministry officials and corporates on issues such as environmental auditing and audit of water pollution on a few occasions. Citing positive outcomes of this, CBGA report recommends that “the office of CAG could think of replicating similar exercises of public engagement across a range of government programmes and schemes in the coming years”.
Issues that got missed out
CBGA report has missed out on issues that need urgent attention before the heaven of transparency so eagerly sought by CBGA and other citizen groups can unfold. The first and foremost of these is: how much do the common man and woman, out there on street, know about the decision making processes within CAG? Right from the bi-annual AG conference that took place in 2008, there has been discussion about the IAAS officers and IAAD fraternity seeking the amendment in CAG (Duties, Powers and Condition of Services) Act, 1971. Media also speaks at times about a draft amendment bill, but why has the draft bill remained a document that is not accessible to citizens passionate about public finance and accountability issues?
CBGA report has also failed to display an inward gaze on the continued apathy of citizen groups on acting on audit findings and seeking substantial follow up. Shouldn’t budget analysis and engaging with audit reports have become after years of advocacy, ‘everyone’s business’? This author was once told by someone that “audit reports are gold mines, the sad fact is that people don’t mine them”. Even as I finish reading and reviewing CBGA report, these words ring in my ears. I think, we the people, can’t break away from being accountability challenged so long as we continue to lecture auditors, rather than taking the first step to “listen to them”.
May the tribe of those who listen to CAG auditors grow, you have nothing to lose but a delusion that it requires a MA or PhD in Economics from CESP, JNU to do so!