Friday, August 20, 2010
Today the buzzword that is doing the rounds of circles of legislation, policy and regulation in our country is Accountability. This sudden focus on accountability can best be described as the outcome of two factors (1) the evolution of a relatively active civil society in India and its calls for action against the corruption that has always characterized policies and programs in our country (a program that has been supported significantly by the resurgent Indian media despite its many faults) and (2) international pressure (a) to incorporate good governance into administration in India as a precondition for funding or joint engagements and (b) manifested in the form of the need to present India as a place that is easy to do business in; to attract foreign players, clients and investors who are absolutely critical for our country in today’s Globalized market led economy. Thus in their implementation of massive schemes involving many hundred crores of rupees, covering wide swathes of territory and encompassing millions of people whose lives they are supposed to impact (examples being Social Security Plan, MGNREGS, RSBY, JNNURM etc) governments have been forced to incorporate structures and frameworks to ensure accountability. This does not mean that corruption has come to an end in these schemes. Massive amounts of corruption still continue and huge leakages continue to happen but at least to an extent the civil society critics have been quietened and international organizations and foreign governments are satisfied that the Indian state is serious about tackling corruption and ensuring accountability in governance.
This brings us to the question. If corruption is still going on what has been achieved? If the purpose of these frameworks is only appeasement and to act as pressure valves why focus so much on these frameworks as role models? The answer to this question lies in the fact that though these frameworks; in the ways they were evolved have numerous loopholes that facilitate corruption to go on unhindered, they have acted, in numerous cases, as pedestals for further developments that have significantly gone ahead to ensure transparency and accountability in these programs. Take for example MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) and how it has been implemented in Andhra Pradesh. Despite having a significantly better system of ensuring audits and accountability than other states Andhra Pradesh, often hailed as one of the states where MGNREGA has been implemented best was still hit by a scam involving grassroots level workers for MGNREGA who stole crores of rupees.
The solution the state implemented subsequently was an innovative mix of policy prioritizing accompanied by private involvement. They introduced a smart card based system for MGNREGA wage payments.It is understood that at the heart of any system of accountability lies the process of specifying a set of responsibilities, clearly recording activities of participants, cross verifying information and records and holding concerned individuals accountable if there are breaches in performance. What the smart card technology that has been implemented in Andhra Pradesh has ensured is the facilitation of these very tasks. First of all, the use of smart cards has ensured that every transaction is recorded accurately including the time, place and amount. To begin with, in the earlier system of MGNREGA cross verification and auditing it was extremely time consuming to process the long trail of paper data. It involved meeting a beneficiary and finding out how many days they worked in a particular project and how much money they received.
With the smart card system and the electronic records that are generated during its usage the process of cross verification of data has become much less cumbersome. Not only has the smart card based system of NREGA payments made accurate record keeping possible at multiple points (thereby facilitating cross verification) It has also helped address the problems associated with fake signatures and helped clarify on entitlements of people (as money cannot be transferred without accessing an individual’s card and confirming ownership by matching against biometrics data stored on that card)
Another equally important feature that this system has facilitated is that it has helped remove the control of information from the hands of those who indulge in corruption. It was a trend with the earlier system of payments that to access paper records auditors would have to approach precisely those who fudged them, and naturally they would resist making it difficult to monitor their activities. Officials were more willing to part with their lives than part with their papers. By taking information out of their control, it has been made more difficult for them to resist providing information or doing damage control with records when they sense trouble as records of payments are also available in the hands of the Business Correspondents and banks.
Technology has thus reduced the costs of cross-verification dramatically and significantly altered the terrain of the politics of accountability. In partnership with RTI (Right to Information) which ensures that information is easily, quickly and cheaply accessible to those who wish to ensure accountability; effective inroads are being made to combat corruption and leakage. The ready availability of information; facilitated by technological innovation and partnered implementation; has thus given a ready fillip to civil society’s quest to ensure transparency and accountability in financial aspects of programs and policies in India.