India “social audits” key to fighting corruption

India's "social audits" — which turn welfare recipients into whistle blowers — offer an unheralded cure for the corruption that plagues the country's national jobs and food subsidies programs.

One state has already proven that making welfare distributions in a public forum is effective in fighting graft, as the Guardian reports.

But hardly anybody has taken notice in Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement — which paralyzed the government and preoccupied the media with street protests and hunger strikes over the past six months.

Here's how social audits work:

  • A record of the accounts of the civil works is read out in public in the presence of beneficiaries of the scheme and the alleged perpetrators of corruption.
  • This garners interest in the proceedings, and encourages villagers to question transactions — breaking barriers of social hierarchy.
  • The government takes action against those guilty of siphoning off funds.

This unique effort at accountability helps to ensure good governance.

The sums involved are huge.

The rural development ministry shells out $20 billion a year, about 8 percent of the government's budget. A hefty portion of those funds go to a national jobs program that guarantees at least 100 days of employment at the minimum wage to rural workers — one of the largest programs of this sort in the world.

But the jobs scheme, like the infamous “public distribution system” for subsidized grain, is plagued by corruption — as middlemen keep payments for themselves, or stack the list with ghost workers, or demand a cut of wages in exchange for delivering them.

Virtually every top-down effort to check this gross theft — which targets those least able to afford the loss, and least able to make noise about it — is plagued by corruption.

But as Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh is pushing to make so-called social audits the monitoring system for the major welfare schemes across the country, the state of Andhra Pradesh has already shown they can be effective, the Guardian says.

The Andhra Pradesh model is undoubtedly a success, with more than 3,200 social audits and more than 38,000 disciplinary cases brought against officials involved with the jobs scheme. Hundreds have been suspended or punished. In the past three years, the team has been able to recover almost a quarter of the $24m of irregularities detected.

For the first time, perhaps, there may actually be a working scheme to fight corruption — and it doesn't hinge on the good will of politicians, or even the mobilization of voters.

Attention: Anna Hazare.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.