How Indians Use Social Snooping on Government to Jolt the System

A country with 1.3 billion residents is going to take citizen scrutiny of government to a lofty new level. So it is with India. Elections in this feisty democracy are epic undertakings. Social media and consumer choice are game-changers. Less appreciated is India’s revolutionary grassroots push to empower citizens as watchdogs of government services.

Citizen-led “social audits” are generating impact – and unease. A government decision to hand out cash rather than rations for children, pregnant women and lactating mothers in a pilot nutrition program recently ran afoul of social audit findings. A majority of beneficiaries wanted subsidized grains rather than money, the Hindustan Times reports. That discovery prompted government officials to hit the pause button on the cash transfers and seek input from a think tank and the prime minister’s office.

While social monitoring comes in different flavors, the basic approach involves trained and motivated citizens reviewing records and poking around clinics, schools and other scenes of government action – or inaction – to see what’s happening versus what’s supposed to happen. Civil society groups often join the effort, and technical experts may offer help in determining whether regulations, contract terms and specifications are being met. A public encounter with the government officials under scrutiny usually follows, to share the social audit findings, exchange disgruntlements and negotiate a plan to resolve challenges.

Politicians Scramble

Politicians usually run from such scrutiny. Yet in India, some officials are calling for the public to embrace social monitoring approaches. “Social audit not only provides information on how funds are spent but most crucially it enables people’s participation in the planning of developmental activities and also enables mid-course correction as projects and schemes roll on,” Home Minister Rajnath Singh told a meeting of India’s northeastern states in July, according to the Asian Age.

Singh pressed officials in those states to encourage scrutiny of plans to build roads and communication as a way to help young people find more jobs in that region.

“We need to prevent leakages in the system and ensure total transparency and accountability,” Singh insisted, using the plumbing euphemism favored by development gurus to avoid saying thievery. “I urge the chief ministers of all North Eastern states to work towards this end with missionary zeal.”

Many politicians and bureaucrats in India actually seem most zealous in trying to block monitoring of their performance in delivering public services. Indian courts have weighed in against resistance from government, demanding action to comply with the spirit if not the letter of the law. Pioneering activist groups such as Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, which fought for freedom of information legislation for the rural poor in Rajasthan, are still pushing against a tide of reluctance, incompetence and indifference.

Social audits emerged in India in 2005 when the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act included the monitoring tool. While 26 Indian states have launched social audit units, central Indian government guidelines from the Comptroller and Auditor General generally are being ignored, according to transparency advocates Suchi Pande and Rakesh Dubbudu, writing in The Hindu. Weak government response to social audit findings and lack of support from senior officials are the two biggest obstacles to citizen monitoring, their research showed. Yet as social scrutiny gathers steam, Indian bureaucrats may start feeling the heat.