Tuesday, December 6, 2022

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The online audit of gram panchayats for the first time is expected to ensure transparency. But for its complete success, high speed and uninterrupted connectivity are a must.

By Devender Singh Aswal

Sweet are the uses of adversity Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;  And this our life, exempt from public haunt, Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

—As You Like It

These words of Shakespeare hold good even in these pandemic times. Making good use of adversity, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj (MoPR) has for the first time launched an online audit of 20 percent of the estimated 2.5 lakh gram panchayats in the country for 2019-20. This will be conducted through AuditOnline, an application developed by the Ministry, and is being done to ensure accountability in the utilisation of funds. By 2020-21, the audit will cover all panchayats in the country.

Gram panchayats were endowed with great powers, authority and responsibilities with the enactment of the 73rd Constitution Amendment Act. Substantial funds have devolved to Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) every year, particularly from 2015-16. Following the recommendation of the 14th Finance Commission, Rs 2,00,292.2 crore was transferred to PRIs. Guidelines were also issued on October 8, 2015, by the Ministry of Finance that the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) would audit the release and transfer of the grants-in-aid and conduct audits of the expenditure in selected panchayats and municipalities.

Earlier too, many Finance Commissions had underlined the need for auditing panchayat accounts as the wisdom, fidelity and propriety of expenditure had been a matter of constant concern. The 15th Finance Commission, while recommending allocation of Rs 60,750 crore for 2020-21 to the three tiers of PRIs—district panchayats, block panchayats and gram panchayats—laid emphasis on ensuring timely availability of audited accounts online so as to strengthen their financial management. The first instalment of Rs 30,375 crore has been released to states.

The MoPR has since conceptualised and developed the AuditOnline application, an open-source application, to facilitate online and offline audit of accounts of panchayats in order to bring transparency and accountability in the utilisation of public money.

The accounts of panchayats for 2019-20 have been completed and closed in e-GramSwaraj (simplified work-based accounting application for Panchayati Raj). It was launched along with Swamitva Yojana (to boost the rural economy) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on National Panchayati Raj Diwas on April 24, 2020. Owing to the Online Digital Payment Mechanism, now integrated with eGram­Swaraj, gram panchayats were able to carry out online payments out of the 14th Finance Commission grants. In fact, 1.52 lakh GPs were on the platform and 1.04 lakh have already made online payments.

AuditOnline will have multiple benefits at the click of a button—access to records which can be monitored at the district, state and Union levels, uploading photos of the work done, geo-tagging of projects to facilitate physical inspection and remote verification of the assets so created. It will reduce costs, lead to quicker reviews and sound documentation and be environmentally sustainable.

The timely availability of records was a major issue in the offline system. In the online audit system, auditors will be able to see all documents related to work approval and payments. The implementation of these audits in all programmes and schemes funded out of grants given by the Union Finance Commission, State Finance Commission and under centrally-sponsored schemes will bring in greater transparency and accountability in transactions by PRIs.

AuditOnline software will facilitate online and offline audit of accounts and also maintain past audit records of the auditee. The information would be available in the public domain and for usage by other Panchayat Enterprise Suite applications. It would be fully configurable for both internal/external audit of PRIs, urban local bodies and the Line Department. It will be capable of depicting any type of work flow and seamlessly map engagements between the auditor and the auditee.

Besides, its Dynamic Form Designer allows designing the forms for case record and fact sheet easily, generation and downloading of various graphical reports (in PDF and Excel formats) and monitoring based on customisable report templates. Another significant advantage is that the monitoring authorities would get notified instantaneously via email/SMS/ system-based alerts at various trigger points enabling concurrent analysis, course correction and requisite follow-up and better monitoring.

Despite these benefits, the application is not devoid of initial hurdles and technical glitches. For instance, how will the online audit take off if the books of accounts are not complete, leave aside the issue of high speed and uninterrupted connectivity? It’s only when the money is spent, brought on account and the accounts closed, a pre-requisite for any audit, that the online audit can be undertaken.

States will, therefore, have to expedite the compilation of accounts to facilitate online audit, more so when it is to be scaled up to cover all panchayats in 2020-21.

The policy behind the launch of e-GramSwaraj and Swamitva Scheme was to make panchayats perform efficiently and effectively all the mandated tasks, including increasing the substantial funds devolving to them. It’s imperative to track the fund flow and also monitor the expenditure.

AuditOnline has set out a robust audit architecture in which the State Accountant General, the representative of CAG, shall identify the District Local Fund Auditors (DLFAs) for each district. The entire audit process, starting with identification of the DLFA, audit planning, recording of entry and exit meetings by the auditor, concurrence and approval of the meetings, communication of the draft audit para to the auditee, generation of audit report, review of auditee response and action taken thereon by the auditee, with clear timelines, are all unambiguously outlined.

The audit report shall be provided to the gram panchayat by December 31 every year. The government has rolled out a robust and much-desired architecture which is reconfigurable. In fact, 11 states—Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Telangana, Tripura and Uttarakhand—have provided their configuration details. Other states, assuredly, are in the process of furnishing the details.

Extensive online training and hands- on sessions are being carried out with the states by the MoPR. With the successful operation of AuditOnline, the image of our PRIs—institutions of local self-governments—will be burnished and bolstered with the expanded arch of accountability, encompassing all the tiers of India’s multi-layered democracy.

—The writer is ex-Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha and parliamentary expert and has serviced the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament

Lead Picture: UNI

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