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Political Economy

As States Enter Election Season, Important CAG Reports Remain Unavailable to the Public

When an elected government fails to present CAG of India’s audit reports in state assembly during its last year in the office, it short circuits the legislative accountability enshrined in India’s constitution.

Over the next month, millions of voters will exercise their democratic rights in four states and one union territory in what are widely being seen as key legislative assembly elections.

Will they have sufficient information available to them regarding the performance of their government, or on matters related to public finance, accountability and auditing before they queue up at polling booths?

One particular facet of this question receives far less attention than it deserves. Specifically: when did these assemblies last witness the presentation of an audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India and which fiscal year did it pertain to?

Such scrutiny becomes all the more important given the systemic slowdown in audit processes within the CAG. In an earlier article last year, we had voiced concerns about Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana assemblies seeking a mandate by going into elections without many CAG audit reports pertaining to their reign entering the public domain. 

When an elected government fails to present CAG of India’s audit reports in state assembly during its last year in the office, it short circuits the legislative accountability enshrined in India’s constitution.

While the Assam and Kerala state governments presented the CAG of India’s Audit reports on State Finances for the fiscal 2018-19 respectively on August 31, 2020 and January 18, 2021, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry assemblies haven’t witnessed the CAG Audit report on State Finances for the fiscal 2018-19 till date. 

The Table on Status of Tabling of Audit Reports suggests that CAG audit reports on ‘State Finances’ for the fiscal year 2018-19 were shared with Tamil Nadu and Puducherry governments on August 18, 2020 and August 20, 2020 respectively.

It has no information on whether the audit report for the year 2018-19 on West Bengal (State Finances) has been shared with the state government or not.

Does this mean that Assam and Kerala have performed well, while the other three states have lagged behind when it comes to ensuring transparency of governance, sharing the audit reports with legislators in timely manner and taking the audit findings for course corrections by taking up discussions through Public Accounts Committee and Committees of Public Undertakings within a reasonable time frame? 

On closer scrutiny, we find that all five assemblies have lagged behind in facilitating citizens’ access to audit findings within a reasonable timeline, since for these states there have usually been four to five audit reports that get prepared every year and enter the public domain without inordinate delay in the following fiscal year. However, given a systemic slowdown in the audit process during the tenure of Rajiv Mehrishi, the blame for such a sorry state of affairs must get apportioned between the CAG of India and ruling governments in these four states and a union territory.  

Last five fiscal years

The table below looks at each state  and see how many audit reports got finalised for each fiscal year and how many of them got tabled in assembly in a timely manner: 

Table 1: Audit Reports pertaining to last three Fiscal Years and their availability in public domain                                        

State Average number of reports tabled per year* Reports available in public domain for 2019-20 Reports available in public domain for 2018-19 Reports available in public domain for 2017-18 Information on CAG Website regarding         ‘Yet to be tabled’ audit reports
Assam 05 00 01 04 No info. available
Kerala  05 00 01 05 No info. available
Tamil Nadu 06 00 00 02 Reg. 4 reports
West Bengal 05 00 00 00 No info. available

*On the basis of the number of audit reports issued by CAG of India for the fiscal years 2014-15 to 2016-17. The calculation for this average number of reports per year excludes any special audit and takes only the regular audits into account.

Source: The table is compiled from the data available on the website of CAG of India (As on 15th March 2021)

Assam and Kerala

On average, between FY’15 to FY’17, the state governments tabled five to six audit reports.

For CAG audit reports pertaining to the fiscal year 2017-18, the Assam and Kerala assembly witnessed presentation of four and five audit reports respectively, with an exception of the audit report on Local Government Institutions, which has not seen the light of the day as of March 15, 2021. 

For the fiscal year 2018-19, only one CAG audit report (i.e. on ‘State Finance’) has entered public domain so far for both these states. The reports on ‘Revenue Receipts’, ‘Public Sector Undertakings’, ‘Local Government Institutions’ as well as ‘General and Social Sector’ are still not in the public domain. The national auditor’s status table is silent on whether these reports have been finalised by the CAG and have been shared with the state governments.

Tamil Nadu

For Tamil Nadu, the CAG issued on an average six audit reports every year between FY 15 to FY 17. Out of the five audit reports pertaining to the fiscal year 2017-18 that were finalised by the national auditor and shared with state government between May 3, 2019 and June 9,2020, Tamil Nadu government presented only two audit reports (namely State Finances and Revenue Sector) on July 20, 2019 and  September 16, 2020 respectively.

While the audit reports on Tamil Nadu on ‘Economic Sector’, ‘PSUs’ as well as ‘General and Social Sector’ were shared with the state government on March 5, 2020, June 9, 2020 and March 10, 2020 respectively, they are yet to be tabled in the state assembly. 

Citizens must ask why Tamil Nadu government failed to table these three audit reports along with the CAG audit report on the ‘Revenue Sector’, which got tabled on September 16, 2020.

For the fiscal year 2018-19, not a single audit report has been tabled in assembly so far, although the CAG of India had shared the audit report on State Finances on August 18, 2020. Since assembly was in session after that and the state govt chose to table another audit report pertaining to fiscal 2017-18 on 16th September 2020, its failure to table this audit report is inexplicable and has already raised an alarm.

The Table on Status of Tabling of Audit Reports is conspicuously silent on the state of other audit reports pertaining to the fiscal 2018-19 and whether they have been finalised by India’s Supreme Audit Institution on time and have been shared with the state government that would seek mandate in assembly election this summer.

West Bengal 

For West Bengal, CAG of India issued on an average five audit reports during fiscal years 2014-15 to 2016-17, with an exception of having issued six audit reports when there was a standalone ‘Performance Audit in Industrial Pollution’. 

The state assembly last witnessed the tabling of a CAG audit report on July 11, 2019, when six audit reports pertaining to the fiscal year 2016-17 got tabled. The West Bengal government has not tabled any audit report thereafter and thus citizens have not been able to read the audit reports pertaining to the fiscal year 2017-18 onwards till date. After the presentation of audit reports pertaining to fiscal year 2014-15 in July 2016, the state government has never ensured presentation of an audit report within 12 months of receiving it from CAG of India. This throws a question towards the opposition parties as well: have they failed to take stock of this collapse of legislative accountability?

A delay in tabling, if the assembly sessions are not taking place can be understood, but there are no legitimate reasons to explain the delay in presenting the reports when the assembly has been in session. And when opposition parties fail to notice collapse of legislative accountability, it doesn’t augur well for democratic life in federal republic.

Puducherry

CAG of India issued on an average two audit reports for Puducherry during fiscal years 2014-15 to 2016-17. Last time when the legislative assembly witnessed presentation of CAG audit reports was on 18th July 2018, when audit reports pertaining to the fiscal 2016-17 got tabled. For the fiscal year 2017-18 and 2018-19, not a single audit report has entered public domain till now. However, the Table on Status of Tabling of Audit Reports tells us that the audit report on finances of this Union Territory for the fiscal year 2017-18 was shared with the government on 20th Aug 2020 for tabling in the assembly.

Understanding delays

Section 19.A.3 of the CAG (Duties, Powers and Conditions of Services) Act, 1971 states: 

“The State Government shall cause every report received by it under sub-section (1) to be laid, as soon as may be after it is received, before the Legislature of the State.”

Thus, while DPC Act does not prescribe a rigid timeline for the tabling of the report, it does say the reports should be laid before the state legislature as soon as may be after it is received. Generally, this has been read as tabling the audit report in the earliest assembly session happening after receiving the report and that has been the set precedent most of the time. 

However, in the past, due to inordinate delays many demanded to amend the CAG (DPC) Act and prescribe a strict timeline for tabling the audit reports, including the former CAG Vinod Rai. Rai during his tenure sent the proposed amendments to the CAG (DPC) Act to the Union Ministry of Finance after making a presentation to Pranab Mukherjee, the then finance minister. These draft amendments included prescribing a time period of seven days for laying the report in the legislature after it is received.

In an ideal scenario, where the audit institution prepares the audit reports within a reasonable cycle and state governments table them in legislatures without an inordinate delay, the citizens of the election going states could have received information (based on the findings of the audit reports) or witnessed public debates about the performance of the state governments in previous years (including the year 2019-20). 

However, in the current scenario of systemic slowdown on part of this very important constitutional institution and the added delays in the presentation on part of the elected state government, we as citizens, are left asking: where are our audit reports?

Himanshu Upadhyaya is an assistant professor at Azim Premji University Bangalore. Abhishek Punetha is an independent researcher and former Girish Sant Memorial Fellow.