In India’s parliamentary accountability system, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India plays an important role. However, while the general public has great faith in the CAG’s role as a watchdog of the state exchequer, ruling governments frequently delay audit reports from being presented in parliament and state legislatures. This undermines the findings of the constitutional audit institution.
An analysis of audit reports being tabled in Parliament shows that between 2014 and 2019, a delay of more than 90 days was experienced for the 42 audit reports for which we have the date of signing and tabling of the reports available.
For several of the reports for which signing dates were available, there was a delay of more than 180 days. Nearly half of these audit reports were performance audits of various government programmes and activities.
In 2014, of the 32 reports presented in parliament, a delay of more than 90 days was experienced in presenting eight audit reports. The next year, of the 31 reports presented in parliament, six were delayed by that period. In 2016, two of the 47 audit reports were delayed by more than 90 days. In 2017, ten audit reports of the 38 presented were delayed.
The trend became even more serious in 2018, the last year of the Modi government’s first term, when the executive delayed presentation of eight of the 17 audit reports presented by more than 90 days. Similarly, in 2019, the executive delayed seven of the 21 reports that were presented by more than 90 days.
When the presentation of a performance audit of a flagship scheme of a government gets delayed considerably, it limits the public debate about those programmes. The reports that were delayed included performace audits on the Agriculture Crop Insurance Scheme and, Integrated Ganga Conservation Mission namely, Namami Gange in 2017, the Pradhan Mantri Swasthya Suraksha Yojana, Post Matric Scholarship Scheme for Scheduled Caste Students, the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme in 2018 and an Assessment of Environmental Impacts due to Mining and its Mitigation in Coal India Limited and its Subsidiaries in 2019.
By deliberately delaying the presentation of audit reports, the government avoids the parliamentary and legislative scrutiny on these reports. Meetings of the Public Accounts Committee and Committee of Public Undertakings can take place only after a specific audit report is presented. There have been instances when the delays appear to be premeditated and calculated since our analysis shows that several reports were not presented in parliament and state legislatures even when those were shared with the government before the start of parliament and legislative assembly sessions.
It is disconcerting that the scrutiny carried out by the CAG auditors often gets to see the light of the day after a considerable lag. The auditing starts after the end of fiscal year. By the time the audit report gets finalised, having given the audited department and ministry reasonable time for filing replies to the Audit Paragraphs, the events and transactions are at least a year or more old.
In a discussion paper titled “Auditing for Good Governance: Oversight and Insight” at a conference in 2008, PK Kataria and Subir Mallik, members of Indian Accounts and Audit Department. stated:
“In one state, a commercial audit report was sent to the government in the first week of January 2008 but the state government failed to present the report in the state legislature during Budget and Monsoon sessions of the Assembly. When the issue was discussed by the Principal Accountant General/ Accountant General concerned with the Chief Secretary, the government told that they needed more time to study the report before it could be placed in the assembly.”
To address this issue, many believe that the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (Duties, Powers and Conditions of Services) Act, 1971, which lays out the framework for how the CAG operates, needs to be amended to prescribe a time limit for tabling of audit reports after the report is received.
Among those who have endorsed this suggestion is former CAG Vinod Rai in 2009. “Rather than rely on the good sense of the government to lay the report ‘as soon as may be after it is received, a time period of seven days be prescribed for laying it after it is received from the CAG,” he wrote in his memoir, Not Just an Accountant.
Eleven years have passed since then. The draft amendment that the department and several senior officers had suggested has kept gathering dust with successive governments.
Himanshu Upadhyaya is an assistant professor at Azim Premji University Bangalore. Abhishek Punetha is an independent researcher and former Girish Sant Memorial Fellow.