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Graft unbound

The current ruling dispensation in Assam professes a commendable zero tolerance policy towards graft, but old habits die hard. State Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma recently informed the  Assembly that henceforth MLAs will have to provide utilisation certificates (UCs) of the funds they are given for local area development in their constituencies. Under the MLALAD head, each MLA gets Rs 1 crore every year. According to Sarma, only 60 percent of the MLAs could manage to spend half the money they have so far received under MLALAD. So, the next instalments will be released only if MLAs submit UCs of how they spent 70 percent of the funds they have so far received, the Finance Minister has said. What this means is that MLALAD funds will be released individually to elected representatives who satisfy the UC norm. So, Dispur will apply the same yardstick for fund release to MLAs towards developmental works that the Centre now regularly applies to the State government. Will it help bring about better financial discipline and transparency? Dispur MLA has complained in the House that MLAs are having problems in utilising funds allotted to them because of official corruption. In particular, he has pointed to deputy commissioners’ offices where a section of employees ‘harass’ contractor parties when they come to draw funds. These parties get their funds released only after they grease palms, Atul Bora has said. If such government employees can thumb their noses at MLAs trying to do constructive work with the little funds they get, what hope does the common man have to run this bribery gauntlet? In March this year, a CAG report tabled in the Assembly revealed that UCs of Central grants totalling Rs 14,772.87 crore paid to as many as 53 departments were outstanding from 2001-02 to 2015-16. There were no surprises about the top three laggard departments, namely Welfare of Plain Tribes and Backward Classes, Social Welfare and Panchayat and Rural Development.
The Social Welfare department has been in the news this year with the Chief Minister ordering a vigilance probe into fraudulent purchases running into thousands of crores. But after two former ministers heading this department and some top babus were quizzed by vigilance sleuths, the investigation has bogged down for all practical purposes. This department alone has UCs outstanding to the tune of Rs 1,490.24 crore, the CAG report had pointed out. As for departments and offices of autonomous administrations, the rot has set in so deep that all norms of financial propriety have been thrown to the winds. A case in point is the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), where rampant irregularities have been exposed by a special CAG audit highlighted recently in the media. The very need for this special audit and ground verification by CAG arose because there is no internal audit mechanism in BTC. This in itself is surprising, considering the demand for mega packages running to thousands of crores frequently raised by BTC leaders before the Centre. And what has the CAG audit for the period from 2008-09 to 2013-14 found? A head of account titled ‘Chief’s discretionary expenditure’ was opened, which is the only one of its type in the entire country, and under which amounts spent were sometimes more than the revenue collected. Budget provisions were not prepared separately but bunched all under one head and forwarded to Dispur. Annual accounts were not reconciled, with differences remaining in opening and closing balances. Revenue collected under various heads were not paid immediately into the treasury for inclusion into public accounts, as well as unauthorized use of such funds for departmental expenditures has been detected. Vouchers of expenditure were not submitted, nor proper records kept (sometimes these were tampered with outright). There was lack of specification of articles in supply orders, which allowed suppliers to supply shoddy articles. All this just goes to show that Central and State governments simply cannot go on throwing public money to satisfy the demands of identity politics. There can be no compromise with accountability norms whatsoever.