On October 6th, Mint reported on CAG's move to extend its oversight role on Public Private Partnership [PPP], referring to a comment from a senior government officer, who didn't wish to be named. Four days later, The Times of India reported that CAG seeks change in law, wants CBI like powers, quoting heavily from a theme paper circulated to auditor generals ahead of the Accountant Generals' [AG] conference.

The AG Conference is usually a biennial affair, but this time they were meeting after three years since they met in September 2005. A dedicated website was designed where four theme papers, videos and texts of speeches and official press briefing as well as videos of group discussions were uploaded.

Demanding more teeth, CAG/CIC conflict

A theme paper Auditing for Good Governance: Oversight and Insight penned by P K Kataria and Subir Mallick discussed in detail the need of granting CAG wider powers for access to information and reporting for strengthening its watchdog role. It reported that "While section 18 of the CAG (Duties, Powers and Conditions of services) Act 1971 provides access to the records and accounts and empowers Audit to inspect any offices of accounts under the state or central government, it doesn't provide any enforcement powers to CAG to ensure compliance by auditee to his request for information within a reasonable time".

The CIC questioned the very jurisdiction of CAG, responding to the request made by the latter in June to initiate a performance audit of CIC in fulfilling the objectives of RTI.

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This not only becomes a limiting factor, it is also not in consonance with powers granted to Supreme Audit Institutions [SAI] of other prominent democracies in the world. In fact it shall be regarded as irony that a recently constituted statutory body Central Information Commission [CIC] that ensures people's right to information enjoys powers of the civil court to summon and enforce attendance of person/s, collect oral or written evidence on oath or on affidavit and impose penalties, if need be; while audit officers of Indian Accounts and Audit Department [IAAD] can't enforce right to access accounts.

Such a comparison becomes all the more ironic in the backdrop CIC questioning the very jurisdiction of CAG, responding to the request made by the latter in June to initiate a performance audit of CIC in fulfilling the objectives of RTI. The Times of India news story has viewed such a response as CIC trying to portray itself as an extension of judiciary and trying to evade an oversight arguing that it is "an autonomous entity and the orders passed by it are final and binding, subject to scrutiny on by a way of writ".

However, an informed glance at performance audits carried out by CAG reveals that one of the area has indeed been to evaluate the implementation of Acts - Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, Persons With Disability Act, Abolition of Manual Scavenging Act, etc.

Environment Audit: Still in future tense?

While its mandate over regulatory bodies and public private partnership has indeed been a matter of discussions, it's a little disheartening that fifteen years after International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions' (INTOSAI) Working Group on Environment Audit carried out first survey on environment audit, the Indian Accounts and Audit Department (IAAD) fraternity would still flaunt this as a Greenfield area and speak about it in future tense. Such a view was reflected in the theme paper Auditing for Good Governance: Facilitating Foresight and was also reported by mainstream newspapers following the reiteration of the same at a press conference addressed by Deputy CAG Bharati Prasad on the eve of the conference.

Since 1993, INTOSAI has carried out five surveys. Also, from 1993 onwards, a year after INTOSAI constituted a Working Group on Environmental Auditing, working group has carried out survey on environmental audit at an interval of every three years. Surveys are sent to heads of all Supreme Audit Institutions. Surveys are instrumental in the development of each WGEA work plan and serve the needs of INTOSAI members. The practitioners of environmental auditing can use the results of the survey to compare their work to that of other countries.

For SAIs that are new to environmental auditing or that do not conduct environmental audits as a common practice, survey results demonstrate that auditing environmental issues is important and that they can learn from colleagues who have made a difference in their countries. Survey results also show the international environmental community, which is concerned about environmental and sustainable issues, that SAIs play an important role.

However, when one examines the results, one finds that India didn't respond to first three surveys. It responded to the fourth survey in 2003 and fifth survey in 2006, and had sent in the much-delayed response to the questionnaire of the first survey while responding to the fourth survey.

Today, INTOSAI Working Group on Environmental Audit web site lists 18 audit references as "environmental audits" carried out by CAG of India till 2006. There have been a few more insightful environment audits from recent times not listed on that website, but available in public domain. For example, CAG carried out the performance review of centrally supported programme for conservation of flagship wildlife species (tiger parks), environment management at Mumbai Port Trust, etc.

However, one often finds that Ministry of Environment and Forests fails to strengthen environmental governance learning lessons from audit findings. Last year, CAG audit reported on the environment management of Mumbai Port Trust and the report had shown in details how there was a need to strengthen the environmental clearance process emanating from EIA notification 1994. On the contrary, MoEF went ahead with its moves to amend the EIA Notification, which has further weakened the environmental clearance process.

As K G Balkrishnan, the Chief Justice of India speaking at the conference on October 15th, correctly pointed out in his speech, in recent times we have witnessed CAG audit reports being cited frequently by media, academia and civil society. However, when it comes to IAAD fraternity engaging in debating issues such as its numerous environmental audit reports not leading to desired change in environmental governance in public domain, there is precious little that is visible.

A theme paper Auditing for Good Governance: Facilitating Foresight authored by A K Awasthi and Vani Sriram reported "In the area of environment and climate change, we already have a nodal office (PDA SD) and a nodal training institution for environmental audit (Regional Training Institute, Mumbai)".

Oversight to Public Private Partnerships

The same paper reported some progress made on CAG extending its oversight to PPP projects stating, "The CAG has already constituted a committee under the chairmanship of ADAI (RC) and ADAI (RS-II) for formulating audit guidelines for this area." CAG also wants to extend its oversight to state/district level autonomous bodies, societies and non-governmental organizations who have been receiving substantial funds [Rs.50,000 crores in 2007-'08) to implement central plan schemes without devolving funds through the state government account.

In a recent regulation issued in 2007, NGOs have been included in the expression of 'body' and 'authority' used in the section 14, 15, 19A and 20 of the CAG (DPC) Act, 1971.

Capacity building, forensic audits

The theme paper on capacity issues raised the concern over the SOGE [Section Officer Grade Examination] examination, the need to rethink it as a benchmarking tool, revise the syllabus and reflect upon the success rate, which has remained about 20 per cent. It also pointed out that in almost all offices in IAAD there is a great shortage of data entry operators and considering that Group C cadre which at present contributes very marginally in the audit process may be deployed as Data Entry Operators.

On the issue of training, it suggested refreshing ideas to explore collaborative knowledge sharing by not remaining fixed to issues around SOGE exams and in-house expertise. It said, "There is a debate within the department regarding auditing regulatory bodies. Should RTIs not run programmes on Regulatory Institutions? Should our Audit Officers not be exposed to Regulators Orders and an analysis of such orders?"

One cannot agree less with the need to take such a positive turn after having gone through the issues thrown up by performance audit of Gerusoppa hydropower project over Sharavathi river in Karnataka, Baspa hydropower project in Himachal Pradesh and Gosikhurd irrigation project in Maharashtra. In the events of failures of Central Electricity Authority (CEA) and Central Water Commission (CWC) to ensure checks and balances, citizens can pin hope on CAG audits.

A theme paper Auditing for Good Governance: Oversight and Insight stressed on forensic audits by referring to a recommendation from 'Ethics in Governance' a report by the Second Administrative Reforms Commission headed by Veerappa Moily put out in public domain in January 2007.

However, when one engages with the substantive findings reported in the CAG audit reports one feels that discussions on reforms of audit processes, methodologies and approach has to be preceded by reflecting on why is it that we have not witnessed courts and apex investigating agencies taking note of these findings and initiating suo moto actions in many cases.