Accountable to Legislatures?
Of course, the preparation of the CAGs report is not the end of the matter. In theory, the CAG is but the objective and authoritative referee, the amicus so to say of the Legislature. Accountability to Parliament is what the votaries always pull out as the ultimate argument for retaining the units in the public sector. So, let us follow the story to the next step.
The CAG sends his report to the government and the Legislature. The government has to place it formally on the table of the House, along with an Action Taken Report. There are committees of the Legislature that are charged with the constitutional duty to examine the reports threadbare, to assess what the government and the enterprises have to say in response to the CAGs observations, and to report their conclusions back to the Legislature.
Year after year, the CAG lists the number of reviews and the number of paragraphs in which he had made critical observations that have not been taken up for even pro forma discussion by the relevant committee of the West Bengal Assembly. Several of these reviews and observations that he lists were submitted to the State Government and the Legislature a decade earlier!
The CAGs reports contain another table that tells the tale even better. As we noted above, the Government is duty-bound to place the reports of the CAG on the table of the Legislature. Year after year, the CAG records whether even this elementary requirement has been fulfilled. I reproduce the tables that occur in the Reports for the year ending in March 1999 and the year ending in March 2002. A mere glance will nail the lessons.
Notice, first, the number of years after the closure of a year that the Special Audit Report could be finalised for submission to Government: delays of three to four years are normal! In the case of the Calcutta State Corporation, the CAG was unable to finalise his reports for 1980/81 till September 2000! Next, notice that in case after case, when the CAG inquires why the Government has failed to even place the Report before the Legislature forget taking action on its recommendations, just placing the Report on the table of the House the Government does not care to give even a pro forma explanation. In instance after instance, under the caption, Reasons for delay in placement in Legislature, the CAG helplessly records, Not stated by the Government.
The entry against the Calcutta State Transport Corporation in successive reports deserves reproduction by itself:
Reasons furnished by the Government of West Bengal for not placing the CAGs Special Audit Reports on the Calcutta State Transport Corporation before the Legislature:
1998/99: Adequate printed copies not available for placement
1999/2000: Adequate printed copies not available for placement as stated by Government
2000/01: Adequate printed copies not available for placement as stated by Government
2001/02: The Government has directed the Corporation to print required number of copies of SARs for the years 1980-81 to 1992-93 for laying the same at a time
Year after year the explanation that should really be, what passes for an explanation is that an adequate number of printed copies are not available! The CAG finds this so untenable that he starts adding the words, as stated by Government. By March 2002, the Government is grace personified. It directs the Corporation to have an adequate number of copies printed. Of what? Of reports from 1980/81 up to 1992/93. This in March 2002!
Discussion in the House
To find out what happens to the reports after they have been examined by the relevant committees of the Legislature, I request The Indian Express to request their correspondents in Kolkata to ascertain:
The latest year for which the CAGs Report has been placed in the West Bengal Assembly.
The latest year for which the Public Accounts Committee of the West Bengal Assembly is discussing the Report at present.
Whether anyone has been punished or censured because of any strictures contained in the CAGs reports.
The last occasion that the Assembly discussed a report of the CAG in a structured way.
Santanu Banerjee and Sabyasachi Bandopadhyaya, The Indian Express correspondents, interviewed the Speaker of the Assembly, Hashim Abdul Halim he has served as Speaker of the West Bengal Assembly longer than anyone else, a full 16 years; they interviewed Subrata Mukherjee, the current Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, they interviewed one of the longest serving MLAs of the Opposition, Atish Sinhai of the Congress.
The Report for 2001/02 has been placed in the Assembly, the correspondents report. The Report for 2002/03 is likely to be placed this month. The Public Accounts Committee is considering the Report (Civil) for 1996/97 and also the one for 2000/01. As for someone being brought to account on the basis of any conclusion that the Public Accounts Committee might have reached as a result of anything that the CAG may have observed, both the Speaker and the Chairman of the PAC tell the correspondents that they cannot remember anyone having been punished.
The Speaker is definite: We cannot punish someone on the basis of a PAC report. The Chairman of the PAC says, For 16 years I had been Chairman of the PAC and never have I seen anybody punished though at different times we recommended punishment of various officers. The PAC does not have any powers to punish anybody.
Why is this so?, the correspondents ask. I think it is the lack of seriousness and sincerity on the part of members which is the reason for officials going unscathed, the Chairman explains. This year, the PAC has recommended punishment of a PWD engineer for indulging in irregularities in procuring Bitumen. For all the systemic and persistent irregularities nailed by the CAG year after year, one PWD engineer!
As for the Assembly discussing a report of the CAG in a structured way, the Speaker says that though there is a provision for discussing them, he cannot recall any report ever having been discussed in the Assembly. But he knows why. The reports cannot be discussed till the PAC has gone through them, he says. And once it has gone through them, there is no need to discuss them, he says! Where is the need to debate them? he asks. They (the members of the PAC) do their job so competently that we do not discuss them in the House.
The Congress MLA, Atish Sinhai, has a different perspective. He tells the correspondents, I have tried to discuss the PAC or CAG reports but mentions of them are expunged. Legislative accountability!
(To be concluded)