By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Kung-Fu Adventure : How I Entered The 36th Chamber Of Audit

Contrary to the expectations of some of my close friends, who were convinced that my column 'India of C-A-G' couldn't last long without becoming extremely tedious to write and read, it became as entertaining as it was profoundly insightful, thanks mainly to the absolute freedom of expresssion, style and presentation which the Editor, Mr. N. Ravi, had given me. The articles on tobacco exports, which I posted recently, clearly showed how exciting my recollectiions and reflections could become.  And here's another excellent example of how unlimited my boundaries were :-

Glossary & annotations

States  --  There were 26 States in India at the time of this story (now there are 29, due to subsequent partitions).

Lok Sabha  --  Lower House of Indian Parliament (in India's prime language Hindi, Lok = people ;  Sabha = assembly).

Madras  --  South Indian metropolis, capital of Tamil Nadu State (and my own home city!).


11 December 1996

India of C-A-G

The 36th Chamber of Audit

Two years have passed since this column was started, and more than sixty articles have appeared so far.  Some of them described the functions of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India, as well as the nature, scope, attitudes, environment and quality of Government audit in India, but most of the articles were devoted to disseminating the contents of the CAG's Audit Reports.

Regular readers of this column  must be wondering where exactly the Audit Reports are leading.  Are they having any perceptible and positive impact on the Central and State Governments?

Are the institutions responsible for following up the CAG's reports under the Constitution -- the Public Accounts Committees (PACs) and the Committees on Public Undertakings (COPUs) of Parliament and the State Legislatures -- doing a useful job?  This is a problem with which the CAG has been wrestling for 50 years, and a proper solution still seems to be as elusive as ever!

And that reminds me forcefully of the Shakdher Committee, which had gone into the related issues on the States side a few years ago.  I happened to be the Member-Secretary of that panel, which had been appointed by the CAG.  But before I explain the background of the Commitee, I must recall the memory of a certain young exponent of the ancient Chinese martial art Kung-Fu.

Crusade against tyranny

In the Chinese film 'The 36th Chamber of Shaolin', which ran to full houses in several Indian cities 15 years ago, the hero is a handsome young boy who grows up in the terrible and repressive regime of a merciless tyrant in ancient China, and resolves to fight the oppressor effectively.  Now there is a sequestered monastery called Shaolin, where the finest masters of Kung-Fu live and teach.  But they teach solely for the sake of keeping the art alive, and an inflexible tradition does not allow any master or disciple ever to leave the premises and practice it outside.

The boy decides to learn Kung-Fu, and smuggles himself into Shaolin by hiding in a cart carrying provisions.  He makes a good impression on the elders, who take him in as a monk and accept him as an apprentice.

The monastery has 35 chambers specializing in different aspects of the martial techniques, ranging from the physical to the spititual.  Our hero proves to be the best disciple ever to have been taught there, and very soon masters all aspects of the art comprehensively.
In a decisive final test, held in front of all the elders, he bows humbly before his chief master asking for forgiveness, and proceeds to defeat him in a spectacular demonstration of skill and power. 

So impressed is the doyen of Shaolin that he not only nominates the boy on the spot as a teacher, but directs him to choose any one of the 35 chambers, which would be his for the asking.

However, our hero humbly asks for the 36th chamber.  "But it does not exist, my son!" says the puzzled doyen.  "Yes, master, it does -- outside Shaolin," replies the boy.  He proceeds to reveal the true reason for learning Kung-Fu, and pleads for a chance to fight the tyrant and end the oppression.

The supreme monk is so impressed by the boy's earnestness that he breaks the rigid tradition by ostensibly expelling him from Shaolin but implicitly permitting him to leave the monastery, practice the martial art outside and accomplish his mission -- which, of course, he does in a triumphant climax.

Tyranny of indifference

Well, by now the reader must be wondering what all this has got to do with the CAG of India and his Audit reports.  Let me explain!

I spent the final years of my civil service in the CAG's Headquarters office in the Capital, and during that period I was supervising the work relating to the production and editing of the CAG's Audit Reports concerning all the States.

One of the very old and vexing issues we were grappling with was the abysmally poor response of all the State Governments to the CAG's reports, and the extremely lethargic manner in which the Public Accounts Committees (PACs) and the Committees on Public Undertakings (COPUs) in all State Legislatures were functioning. 

The contents of the Audit Reports were voluminous, and the PACs and COPUs could hope to keep their work current only if they could adopt a very selective approach in holding detailed discussions, as was done at the Center.  But in the States they were adopting a very rigid approach, trying to discuss all the material, so that several past years' work had accumulated into a formidable backlog, becoming a heavy and permanent burden.

So much so that in 1992 many of the State PACs and COPUs were still trying to discuss the contents of the CAG's reports relating to 1984-85 and 1983-84.  In West Bengal they were still debating the issues raised in the 1981-82 report!  And the current year's reports invariably got placed at the end of the long pipeline, to await disposal several years later. 
Mr. C.G. Somiah, who was the CAG then, felt extremely concerned about this state of affairs, and wanted to do something to improve the situation.  So all through 1991-92 the Accountant-Generals in all the States went far out of their way, meeting the Governors, Chief Secretaries, Finance and other Secretaries, Chairmen of PACs and COPUs, and Speakers of the State Legislatures, and pleading with them to improve the situation.  But all those extraordinary efforts were leading nowhere, and the fossilized system was just not responding to any stimulus we could think of.

By mid-1992, I had reached the conclusion that nothing more could be done by the Accountant-Generals without sacrificing their own dignity, which would be counter-productive anyway.  So I suggested to the CAG that we should call off the special drive and let things take their own course.

I recorded my views in a note, strongly stressing the fact that it was not really the job of the Audit Department to activate the Governments, PACs and COPUs, and that only some forceful extra-mural influence -- like the conferences of PAC and COPU Chairmen annd those of the Speakers -- might have any positive impact on this totally negative environment.

Enter 'The Author'

It was in this extremely distressing context that Mr. Somiah thought of appointing a committee, to be headed by an exceptionally influential person, to take stock of the whole muddle and try to alter the environment.

"Ramakrishna, you wanted someone to take some extra-mural initiative,"  he told me.  "So let us organize it now.  I shall nominate you as Member-Secretary of a Committee.  Let us find a proper Chairman.  You can retain the office facilities here, but you can go out and do something!" 

And that is how, after serving the Indian Audit and Accounts Department for 35 years, I had a chance to go out and try to influence the outside environment in the 36th year, in what I like to think of as the 36th Chamber of Audit.

Anyway, I did find the father figure in the Committee's Chairman, who was none other than Mr. S.L. Shakdher, the former Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha and former Chief Election Commissioner.

If you are now in a mind to ask whether the Committee altered the environment and killed the tyranny of indifference and lethargy, the honest answer must be no, it certainly did not. 

But I do think its efforts were worthwhile in a way, for in a conference in Madras in 1993 the Speakers of Parliament and all State Legislatures unanimously endorsed the Committee's recommendations 'in toto'.  It was Mr. Shakdher's towering image as a Parliamentarian (and author of the standard reference book on Indian Parliamentary practices) which brought about such a firm resolution. . . ..

           (This scenario and the sequel were amplified
                    in several essays which followed) 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Concerns And Constraints Of CAG's Colossal Audit Mission

Here's the second of the twin seminal essays I wrote as an overture to my column 'India of C-A-G' in THE HINDU towards the end of the 20th century. 

The published text contained some detailed information on the specific scope and processes of the CAG's audit, which I am skipping here (. . . . . . ), occasionally adding a phrase in square brakets for continuity :-

Glossary & annotations

C-A-G  -- Comptroller and Auditor-General of India, a Constitutional authority.

British regime/Raj  --  Political set-up in colonial India, from late 19th century to 1947.   In Hindi, 'Raj' means (among other things) 'Rule' in a political sense.

Presidency  --  This should have read 'Province'.  (Please see PostScript below).

'Dak' pad  -- 'Dak' means 'mail' in Hindi. 

Peon  --   In colonial India, unskilled helpers in Government offices were called 'peons', an expression of Spanish origin.  In independent India, they are technically designated as 'Class IV employees' and are popularly known  as 'messengers'.

Rs. 325 crores  --  Rs. = Rupees.  One crore = 1,00.00,000  [10 million].  One US Dollar = about 65 Rupees.  So,  Rs. 325 crores =  about US $ 50 million.

Business Review

17 November 1995

India of C-A-G
The mills of the C-A-G

"Although the mills of God grind slowly, they grind exceeding fine . . ."

I always recall those famous lines from Longfellow's poem Retribution whenever I reflect on the colossal organization of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India and its wide-ranging and far-reaching activities.

The main function of the CAG under the Constitution and an Act of Parliament is to audit the transactions of the Central and State Governments, and those of the autonomous bodies substantially funded by them, as well as their public-sector undertakings.  He has also certain accounting and entitlements regulation functions. 

Before India became independent, the Auditor-General -- as he was called in the British regime -- was not answerable to the People of India, and his loyalty was to the British rulers.  His job was only to find out what, if anything, was going wrong in the Government's day-to-day financial affairs, which were not very complicated.

Government audit accordingly was a relatively simple matter those days, and it continued to be so well into the 1950s . . .[and was mainly concered with routine checks of expenditure on establishment and public works]. 

Expanding horizons

As the activities of the Central and State Governments grew rapidly in independent India, their expenditure expanded spectacularly.  Various schemes began to be conceived and implemented under the Five-Year Plans for the welfare the people -- to generate higher levels of employment, ameliorate education, modernize roads and highways, improve irrigation, agricultural practices, health services, etc., provide subsidies for industrial development or export promotion, and so on.

In course of time, the concept of efficiency-cum-performance-audit (ECPA) -- now known as value-for-money-audit (VFMA) -- was developed, looking beyond regularity and propriety, and judging the effectiveness of Government activity, not only in respect of large schemes but also in the context of individual transactions of very large magnitude and the overall performance of specific offices, organizations or departments.

From the early Seventies onwards, this kind of investigative expenditure audit became a constant preoccupation of the CAG.  But that was not all, for his horizons were expanding on all sides.  On a different plane, Audit had also started checking the receipts of the Government.  Here too, the audit perspective widened as the receipts were progressively enlarged ;  thus. not only were the actual tax collections checked against the dues, but the efficiency and soundness of the operations and systems also began to be reviewed.  On yet another plane, the CAG started auditing the transactions of the public-sector enterprises, superimposing his own scrutiny on the usual verification of accounts by Chartered Accountants ;  and this too is a well-established audit practice now. . . . . .

Then and now

In the good old days of the British Raj, when the concerns of Audit were far less, the Auditor-General and his senior officers in the filed apparently used to lead a very leisurely life.  It was even said (and believed) that a certain Accountant-General of a Presidency, who was an Englishman, would arrive in his office on horseback, and would glance through a thin 'dak' pad handed over to him by his secretary or peon while he was still astride the horse near the gate.  Maybe he would also sign a couple of letters sometimes without dismounting, and then he would ride away back home or on to the golf course!  But today the volume of audit activity is so great that it has been found necessary to have two, three or even more Accountant-Generals in almost all the States [earnestly working full-time] . . . . . . 
Considerable preliminary research is usually undertaken before commencing the Statewide and countrywide reviews of important schemes.  Where the Government of India extends financial assistance to the various State Governments to implement Centrally sponsored schemes, the concerned audit officers in the Capital undertake pilot studies and prepare suitable guidelines for audit which the audit officers in the States broadly follow, subject to their own initiatives and innovations which are encouraged.  The results of such investigations and further research in the field are consolidated in the CAG's Audit Reports on the Central Government, and are also featured in his Audit Reports on the respective States . . . . . .
On an average, the CAG issues about a hundred Audit Reports every year.  On the Central side, there are about two or three volumes of what is called the Civil Audit Report, and also separate Audit Reports on the Railways, Defence Services, Posts and Telecommunications, receipts, public-sector undertakings and autonomous bodies . . . . . .   There is an Audit Report on each of the 25 States every year, and in most States there are separate Reports on receipts and PSUs as well. 

During 1992-93, the various field officers totally inspected about 35,000 units spread all over the country on the Central side, and about 52,000 units on the States side.  During the same period, the number of vouchers and other records checked in the field offices themselves amounted to more than six million in the case of the Center and nearly 13 million in the States.

The CAG's organization (the Indian Audit and Accounts Department) has a network of . . . .  [about a hundred offices, not counting their branches . . . .  The staff strength is about 60,000 persons, and the annual budget is over Rs. 325 crores, or about US $ 50 million].

The time factor

It is often said by senior officers of the Central and State Governments that the CAGs Audit Reports tend to raise issues which are so old that they are not worth pursuing. There may be a small grain of truth in this assumption, but it is generally not valid. 

Often it is very difficult for audit officers to gain access to all relevant information, because they encounter considerable all along the way ;   it is inevitable that there should be a generous lead time for converting impressions into conclusions, especially for ascertaiing the views of the Government, which is vitally important in a precedural as well as ethical sense.   Moreover, when schemes running for several years are reviewed, some issues relating to several preceding years are bound to figure in the Audit Reports.  Such instances are often cited as cases of delayed reporting, which is very misleading.   
It is true that sometimes there are undue delays in the preparation of Audit Reports by the CAG and their printing by the State Governments.  There is certainly scope for accelerating things all round, and the CAG constantly strives to do so.  However, his performance cannot be said to be slack in the long run.  The quest for achieving better quality of audit and improving the audit officers' sensitivity too the Executives's genune constraints and compulsions is also a continuing objective of the CAG. 

The really serious delays, which ought to create far greater concern,  tend to occur in the pursuing of the Audit Reports by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Committee on Public Undrtakings (COPU) of the Legislature in most States.

We shall examine later the diverse aspects of the facts mentioned here.  Meanwhile, one might well declare, paraphrasing Longfellow's celebrated lines quoted in the beginning :  "Although the mills of the CAG of India grind and roll rather slowly, yet they grind exceeding fine, and they roll none too badly . . ."

PostScript, 2017

Presidency, Province, and Puerto Rico

From my schooldays in British India more than 60 years ago, I've been under the honest impression that the colonial set-up just before India became independent in 1947 had consisted of four vast Presidencies (Delhi. Bombay, Calcutta and Madras).  

But only this morning, checking the British background in Wikipedia before annotating the expression 'Presidency' in this blog, I made the shocking discovery that it was in the earlier days of the East India Company's administration that Presidencies had figured, there were seven of them and not four, and there was no Delhi Presidency at all ;  and that under the British Government's rule from 1857 the major administrative units were called Provinces and not Presidencies.  So how did I ever gain the impression that my father was an Executive Engineer in the Madras Presidency, as I've said in several contexts  with conviction? 

By the way, this revelation comes just a few days after I made an equally surprising discovery that Puerto Rico, which was hit recently by two furious hurricanes, is not an independent country in Latin America but just a just a 'territory' of the United States.  Surprising because, as a frequent companion of my grandchildren who live in America, I happen to know the names of all the States by heart, and can even recite them backwards alphabetically from Wyoming to Alabama.

All of which only shows how imperfect our perception of history and geography can be, even in the case of our own native lands and the countries where our children live,  leave alone the rest of the world!

                                            Next :  The 36th Chamber of Audit 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Dispassionate Mission Of The Comptroller & Auditor-General Of India

The three vintage essays on the attitudes, environment and quality of government audit which I had recalled in the three preceding posts were written just after my column 'India of C-A-G' in THE HINDU had completed its first year of successful publication.  Let me now share with you a couple of historically significant essays I had written a year earlier, as an overture to this unprecedented (and subsequently unmatched) column in Indian journalism. 

Glossary & annotations

C-A-G  --  Comptroller & Auditor-General of India, an independent authority under the Constitution of India.

Karmayogi  --  In Sanskrit, India's ancient /classical language, Karma in a narrow sense means work or action, but in a wider sense denotes the individual's social, spiritual and moral obligations (and has other deeper connotations also).  Yoga means, among other things, a spiritual exercise, and Yogi is one who intensely practices Yoga.  Thus, a Karmayogi is a person who goes on performing his or her duties with absolute detachment, neither aspiring for rewards nor being discouraged by failure.   (Karmayoga and the Stoic philosophy have much in common, though the concepts are not identical.  Yes, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was certainly a Karmayogi).  

Bofors affair  --  A long-drawn-out and inconclusive probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the Indian Army's purchase of anti-aircraft guns from the Swedish firm Bofors.

Parliament  --  Independent India's Parliament broadly follows the British model,  with two Houses :  Lok Sabha (People's Assembly) and Rajya Sabha (National Assembly, with State-wise representation).    

The Capital  --  New Delhi, in North India.

Yamuna  --  One of India's major rivers, which borders the Capital as well as Old Delhi, with ever-expanding suburbs on the other side. 

Bahadurshah Zafar Marg  --  A busy thoroughfare named after a 19th-century Muslim monarch, where some leading English-language newspapers have their editorial offices (and referred to sometimes as the Fleet Street of New Delhi).

PAC and COPU  --  Public Accounts Committee, and Committee on Public Undertakings :  panels in Lok Sabha, with the Chairmen usually belonging to the Opposition.  There are corresponding bodies in the Legislative Assemblies in the States.

Governors  --  The nominal head of each of the 2-dozen+ States in India is the Governor, a Constitutional authority appointed by the President of India.  Real executive power rests with the Chief Minister, who belongs to the party winning the elections (just like the Prime Minister at the Center).

Business Review

10 November 1995

India of C-A-G

The C-A-G is a Karmayogi

This article marks the beginning of a new column which will observe the public financial administration in the country through the periscope of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India, and will also review related issues.  The author was an officer of the Indian Audit & Accounts Service from 1957 to 1992.  He has since then worked as a full-time consultant to the CAG (1992-93) and the Press Trust of India (1993-94).


"And how'z the cag?" asked a friend of mine who is a business executive, at a dinner party in New Delhi a few years ago.  For a split second I couldn't follow what he was saying.  A blank look must have flashed across my face, for he quickly added:  "I mean . . .  your boss!".  He was,of course, referring to Mr. T.N. Chaturvedi, Comptroller and Auditor-General of India, whose Special Report on the Bofors gun deal was making him quite famous at that time.
I had been an officer of the Indian Audit & Accounts Service (IAAS) for  more than 30 years by then, but I had never before heard anyone inside or outside the Government referring to the CAG of India as 'cag' -- rhyming with bag, lag, rag or tag.  In the bureaucratic and legislative circles both at the Center and in the States, he was always called C-A-G (pronounced see-ay-jee) or C-and-A-G.   The general public rarely used to think of him, and many well-educated persons hardly knew anything about the institution of the CAG. 

The Bofors affair did greatly increase the public awareness of his existence, and even led some clever fellow to coin the amusing expression 'cag in the wheel'.  However, it is not easy to dispel the mist surrounding the public image of the CAG, and there is still widespread ignorance in the country about his stature, role, powers and responsibilities as defined by the Constitution of India and a relevant Act of Parliament.   


An interesting story which was circulating among the IAAS officers in the Capital some 20 years ago would illustrate this point well.  The CAG's office is not far away from the office of the former Accountant-General (Central Revenues), now called the Director of Audit (CR).  This senior officer of the CAG occupies an imposing office building near the banks of the Yamuna, opposite the headquarters of the Income Tax Department.

There used to be an enormous colored bas-relief sign 'AGCR' on the facade of this building, and it is still there.  The crowded bus-stops on both sides of the wide road are popularly known as 'ITO' and 'AGCR' even today, and the place is an important and well-known landmark in the city.  The offices of the CAG and the AG[DA]CR are both located within walking distance of a busy traffic junction on Bahadurshah Zafar Marg, the Fleet Street of New Delhi ;  but the CAG's office, like the University Grants Commission, is tucked away neatly on a short crescent road nearby and is not very conspicuous.

It seems Mr. A. Baksi, who was the CAG in the mid-Seventies, was fond of driving to the office and back home in his own car sometimes, preferring it now and then to the exclusive chauffeur-driven official vehicle provided for him.  The story went that he was stopped one evening by a policeman at the intersection for some minor traffic offense.  "Where do you work?" the policeman  asked him.  "In the C-A-G's office," Mr. Baksi replied.  "Oh?  And in which Department is that?" queried the policeman sarcastically.  At this stage a bright idea occurred to the CAG.  "Look, I am a senior officer of the AGCR's Department!" he declared.  At once the constable snapped to attention and saluted respectfully.  "Sorry, Sir!  You may go!"  he said, and waved the boss away.

None of us who helped to spread this story round in the Service knew whether it was true or not, but that hardly mattered.  It might well have been invented by Mr. Baksi himself on some hilarious occasion!  The important thing was that it was meant to underline the relative anonimity of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India those days.  In fact, even today the CAG is far from being a familiar public figure in New Delhi.  If such is the case in the Capital, one can well imagine the extent to which ordinary people elsewhere must be ignorant about his activities and mission.

Glamor and restraint

Obviously the celebrity status and glamor achieved in the late Eighties had belonged to Mr. Chaturvedi personally, and not to the institution of the CAG.  Moreover, it had materialized mainly by chance, and not on account of any design or unusual action of the CAG.  After all, he had no choice but to investigate a certain massive Government transaction which had already become the subject of furious controversy and speculation in the national Press, and he could hardly have avoided the extraordinary publicity received by his own report on it. 
Mr. C.G. Somiah, who succeeded Mr. Chaturvedi as CAG in 1990, has not so far found himself in any situation which would compel him to step into the glaring limelight, although it nearly happened in a certain case which need not perhaps be discussed here.  He has been quietly able to continue the very long tradition of restraint, which expects the CAG to remain strictly within the shade of the prescribed procedures and to function as an almost invisible force governing financial discipline in public administration. 

Of course, external conditions are no longer the same as they were in the past ;  and with the increasing interest shown by the Press in the CAG's Audit Reports, he is not likely to be able hereafter to avoid publicity completely.  Moreover, the tradition of restraint rests on the fundamental assumption that not only the CAG but all other authorities concerned would also be diligently performing their respective duties under the Constitution, and honoring their obligations as specified by the relevant rules and procedures.  Who are these authorities, and do they all perform their tasks satisfactorily?  The true answer to these questions would reveal some startling facts.


The CAG is totally independent of the Government, and is answerable only to the people of India ;  and the expression 'people' means Parliament, of  course.  His main responsibility to the people is fulfilled when he submits his Audit Reports to the President of India and the Governors, for placing them before Parliament and the State legislatures respectively.  By the way, the CAG has some accounting functions also, which I shall explain on some other occasion.

The Audit Reports on government departments and autonomous bodies are required to be processed further by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament (Lok Sabha) or the respective State Legislative Assembly.  The Audit Reports on public-sector undertakings are to be similarly taken up by the Committee On Public Undertakings (COPU), which exists in Parliament and most of the State legislatures.  In a few small States where there is no COPU, the PAC is responsible for this also.

The PAC and COPU are expected to study the contents of the Audit Reports, consider the Government's explanations, discuss selected issues with senior Government officers or other witnesses, and make recommendations to the House.  The Government must submit notes on the action taken, for further consideration by the Committees.  This is the only Constitutional manner in which the CAG can hold the Government accountable to the people.  Of course, the public is free to read his Audit Reports, which are priced publications.

Question and answer

In the given organizational set-up, therefore, even if the CAG produces some excellent Audit Reports, their effectiveness would depend substantially on the response of the Central and State Governments, and the expeditious functioning of the Committees in Parliament or the State legislatures.  So then, how do the Governments respond normally, and how do the Committees perform?

The answer is that there is actually a wide gap between expectations and performance.  Things are not too bad at the Center, where the PAC and COPU have been fairly active.  They call for the Government's explanation in every case featured in the Audit Reports, and they also try to keep their work current by adopting a highly selective approach for holding discussions and examining witnesses.  Consequently the officers of the Central Government tend to be fairly alert in taking follow-up action on the Audit Reports, and in answering audit queries and comments preceding the inclusion of any material in the Audit Reports.
In the case of the States, however, things have traditionally been much worse.  In general, not only has the State Governments' follow-up action on the Audit Reports been extremely poor, but even their response to the initial audit queries and overtures has been very unsatisfactory.  Such gross indifference is probably a consequence of the fact that the PAC and COPU in the States have generally been slack in scrutinizing and discussing the contents of the Audit Reports.

In most of the States there has been no selective approach in regard to discussion, and many voluminous Audit Reports have been carried forward to subsequent years and accumulated as progressive arrears of  business.  Old cases are sometimes taken up for discussion so late that the proceedings do not serve any useful purpose.

Struggle and survival

The volume and range of the CAG's outputs are formidable.  On an average he issues about a hundred Audit Reports every year on the various government departments, autonomous bodies and public-sector undertakings.  All the voluminous activity leading to these finished products is undertaken by a vast network of the CAG's organization, which is spread out all over India and employs more than 60,000 persons. 

How frustrating it must have been to successive CAGs that all these strenuous efforts usually seem to be leading nowhere in the States, and perhaps only upto a short distance at the Center!  And yet none of them has ever been unduly discouraged by this distressing state of affairs which has existed for a long time.

Normally there has been no slackening of the trouble taken to keep things moving.  Backlogs do tend to develop now and then in the preparation of audit reports ;  but time and again the arrears are caught up with, and the tempo restored to normal levels.  There have been ups and downs in the CAG's own performance, but never any serious setback. 

Moreover, successive CAGs have been performing their Constitutional duties in a remarkably detached manner, fully conscious of the fact that the immediate impact of their contributions would perhaps be negligible.  By pressing on with their mission relentlessly, however, they have not only managed to maintain the instrument of Audit Report in good  working order, but have also progressively developed better methods of  auditing and presentation.  The struggle is still going on -- no doubt in hopeful anticipation of better times to come -- and it is not likely to be given up easily. 

Indeed, if and when things do improve all round and the Governments and Legislatures begin to take their statutory obligations more seriously -- as they must surely do sooner or later -- there will certainly be a steady stream of fresh Audit Reports rolling out of the CAG's durable assembly line.

On the other hand, if the CAG had ever allowed any demoralization to grow within his own organization, there might be no consistent production of Audit Reports today and tomorrow, and the whole system of Parliamentary financial control might have been seriously damaged.  In the light of the various facts mentioned above, would it be an exaggeration to say that the system owes its very survival so far mainly to the Karmayoga performed by the C-A-G of India?

                                              Next :  The mills of the C-A-G

Monday, August 21, 2017

Effective Audit Of Quality Calls For Excellent Quality Of Audit

ATTTUDES OF AUDIT . . .  ENVIRONMENT OF AUDIT . . .  QUALITY OF AUDIT . . .  Here's the last one of a set of three essays I wrote long ago on the character of Government audit practices in India  --  (please see the preceding posts for the other two)..

By the way, these were by no means the last words on the topic!  There were several other articles exploring those concepts directly or indirectly, in my column India of C-A-G  (1994-99) in the prestigious Indian newspaper, THE HINDU. 


Glossary & annotations

CAG (pronounced C-A-G)  --  Comptroller & Auditor-General of India, an independent audit authority, under the Constitution of India. 

Ahmedabad/Gujarat  --  Ahmedabad is the largest city in Gujarat, a major State on India's West coast.
Bombay  --  Anglicized name of the Capital of Maharashtra, a major coastal State adjoining Gujarat. (Now called Mumbai, its native name).

Indian Civil Service  --  In the colonial era, the top bureaucrats of the administration originally were British citizens belonging to the Indian Civil Service.  Progressively a few Indians were also enlisted in the ICS, conferring a glamorous status on them both in official and social circles. 

The Capital  --  New Delhi, in North India.

HQ  --  Headquarters.


7 February 1996

The quality of audit

Quality is a relative term.  Expressions like 'good', 'bad', 'better' and 'worse' all mean different things to different people, at different times or in different situations, whether it concerns the quality of a product, service or  performance.  It all depends on the standards by which one judges at any given time and place.  Obviously, the quality of the standards themselves is a relative thing, depending on who specifies them and how.  Thus, quality is always subject to different interpretations by different persons at different times and in different contexts.

Nevertheless, over a long period it is possible to evolve certain fundamental and widely-accepted norms by which to judge quality and to discern trends of improvement or deterioration, although it must be noted that even when quality shows a distinct improvement in the long run, there are bound to be ups and downs in the relative excellence in the short run.

Quality and constraints
This rule is universally valid, and the performance of the Comptroller & Auditor-General of India is no exception. The quality of his audit of government transactions has shown a progressive and remarkable improvement during the past three decades, well matching the spectacular expansion in the activities of various departments and organizations of the Union and State Governments.

The CAG's Audit Reports have been increasingly concerned with impartially critical evaluations of overall performance -- and, wherever possible, even of policy -- although they do mention many irregularities in isolation.  Successive CAGs have always been conscious of the need to achieve better results all the time, as can be seen from their observations not only in internal forums within their own organizations but in international audit conferences  as well.    

The preparation of the CAG's Audit Reports is an elaborate process which tends to take considerable time.  Major audit investigations often confront stubborn resistance from government officials in the field and in the Secretariat, and overcoming such resistance and gaining access to all relevant information is usually a time-consuming process.   

Further, it is an axiom in the Audit Code that the point of view of the Executive must be ascertained and considered earnestly before any comment is made in the Audit Report -- unless, of course, the other side refuses to respond to the auditors' queries and overtures (which is often the case in the States).  Usually much time needs to be allowed for these efforts also, even if there is eventually no response.  In any case the CAG has to line up indisputable evidence before he includes any information in his Reports.

The CAG's audit is naturally a retrospective exercise, always covering past events and transactions.  Obviously, with the procedures and safeguards also taking their toll in terms of time, the Audit Reports do often tend to raise issues which appear to be rather old.

Successive CAGs and their officers in the field have always been conscious of this inherent problem, and have constantly tried to expedite the whole exercise.  And in that process, they have often had to sacrifice quality.  Let me give you an interesting example from my own experience as a former officer of the Indian Audit & Accounts Service

Speed vs. substance

In the mid-Sixties I was working in Ahmedabad as a Deputy Accountant-General in charge of administration in the office of the Accountant-General, Gujarat.  The AG, Mr. P.Y. Godbole, was a dynamic and impatient officer who wanted to get everything done fast.  We used to refer to him as 'Mr. Speedbole' behind his back :  and I believe he knew it and liked it.

Those days the consolidated material relating to the State Audit Reports pertaining to a particular financial year (April-March) used to be sent to the CAG's office in the Capital after a whole year or even later. Thus the first draft of an Audit Report for say 1962-63 would reach the HQ only some time in 1964.  Editing by the HQ and getting the report printed by the Government press would take their own time, and it would be presented to the Legislative Assembly in late 1964 or even in 1965.

Now, Mr. Godbole resolved to accelerate the whole process in such a way that  the material for the Gujarat Report for 1965-66 (April-March) would reach the HQ before the end of December 1966.  If he succeeded, he would be the first AG ever to do so, and he was determined to achieve the distinction.

As I was looking after the administration, I was not directly concerned with the actual field work and the scrutiny of the results in the main office.  But I was a constant and captive witness to the extraordinary degree of pressure which the AG imposed on the officers conducting audit inspections, and on the Reports section in the office which was directly supervised by him.

It so happened that he did accomplish the mission, and the Draft Audit Report was ready for dispatch to the CAG's office on December 30.  As it would reach the HQ only in the New Year if sent by post, the AG issued an unprecedented sanction for the Audit Officer (Reports) to fly to New Delhi and deliver the goods in time.  So emotionally involved was Mr. Godbole with this adventure that he even took the astonishing step of going to the airport to see the AO (Reports) off! 

But what was the quality of that Audit Report?  It was a different story altogether.  Some of the material was incredibly trivial --  for example, there was a paragraph accusing the State Government of not salvaging the welcome banners used for decorating the streets during the visit of a high foreign dignitary to the State!

Mr. Godbole was subsequently transferred to Bombay, and was succeeded by a level-headed officer called K.C. Jain.  Next year Mr. Jain had to be absent on leave on the days the Public Accounts Committee of the State Legislature was meeting to consider the last Audit Report processed by his predecessor;  so he nominated me to represent him in that forum. giving me full freedom to depend on my own judgement. 

I recall agreeing to drop nearly all the audit objections which were discussed in the meeting  -- which attracted a grateful compliment from the Chief Secretary of the State Government (Mr. Gidwani of the Indian Civil Service) who was present!  And when I told the AG about what I had done, he was greatly concerned and tightened up the quality controls.

Quality and logic

To be sure, the above example did constitute an extreme case, and I mention it only because it is so amusing.  But many less hilarious instances can be cited where the auditors' attempts to adopt short-cuts in their anxiety to expedite things had led to very insubstantial issues being raised.
But over a period, many useful procedures have been devised by the CAG to accelerate the pace of audit without sacrificing quality.

For instance, it is now a standard practice for the field offices to send a continuous stream of draft material to the HQ in small batches at short intervals throughout the year, to be consolidated in the end -- usually well before the following December.

Admittedly some Audit Reports do still get delayed, especially at the stage of printing by the State Governments. 

But the main challenge faced by the CAG in recent years has not been posed by the risk of featuring dated material in the Audit Reports, but the need to ensure absolute logic in the conclusions drawn by him from the extremely massive information gathered in the course of audit inspections and investigations.

So voluminous is the audit activity today that the officers in the field do sometimes tend to feel overwhelmed, and the consequent tension often leads to logical flaws in the material processed.
The HQ has to be ever vigilant and must guard against this, and there has been a conscious effort to enforce superior standards of logic and presentation.  The CAG's quest for excellence, apparently, is a never-ending exercise!

It is necessary that Audit Reports continue to mention many routine points, so that minor irregularities do not go unnoticed and snowball into major losses ;  but the accent today is clearly on performance reviews.

Either way, what Audit is vitally concerned with is the overall quality of the Executive's functioning.  In the CAG's scheme of things, one might say, the quality of audit is ultimately a question of the audit of quality.


PostScript, 2017

Clever but not clear!

When recalling the essays, reviews and satirical sketches I had written 20, 30, or even 50 years ago as a journalist, I am not usually tempted to wish I had written something in a different way.  Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and here is one of them!  Reading this text carefully now, I get the impression that the last sentence sounds rather clever, but lacks clarity.-- ironically so, because it so closely follows an earnest reflection on the importance of logic!  I do wish I had written:-

Either way, what Audit is vitally concerned with is the overall quality of the Executive's functioning.  In the CAG's scheme of things, one might say, effective audit of quality invariably calls for excellent quality of audit.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Progressive Government Audit Practices, From Simple To Substantial And Sophisticated

In the preceding post, I had recalled an essay about the attitudes of Government auditors, which I had written in 1995 in my column India of C-A-G in THE HINDU.  It has stood the test of time well and seems to have considerable historic merit.  I had quickly followed up that article with a couple of others, on the environment and quality of audit and the evolution of refined Government audit practices in post-colonial, democratic India.  So here's the next text :-

Glossary & Annotations

CAG  (pronounced C-A-G)  --  Comptroller & Auditor-General of India.

British regime  --  19th/20th centuries (upto 1947).

SANCTIONS  --  In the Govt. set-up in India, 'sanction' means Govt.'s approval of a specific item of expenditure (on staff. equipment, etc.), entitlements (leave, loans, etc.), or projects, specifying levels or limits of funds provided (buildings, roads, development/welfare schemes, etc.).


10 January 1996

India of C-A-G

The environment of audit

As briefly mentioned in the preceding article (December 27), there has been a metamorphosis in the whole environment of Government audit in the past 30 years or so.  This was not caused by any sudden change in the attitude of the auditors, but has been the result of a progressive widening of their functions and a gradual but fundamental shift in their perception and outlook.

And this trend has materialized along lines parallel to the remarkable expansion in the Government's activities at the national and State levels in independent India.  When the Government had concerned itself mostly with routine tasks (as in the British regime), there was not much scope for Audit to undertake any substantial reviews of performance or systems :  but with the profuse growth of the Government's concerns, the audit activities also grew significantly in terms of volume, scope and quality.  

The increase in volume was a routine development.  The area-wise expansion of scope was marked by the introduction of revenue audit and public-sector audit when Mr. A.K. Roy was the Comptroller & Auditor-General of India in the early Sixties.  These new functions were consolidated by his successor, Mr. S. Ranganathan.  And it was during the tenure of Mr. A. Baksi for six years in the Seventies that Audit made a quantum leap in qualitative terms. 

When I joined the Indian Audit & Accounts Service (IAAS) nearly 40 Years ago, there was an important chapter on 'Higher Audit' in the CAG's Audit Manual.  This concerned the scrutiny of all sanctions issued by the Government -- which was considered to be such a special aspect of he CAG's audit that the Higher Audit Department (HAD) in the Accountant-General's office in every State usuaally functioned under the direct supervision of the AG, without the intervention of any Deputy AG.

The Superintendent in charge of the HAD was usually one of the most experienced and competent officers in the cadre of the Subordinate Accounts Service (SAS).  Invariably he was thought to be so efficient and outstannding on the basis of his previous track record that he continued to be rated very high in this special slot also.

But the HAD would normally produce no worthwhile material whatsoever for the CAG's Audit Reports, because its efforts never went beyond an intelligent reading of the sanctions.  All Government sanctions naturally tended to look reasonable on paper, for the simple reason that no sanction was ever issued without recording a 'prima facie' justification for it in a Secretariat file. 

The HAD would often call for the relevant records and peruse the original notes leading to important sanctions, but that hardly led anywhere.  If there were any serious flaws in any particular sanction, naturally they could not be located simply by reading the notes written for the specific purpose of justifying it! 

Any distortions which might exist could never be identified unless the auditors took the trouble of studying the whole background thoroughly and understood every aspect and nuance of the situation in which the sanction had been issued.  But the audit tradition did not envisage such research being undertaken, so the AG and his officers were no wiser after going through a Government file than before doing so.   

In due course successive CAGs began to notice and recognize the futility of according such a high-sounding title to a superficial scanning of Government sanctions ;  and they gradually replaced the concept of 'Higher Audit' with that of 'Efficiency-Cum-Propriety Audit', or 'ECPA'.  Nothing much came out of this either, because the old tradition could not be given up easily, and it was difficult to pin down inefficiency and impropriety by going through Government records in an unsystematic manner.

Research and reviews

But somewhere along the way 'ECPA' began to be expanded as 'Efficiency-Cum-Performance-Audit'.  So subtle was this shift in nomenclature that I do not remember exactly when and how it was effected.  But I do recall that as soon as the expression 'Performance Audit' started figuring in  the CAG's directives, the whole process of audit acquired a new and formidable dimension.  

For it was no longer a question of scrutinizing some of the Government's records in isolation :  one had to examine them in an integrated manner, sometimes in the light of overall knowledge of the context acquired from other sources.  And the new methods called for entirely new methods of scrutiny and assessment, involving sustained research and investigation.

Of course, this did not mean that routine audit of vouchers and other relevant documents could -- or would ever -- be given up :  for it did constitute an effective element of the existing system of checks and balances, and had necessarily to be undertaken for enforcing elementary discipline in public finance.

What the transformation implied was that special efforts also had to be made  -- adopting innovative techniques of audit -- for discovering how effectively public funds were being spent and how effectively public revenues were being collected.  These efforts manifested themselves in different forms, on several fronts.

For instance, the true nature of the huge subsidies sanctioned by the Government of India for promoting exports was assessed in the light of exhaustive market information gathered from relevant trade journals and statistical compilations.  On one hand, serious logical flaws in the Government's perception and arguments leading to specific sanctions of 'cash compensatory support' were pointed out.  On the other hand, the basic criteria adopted by the Government to justify such subsidies were themselves subjected to severe tests, and found to be very flimsy.  

Such exercises were extremely intricate ones which could be undertaken only by a few officers of the audit organization.  But an important new direction of the CAG's audit along which many intelligent officers could proceed took the form of overall reviews of the implementation of various massive development and welfare schemes undertaken by the Union and State Governments in areas like agriculture, industry, education, health care, family planning and employment generation.

Audit also showed increasing concern for evaluating the efficacy of systems, particularly in the collection of taxes and oher revenues.  And in the case of public-sector enterprises and autonomous bodies belonging to the Central and State Governments, overall appraisals of performance and the audit of specific transactions tended to receive equal attention.

Response and remedies

The response of the Government departments and organizations to the initiatives and overtures of the CAG's officers, both at the Center and in the States, has always been an important element of the environment of audit.
When Audit began to get a firm grip on the fundamental aspects of financial mismanagement or mischief, the Executive's resistance tended to materialize at the highest levels, making the auditors' task more and more difficult.  The CAG's organization had to adopt very intricate tactics to overcome such obstacles and gain access to all relevant information.

Sometimes the best efforts of Audit actually proved to be counter-productive.  When inherent weaknesses in certain existing patterns of heavy expenditure were exposed by complex audit investigations, the Government tended to dilute the basic criteria governing them, making value judgements even more elusive than they had been earlier.

The most striking example of this was provided by Mr. Baksi's powerful crusade against highly arbitrary export incentives.  The Government's response was to go on making the criteria more and more vague and diffused till a stage was reached when the sanctions became still more arbitrary, and Audit had to struggle still harder to come to grips with them.

A significant facet of the environment of audit concerns the attention paid to the CAG's Audit Reports by the Legislature and the remedial action taken by the Executive.  While these have not been too bad at the Center, they have been extremely unsatisfactory in the States.  This is a topic which deserves to be analyzed in a separate set of essays.

                                    (to be continued)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Attitudes Of Government Auditors : Tradition And Transformation

In the preceding posts I had recalled an important high-level discussion in which the seniormost officer of the Indian Audit & Accounts Service -- Mr. H.B. Bhar, Deputy Comptroller & Auditor-General of India, for whose inflexible passion for factual accuracy I had the greatest respect and even admiration -- went seriously wrong and made an incredible faux pas in terms of pure logic.

The subject of that discussion was a highly sensitive and intricate issue concerning the Government's massive export incentives, and the financial and moral implications of that mistake were enormous.  And it wasn't the only occasion on which Mr. Bhar had taken such a false step in a major context, presumably because of an inflexible mind-set he had inherited from a long and conservative tradition of routine audit in the British regime and in the early decades of independent India.

Those situations arose in the course of some extremely sophisticated audit investigations I was conducting as a senior civil servant.  But one doesn't really need to cite such complex and expensive issues in order to show how intrinsically the whole character of audit is conditioned by the rigid or rational attitudes of the auditors.  Even some simple scenarios can prove this basic truth, as I discovered quite early in my official career :-


Glossary & annotations
(in same order as in text)

British Raj  --  Popular bilingual expression denoting colonial India in the 19th/20th centuries (till 1947, when India became independent).  'Raj' in Hindi means 'regime'.

Executive Engineer  --  In the British regime, the basic administrative unit called District covered a much larger area than it does now ;  and there was only a single Executive Engineer in charge of all civil public works -- like roads, buildings, bridges and canals -- in the whole District. 

Simla --  Beautiful hill resort in the Himalayas, summer headquarters of Government of India in the British Raj -- now called Shimla.

Accountant-General  --  In the early days of independent India, when I joined the civil service, each State had only a single AG, who therefore had an imposing image in Government and social circles.  Later on, when the scope of Govt. audit went on expanding, the larger States began to have two or more AGs, which diminished the official and social status of them all.  

Gorton Castle  --  Magnificent New-Gothic building, which used to accommodate the summer headquarters of the Govt. of India in the British Raj.  Subsequently, it was occupied by the Accountant-General of the State of Himachal Pradesh, with a few chambers reserved for the IAAS Training School. 

IAAS --  Indian Audit & Accounts Service. 

Yarrows  --  A lovely mansion of the British type, housing the IAAS Hostel.

Jack and the Beanstalk  --  English fairy tale, about a young boy who climbs a sky-high magic beanstalk, and finds a castle above the clouds where he encounters a ferocious giant.

West Bengal  --  Large Eastern State in India. 

Calcutta  --  Anglicized name for Kolkotha, which is now the city's official name.

Treasury  --  District office dealing with all Govt. payments and receipts.  

DRAFT PARA  --  Not a paragraph really, but a draft narrative containing tentative audit observations meant for inclusion in one of the CAG's numerous Audit Reports.  It is invariably sent to the concerned Govt. Department for a rejoinder and/or discussions, which must be duly considered before the material is finalized for publication.  I have really no idea why it's called a 'para', because a draft para may contain any number of paragraphs, even a hundred if necessary!

Kangsabati Project  --  An irrigation project in West Bengal, with dam, reservoir and canals, for distributing water drawn from river Kansabati.

Bankura  --  District in West Bengal.

Gazetted officers  --  In the British and even post-British regimes, postings, transfers and other matters relating to Govt. officers drawing salaries above a specified level were/are notified in the periodical official Gazette -- hence the term 'gazetted officers'.

SANCTIONS  --  In the Govt. set-up in India, 'sanction' means Govt.'s approval of a specific item of expenditure (on staff. equipment, etc.), entitlements (leave, loans, etc.), or projects, specifying levels or limits of funds provided (buildings, roads, development/welfare schemes, etc.).

Maharashtra  --  Major Western State in India. 

Bombay  --  Anglicized name of cosmopolitan metropolis on India's West coast, now called by its native name Mumbai. 


27 December 1995

Of audit and attitudes

Recalling in recent weeks the substance of most of the topics featured in this column during the past one year, I couldn't help remembering some of my own varied experiences as an officer of the Indian Audit & Accounts Service.  This nostalgic sentiment marked a remarkable if gradual transformation of my whole attitude towards a civil service career in general, and towards accounts and audit in particular.

My true ambition when I was a student was to become a successful artist, writer and journalist.    But my father -- who had retired as an Executive Engineer in the British Raj -- had other ideas, and he saw to it that I wrote the civil service examination.  I was hoping to fail, and even tried to give some impertinent answers in the interview, but somehow the examiners seemed to like it, and one of them even kept smiling benevolently all the time.  And soon afterwards I was enrolled in the organization of the Comptroller & Auditor-General of India, as a probationer in the IAAS Training School, Simla.  That was in 1957.

Merely living in Simla for a whole year was a thrilling adventure.  The School, like the Accountant-General's Office, was located in an imposing building called Gorton Castle at the top of a magnificent hill ;  and the hostel for about twenty trainees -- which resembled an ancient mansion in England and was called Yarrows -- was on the rim of a deep valley.  Climbing up to the classes in the morning and again in the afternoon, I was always reminded of Jack and the beanstalk.  Life, in short, was very enjoyable.

But the curriculum was extremely drab and discouraging.  Constitution of India and Parliamentary Financial Control were  interesting subjects, but Fundamental Rules, Civil Service Regulations, Accounts Code Volumes 1 to 4, Audit Code, Audit Manual, and Book-keeping :  I could have found nothing more forbidding!

I failed twice in the departmental examinations held in the School, but had two more chances in the second year, when I was transferred as a probationer to the office of the Accountant-General, West Bengal, in Calcutta.  Sheer self-respect forced me to work very hard that year and pass the tests.  However, I was not very pleased when I became an Assistant Accountant-General in the third year in the same office -- although by the official and social standards prevailing those days, it was a prestigious and glamorous designation.

Negative spirit

To begin with I was asked to look after some treasury and public works audit sections, and the task was an endless ordeal, checking heaps of heaps of vouchers received in the audit office every month from the treasuries and PW divisions.  Every now and then I had to bulldoze the papers on Sunday afternoons, after spending an hour in a Chinese restaurant on the way and guzzling half a gallon of beer!

The attitude of my immediate boss, a Senior Deputy AG, was also not very reassuring.  One day he called me and said :  "Ramakrishna, look at these two cases in this old inspection report on the Kangsabati Project accounts. I want to convert them into draft paragraphs for the Audit Report.  Go and have a discussion with the Superintending Engineer in Bankura, and come back with a couple of drafts."

So I went on tour to the project site and met the SE as directed.  Now, this officer insisted that the two audit objections -- which concerned some infructuous expenditure -- were not justified at all because there had been certain extenuating circumstances  caused by unexpected floods ;  and he showed me some reliable evidence to support his argument.

The SE was an elderly person, and asked me about my background.  When I told him my father had been a civil engineer, he said :  "Young man, why don't you write to your father about these cases and find out what he thinks?  Then if he says we were wrong, you can pursue the objections -- otherwise, just drop them!"  

But I was already convinced that the objections were not quite fair, given all the facts ;  so I told him there was no need to trouble my father or anyone else, and agreed to close the cases.  What I didn't reckon with was how my boss would react.  When I went back to Calcutta and told him what I had done, he flew into a fury and gave me a severe dressing-down.

"What do you mean, you dropped the objections?" he raved, "I told you to come back with a couple of draft paras, and you have just thrown away the whole material!  How can you  prepare any case for the Audit Report if you behave like this?"

"But the SE explained everything convincingly, Sir!" I said.  "There was really no justification for those objections.  We can't include such flimsy things in the Audit Report, can we?"

But my boss was in no mood to listen to any argument, and expressed great displeasure.  The negative spirit which governed his whole approach gave me a severe jolt ;  and I was distressed to find later on that many other senior audit officers too seemed to have a similar perception of things.

Sanction vs. service

Take the case of even the Accountant-General, who happened to be a very liberal-minded and highly respected person.  In my fourth year I was posted as Assistant AG in charge of a set of sections auditing the salaries and other claims of gazetted officers of the State Government, and I had the privilege of  working directly under the AG without the intervention of any Deputy AG.  And another shocking experience was in store for me.

In West Bengal there was an unusual system of 'pre-auditing' Government expenditure.  There were special registers in which full details of the gazetted officers' credentials, postings and entitlements were noted, and their monthly salary bills had to be checked with the entries in those registers and cleared by the AG's office for payment by the treasury officers.

Now, there was a professor who was about to retire, and there was some confusion about the date of his superannuation because two different dates were somehow figuring in official records as his date of birth.  The State Government was still considering the problem, and meanwhile the professor continued to perform his duties although the first of the disputed dates had already passed.

The section officer put up a note saying that since there was a contradiction we could not authorize the payment of salary for the current month.  I did not agree.  I felt that since the officer was actually serving the Government during that month, his salary had to be paid ;  and that if the Government ruled subsequently that the earlier of the two dates was the correct one, it would have to sanction an extension of service to cover the delay in superannuation caused by the Government's own delay in resolving the issue.

Opposing the section officer's suggestion, I submitted a well-argued note to the Accountant-General, confidently expecting that he would approve my stand.  But the AG wrote an elaborate note in which he made some profound statements about the sanctity of sanctions, concluding that till the doubt was sorted out by the Government we could not authorize the payment of the professor's salary.

I asked for a discussion with the AG, and found myself at the receiving end of a pleasant but one-sided lecture about sanctions and their inviolable sanctity.  This episode left a bitter taste of disbelief and frustration in my mind, particularly because the AG did have a very liberal outlook but seemed to be overpowered by the formidable force of a negative audit tradition.

There was an interesting sequel to this story.  Several years later I was working as the seniormost Deputy AG in the office of the AG, Maharashtra, in Bombay ;  and an almost identical case arose, concerning a Government doctor who was on the verge of superannuation and had overshot the first of two conflicting dates.  There was no pre-audit system in Maharashtra, but the office suggested that the treasury officer should be told not to pay the doctor's salary till the issue was resolved.

And with great relish I over-ruled the proposal, recording a forceful note in which I argued that the sanctity of service was no less important than the sanctity of sanctions -- and that as long as the Government allowed the officer to go on working while it was wrestling with the problem, it had no choice but to go on paying his salary.

Changing environment

Meanwhile, the whole environment of Government audit in India was already changing in substantive terms.  Not only had the sphere of the CAG's jurisdiction progressively expanded (to cover Government revenues and public-sector undertakings), but there was an increasingly wider perspective in which the auditors were expected to organize their scrutiny of official records and evaluate their findings. 

And this trend would continue for more than a quarter-century, creating splendid opportunities for enterprising officers to undertake penetrating audit investigations and significant performance reviews.  I do look forward to sharing with the readers, from time to time, some of my recollections and reflections in this regard.


PostScript, 2017

I and the camera-eye

What I didn't disclose in the above article (and other similar ones in my column India of C-A-G) was my own vital role in bringing about the significant transformation in audit perceptions and the evolution of highly innovative and sophisticated audit practices, because my policy as a journalist was to introduce a personal element in my column only as an observer and not as an actor. 

Of course, there were some contexts (like the tobacco exports scene) where the dividing line tended to get quite blurred ;  but the Editor, Mr. N. Ravi, never chose to restrain me or even moderate my texts.