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.
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).
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).
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.
CAG and AGCR
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.
PAC and COPU
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