The CAG reports: Do expose the ‘error’, minister

The CAG reports point to grave irregularities in big government projects/ schemes, but chances are you haven’t heard. Do you know why?

The Dwarka Expressway in west Delhi (photo: Vipin/National Herald)
The Dwarka Expressway in west Delhi (photo: Vipin/National Herald)

A.J. Prabal

In November 2010, a CAG report claimed that allotting the 2G spectrum on the principle of ‘first come, first serve’ rather than auctioning had resulted in a ‘notional loss’ of Rs 1.76 lakh crore.

The BJP and the media interpreted it as an instance of ‘massive corruption’ in the Manmohan Singh-led government; and Kapil Sibal’s attempt to explain that there was ‘zero loss’ only deepened the people’s distrust. The failure to unlock the potential value of the spectrum triggered a political storm that arguably unseated the UPA government and helped Narendra Modi to power in the 2014 general election.

In 2017, the CBI court acquitted all the accused and held that there was no evidence of corruption.

In August this year, 13 years later, a series of reports by the Comptroller & Auditor General of India (CAG) have released embarrassing details of potential fraud and corruption. These include not just violation of rules and established norms but also surprising decisions taken by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA).

There are three noticeable differences between the two instances. Unlike Vinod Rai, then Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the present CAG Girish Chandra Murmu has not spoken up on actual or notional losses. The media (especially TV channels) have not put the government in the dock.

Finally, the present government and the ruling party have brazenly claimed that the CAG reports are ‘erroneous’. This claim should be examined by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the Lok Sabha. But the PAC chairman, leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, has been suspended from the House for alleged unruly conduct. Is there a connection between the suspension and the impending PAC meetings? Who can tell.

Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India
Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India

One of the CAG reports states that the ministry of road transport ended up paying Rs 250 crore per kilometre for a 19 km stretch of highway in Haryana whereas the cost approved by the CCEA was Rs 18 crore per kilometre. The same report also states that for the rest of the highway, the payment made was Rs 32 crore per kilometre compared to the CCEA’s approval of Rs 15 crore per kilometre.

Union minister Nitin Gadkari, as glib as ever, was ready with an explanation when he was ‘asked’ to comment at a live event on TV. The CAG had made a mistake, he asserted. The report was erroneous and the project had, in fact, been completed at less than the expected cost and resulted in savings, he added. He graciously admitted to a ‘small error’ on the part of ministry officials, who had orally convinced the auditors that there was no irregularity but had failed to communicate the same in writing.

Well, “the auditors are not idiots” was the acerbic comment of a distinguished senior officer, now retired from the CAG’s office, who went on to serve the United Nations as auditor in several countries. As he pointed out, auditors these days are not just commerce graduates, they are equipped with technical expertise. Many of them are engineers with additional degrees in finance, banking or insurance. The computerisation of accounts and digital records has also significantly reduced the probability of mistakes.

The audit process is also geared towards minimising errors. CAG sources clarify that audit objections are brought to the notice of the concerned government officials. If auditors receive satisfactory and convincing explanations, the objections are dropped.

Union transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari examines the layout plan for the Dwarka Expressway (photo: Getty Images)
Union transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari examines the layout plan for the Dwarka Expressway (photo: Getty Images)
Getty Images

The mystery can be unravelled only if Murmu and his auditors are summoned by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) for a proper explanation. However, unless PAC chairman Chowdhury’s suspension from the Lok Sabha is withdrawn, he may not be able to even attend PAC meetings, suggest media reports.

Significantly, Chowdhury had written to Murmu about inordinate delays in the submission of CAG reports: ‘Delay in reports ensure that the burning issues are soon forgotten. By the time reports come, the governments have changed in states or events have overtaken the subject.’ The letter may have prompted the tabling of several CAG reports during the monsoon session of Parliament.

Word is that Murmu’s predecessor Rajiv Mehrishi sat on a large number of reports. Compared to an average of around 200 reports submitted during the UPA government, the CAG produced 98 reports in 2017–18 and 73 reports in 2018–19, most of them relating to the 2013–2015 period. The reports thereafter dried up, partly on the pretext of the pandemic and the lockdown.

Nitin Gadkari has not yet cared to refute the CAG’s observation that while the CCEA had approved a budget of Rs 5.34 lakh crore to build 34,000 kilometre of national highway, contracts worth Rs 8.46 lakh crore have been awarded for building 26,000 kilometre.

The draft audit report, once finalised, is again shared with the government, which is then given time to raise objections, if any. Once the reports are approved and signed by the CAG, printed copies are sent to the government to be placed before Parliament, following which the reports go public and are posted on the CAG’s website.

The CAG is, of course, not the CBI and can only point to the potential for fraud, embezzlement and corruption. It was a ‘proactive’ or ‘activist’ Supreme Court that had ordered a CBI inquiry into the 2G scam. The BJP government which successfully stalled a CBI inquiry into the Rafale ‘deal’ by replacing the CBI director overnight is, of course, unlikely to order an inquiry into the findings of the CAG in 2023. The Supreme Court, which refused to order a CBI inquiry into the Rafale deal, is also unlikely to entertain the thought in 2023. A case of ‘once bitten, twice shy’?

Nonetheless, issues flagged in CAG reports are worthy of independent inquiries. In the much-publicised Ayushman Bharat health scheme, which ensures medical treatment up to Rs 5 lakh per family, the CAG found that as many as 75 lakh people across different states had been registered under a single mobile number.

Anonymous sources in the government and a few retired officials explained it away as a ‘technical glitch’—apparently an arbitrary phone number was used to register the patients since the platform was not yet ready.

The explanation is far from convincing. How could the same number be used across different hospitals, cities and states unless there was complicity? The CAG report actually identifies not one but three such numbers; and since CAG performance audits look at only a small part of the scheme in randomly selected samples, the magnitude of the ‘scam’ or the ‘scandal’ could be a lot larger.

Indeed, the CAG report also mentions that its audit found that payments had been released to 88,000 people who were dead. The clarification proffered by government spokesmen is that the CAG had, once again, made a mistake. Registering and approving claims under Ayushman Bharat usually takes 2–4 days and it was during this period that patients undergoing treatment had died. Payments were released to the ‘dead’ because they were found after their death to be eligible under the scheme. Convinced?

Present CAG Murmu’s background in the finance ministry is another reason to find the government’s claims of ‘mistakes’ in the reports rather far-fetched.

Murmu, who completes three years as the CAG this month, served as joint secretary and expenditure secretary in the Union finance ministry and was part of the team that presented the 2019 Union budget. Could he have cleared an ‘error-prone report’ or reports, as Gadkari has alleged—despite his intimate knowledge of finance and the functioning of government departments?

Although CAG reports point out irregularities in other ministries as well—contractors in Ayodhya have been paid Rs 20 crore in excess, the rural development ministry has diverted Rs 2.83 crore from its pension fund for publicity—the charges against the NHAI and the ministry of road transport and highways happen to be the most serious.

This, in turn, has triggered the conspiracy theory that the CAG, who worked closely with Prime Minister Modi and home minister Amit Shah, deliberately released reports with the potential to embarrass Gadkari, who is not known to be on the best of terms with either of them, besides being perceived as one of the ‘better’ Union ministers.

With mainstream media and TV channels showing little interest in pursuing the lead, there is no pressure at all on the government to order an investigation. If the irregularities turn out to be grave enough, the

Modi–Shah duo may not be averse to throwing Gadkari under the bus ahead of the next election. It would cement the prime minister’s image as a ‘crusader against corruption’ and present him as someone who is not averse to taking action against his own party leader and Union minister.

Nobody knows yet if this is simply the trailer and picture abhi baaki hai (the show is yet to begin).

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