G C Murmu's Appointment Raises Brows Amongst Veterans - How Independent Is The CAG Role?

  • August 10, 2020
  • Politics

On Friday, August 8, Girish Chandra Murmu, former Jammu and Kashmir Lt Governor, took charge as 14th Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) succeeding Rajiv Mehrishi who vacated the office on attaining the age of retirement (65 years). He was sworn in by President Ram Nath Kovind at the Rashtrapati Bhawan in presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Murmu resigned from his nearly one-year stint as the LG on Wednesday, the first anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370 in J&K, succeeded by senior BJP leader and former Union Minister Manoj Sinha. The appointment of Murmu, a 1985 batch Indian Administrative Service officer of Gujarat cadre and former principal secretary to Narendra Modi, has disconcerted some of the veterans of county’s esteemed constitutional authority who questions his selection over officers senior to him in the civil services because of his immediacy to the Prime Minister. The procedure of selection and appointment of CAGs in India have long been under discussion and accused of being faulty with conflict of interest.

 

CAG Appointment

CAG is the most important functionary under the constitution, a Supreme Audit Institution of India, which if not independent, serves no purpose.

There is no laid down criteria for qualification and selection of the CAG in constitution of India. As per the historical practice, it is entirely an internal process within the government. The Cabinet Secretary prepares a short list of candidates for the finance minister who then submits it before the prime minister. Thereafter, the prime minister recommends one name from that list to the president for approval.

This process of selection of government’s auditor by prime minister to audit his own administration is unfair having a high risk of favoritism which may dilute the accountability process. Independence of CAG can be ensured only if there is a well laid out criteria for this. The procedure must be transparent having specifications for requisite qualifications and a procedure through which selection should be made.

 

Delayed Audit Reports

Delay in Finalization

As per sources, while the performance audits are initiated and completed within timelines, the finalization of the report often gets delayed. The CAGs are blamed for acting as loyalties to the government nominating them, by redacting and delaying the reports. Sources speaking on condition of anonymity confesses that former CAG Mehrishi delayed finalizing a few audit reports in his term beyond 18 months to 24 months, by pushing the final drafts back and forth on grounds of getting more visual and graphical data, or raising what they claim to be non-substantive queries.

  • In November 2018 Mehrishi’s office received a letter from 60 eminent and retired bureaucrats, who expressed concern that the auditor reports on ‘demonetization’ and ‘the Rafale deal’ are being “deliberately” delayed so as to not “embarrass” the Centre before the 2019 general elections. The CAG was suspected for trying to give Modi government a clean chit by redacting all Rafale acquisition related price information in the audit report on behest of government, thus questioning its independence.

 

  • Usually, the CAG reports on finance accounts are finalized ahead of the budget session, so that the audit observations are available to the public during the budget session. This year however, when the parliament was adjourned by the speaker sine die on March 23, it was not final. As per experts, timelines on finalization of government accounts have adversely impacted over the last few years and blames the leadership for not showing a sense of urgency in finalizing and signing the audit reports as per established protocols.

 

Delay in Tabling/ Presentation

The reports of the CAG are submitted to the President/ Governor of the state who then presents them in Parliament/Legislatures for consideration by the Public Accounts Committees (PACs) and Committees on Public Undertakings (COPUs), which are special committees in the Parliament of India and the state legislatures.

 

 

[Image Source: cag.gov.in]

The government is often accused of delaying audit reports from being tabled in the parliament as per their convenience, thus diluting the findings of the constitutional audit institution. There have been instances when the delays appear to be planned and measured, study shows that several reports were not presented in parliament and state legislatures even when those were shared with the government before the start of parliament and legislative assembly sessions.

In 2019, dismissing the CAG report on the Rafale jet deal as worthless, Congress leader P. Chidambaram said that it was presented deliberately on the last day of the budget session of Parliament to escape the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) scrutiny. “That is why it was submitted on the last day of the budget session. The Lok Sabha has been adjourned sine die and the report will not be examined by the PAC before the Lok Sabha polls. The entire exercise was aimed at hiding things. The report is not even worth the paper it is printed on," Chidambaram said a day after the report was tabled in the Rajya Sabha.

  • An analysis shows that between 2014 and 2019, a delay of more than 90 days was experienced for the 42 audit reports for which the date of signing and tabling of the reports is available. For several of the reports, there was a delay of more than 180 days.  Nearly half of these audit reports were performance audits of various government programmes and activities.
  • The two audit reports tabled in the parliament in 2020 includes the Audit Report on Defence Services and Audit Report on Customs, which were shared with the government on November 29, 2019 and could have in fact been presented in the previous parliamentary session in December 2019. The much-awaited Audit Report on Finance Accounts has not been presented so far.

 

Impact of Delay

When the presentation of a performance audit report gets delayed considerably, it limits the public debate on the government programmes audited in it. By delaying the presentation of audit reports, the government avoids the parliamentary and legislative scrutiny on these reports.

 

Recommendations

Addressing delay in tabling the reports

It is bewildering to see that the scrutiny carried out by the CAG auditors often gets to see the light of the day after a considerable holdup. To address this issue, many believe that the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (Duties, Powers and Conditions of Services) Act, 1971, which lays out the framework for how the CAG operates, needs to be amended to prescribe a time limit for tabling of audit reports after the report is received. As suggested by former CAG Vinod Rai in 2009. “Rather than rely on the good sense of the government to lay the report ‘as soon as may be after it is received, a time period of seven days be prescribed for laying it after it is received from the CAG,” he wrote in his memoir, Not Just an Accountant.

Addressing delay in presentation of reports

As per experts, ‘Regulations on Audit and Accounts (2007)’ while referring to Audit Planning directs that the auditors should plan to carry out the audit “in a timely manner,” but a similar provision was not made to finalization and submission of audit reports. Analysts point out that this void needs to be addressed during the proposed amendments to Regulations on Audit and Accounts. However, we also need a truly independent constitutional office to achieve our objective of true and fair scrutiny of government accounts. For this, we need to lay down the criteria for CAG’s appointment in black and white.

CAG Appointment

Suitable qualifications like sound understanding of the complexities of governance, and possessing the requisite experience in the field of financial management, audit and accounting procedures need to be prescribed for appointment as CAG. As opinionated by the organization ‘Common Cause’, an International watchdog, “the selection criteria should include possession of the requisite professional knowledge and background, ability of an exceptional order and impeccable integrity” as this was “essential for preserving the integrity and credibility of the institution of public audit.”

Further, on parliament’s role in selection process, it says, “It is accordingly suggested that a high level parliamentary committee may be constituted to select the CAG through a transparent and objective process. The Committee may consist of the prime minister, who may chair it, speaker of the Lok Sabha, leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha, finance minister, and chairman of the PAC, who may act as the convener.” In view of this, the government should initiate action for a constitutional amendment to make the CAG a multi member body and process of selecting members to this body be transparent and consultative.

 

As concluded by Common Cause, Modi government has so far been unable to fight systemic corruption by not putting in place an accountable system to appoint the new Comptroller and Auditor General. “By following the footsteps of the UPA, the NDA government has lost an opportunity to create an institutional criteria to make the selection process impartial and transparent in order to fight the systemic corruption,” it said.

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