The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) on Wednesday called for a level playing field for getting information for auditing purposes. Pointing out that responses from government departments were often delayed, CAG Vinod Rai said “the auditor is not given the powers which a man on the street has”.
He was speaking at a panel discussion at the Business Standard Annual Awards here on Wednesday. Rai was referring to the Right to Information Act, which allowed Indian citizens to get responses from government departments in 30 days by paying a small fee.
“If a citizen asks for my foreign travel details in a year, he can get this information in 30 days under RTI. But as an auditor, if I ask for the same information from the Chief Election Commissioner, there is no certainty that I would get it even in a year,” Rai said, to illustrate his point.
The 20-minute panel discussion also had participation from Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) S Y Quraishi. In his remarks, the CEC batted strongly in favour of politicians and bureaucrats — sections described by him as everyone’s favourite whipping boys.
Quraishi said despite the so-called bureaucratic culture, most government departments and officials aimed to deliver on time.
“I would say hats off to politicians who have played a meaningful role in India’s vibrant democracy. You can’t love democracy and hate politicians,” Quraishi said.
Rai agreed and dismissed suggestions that the government was not keen to share some of the information with its auditor. “It would be unfair to say that,” he said.
However, Rai also said the common man deserved to know the details of government spending. "The man on the street deserves to know whether the money has been spent where it was meant to be since the money has been taken from his pocket through taxation," Rai said, adding the CAG came into the picture only when sub-optimality of performance was noticed.
He did not make any reference to the recent draft report of CAG reported to have estimated undue gains of around Rs 10.67 lakh crore for corporate entities because of the government's policy of allocating coal blocks without any auction.
Pointing out that CAG now has “zero tolerance for error”, Rai said the organisation had been evolving in tune with the changing dynamics of processes.
On his part, Quraishi said institutions like the CEC understood the evolving needs of the nation and had never held back “nationally critical decisions” taken by the political class despite the model code of conduct. For example, the CEC cleared reduction of petrol prices when the code of conduct was on for state polls. “It could have been interpreted as a populist decision, but we cleared it because we realised it was in the national interest,” Quraishi said.
“The only thing disallowed is any new scheme or promise. (It will be surprising if) a government, which is in power for four years and 11 months, suddenly gets a bright idea just before the election,” he said.
In a significant revelation, the CEC once approved a request from the cabinet secretary over the phone to enhance the size of the area development fund for each member of Parliament, from Rs 2 crore to Rs 5 crore. That was at a time when elections were on.
He, however, had a mild dig at the government by saying the decision was announced by the minister within half an hour. “I realised he was giving away Rs 3,000 crore and I didn’t have even a piece of paper on such an important decision,” Quraishi said.