To track how money travels through the government machinery is one of the toughest challenges when you are looking at questions of transparency and accountability. This was exactly the problem Yamini Aiyar, director of the New Delhi-headquartered Accountability Initiative (AI) of the Centre for Policy Research, took up when the initiative launched in 2008.

In order to build a body of evidence on just how the money travels and the outcomes from spending it, the AI had to narrow its focus to one government-run scheme—the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) elementary education programme. The idea was to track 1 through the system, from when it leaves the Union and state government coffers to when it reaches the school bank accounts via the district and block levels.

“The first hurdle we came to was that in fact it is very, very difficult for even public policy wonks like me and my group to actually make sense of government budget documents. These are complex documents. I think they could be made simpler," says Aiyar.

In her search, then, Aiyar took the help of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP), Delhi. Through the institute, the AI learnt that the SSA comes under what’s called an “off-budget transfer", where the Union and state governments put their respective shares of the elementary education allocations into a state-level, independent society. From here on, the money goes out of the scrutiny of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG).

“The thing with this is that this money goes into the society and therefore it doesn’t fall in the regular budget line of the state budget. That’s why it’s called an off-budget transfer. There are two parts to it. One is that you can keep what in NIPFP terms is called a spillover. So if I don’t spend all my money in year 1, it spills over into year 2. So it’s possible that there are large amounts of money that are sitting in various bank accounts which haven’t been spent.... And these are audited by an empowered panel of private auditors, not through the CAG…. It’s quite difficult actually to get a whole sense of what’s happening to this money," Aiyar explains.

In 2013-14, the SSA has received a budgetary allocation of 27,258 crore, more than one-third the annual Central outlay for education.

To gather this information from schools, Aiyar and her team in Delhi designed an exhaustive 30-page survey and trained associates at the district level in how to conduct the survey under their flagship project PAISA—Planning, Allocations and Expenditures, Institutions: Studies in Accountability.

For the last three years now, PAISA associates like Ram Ratan in Rajasthan, and a team of the around 40 volunteers each that he mobilizes and trains in the Jaipur and Udaipur districts, have been conducting the survey that seeks information on everything from the number of teachers employed at the school to whether the school had in the last year received money for projects like building a boundary wall or a toilet for girls.

Aiyar says the findings over the years point to some trends in terms of the problems these schools face. She explains that though most schools reported having received most of their share in the three grants, the money often comes late and always with strict instructions on how to spend it. This, in turn, can lead to some “absurd distortions" in how the money is used, Aiyar points out.

A visit to a school in a village just 15km off National Highway 8, in Jaipur district, Rajasthan, confirms this mismatch in on-ground needs and the official view on how best to address the problem. The headmaster here has for two years been putting in a request in the annual school development plan submitted to the district officials for funds to raise the level of the school yard. “Every year in the monsoon water floods the entrance to the school," he says. It’s easy to see why the school yard floods every year. The dirt floor of the yard is at least a foot lower than the pucca road outside the gate. But the request has been turned down two years in a row.

The disconnect between the schools and officials who authorize the expenditure goes deeper. Even the last big expenditure that was approved at the school—building a boundary wall—came with instructions based on unrealistic assumptions about costing. “They allocated only 200 for labour," says the headmaster. “Who will come and work for us in 200 when the market rate for labour here is 500?" he asks. So what does he do? He shifts uncomfortably before admitting that there’s nothing else to do but “adjust" the cost by cutting corners in places where this can’t be detected easily on official visits.

The AI, which offers anonymity to the schools that participate in its surveys to encourage them to speak openly, requested that the name of the school and headmaster not be disclosed.

After five years of following 1 through the SSA, the AI is not content simply in its role as an evidence builder. It wants to be able to see the data it collects being put to use to fix the system. “Where we’ve focused our energy for the moment is on the district level. We’ve discovered all districts have these monthly meetings for all their officers who come from all parts of the district. Usually, the district magistrate is part of these meetings. So that’s a good time to go and make a presentation. We make the presentation, get feedback, respond to queries, and that’s the most important way we infiltrate the system and try and share our ideas. While we’ve been more effective in pointing out some of the process inefficiencies, we’ve been less effective in trying to push the larger systems questions," Aiyar says.

■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

If you volunteer, you will

•Help develop graphics and visuals to make the data more accessible to the general public.

• The Accountability Initiative also takes interns in its Delhi office.

Recent donors

•Hewlett Foundation

• Ford Foundation

• Google

To contact Accountability Initiative, visit www.accountabilityindia.in

Close