Aakar Patel | Transparency in Modi era? CAG’s working shows it remains opaque

The Asian Age.  | Aakar Patel

Opinion, Columnists

It is hard to reconcile these words with the actual actions of Mr Modi and his government on vital issues where opacity was promoted.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI Photo)

The CAG is the supreme audit institution of India and is expected to promote financial accountability and transparency in the affairs of the audited entities”, the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India said in its 2019-20 performance report.

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stranglehold on institutions has showed in the decay at the government’s internal watchdog: the CAG has stopped functioning effectively. The total number of CAG reports relating to Union government ministries and departments came down from 55 in 2015 to 14 in 2020, a fall of 75 per cent. The fall was sequential: going from 55 to 42, 45, 23, 21 and 14.

Defence audit reports went from seven in 2017 to zero in 2020. This was the same body that had done much to undo the Manmohan Singh government’s reputation through its several strong reports, including on the 2G auction, coal block auction and the Commonwealth Games.

So, what has been happening on this front in recent times? Where people inside it attempt to make it function independently, they are punished. A few weeks ago, in the Monsoon Session of Parliament, 12 CAG reports were presented to the people’s representatives. Days later, CAG officers who were responsible for the audits that revealed corruption were transferred.

One of those transferred was Dattaprasad Suryakant Shirsat, who was in charge of the performance audit of the Ayushman Bharat-Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana. He had audited 964 hospitals in 161 districts of all 28 states, and found that in 2.25 lakh cases, the date of the “surgery” was shown to be later than the date of discharge. More than 1.79 lakh such cases were found in Maharashtra, for which the claimed amount was over `300 crore. A web portal, which broke this story, reported that lakhs of claims continued to be made for people who were deceased. The audit also found 1.57 lakh instances of duplicated beneficiaries.

Atoorva Sinha, who had audited highway projects, was transferred after his report found overrun costs in the Dwarka Expressway project. The report said a change to elevate a portion of the pushed-up costs to `250 crore per kilometre as against the cost of `18 crore was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs.

The Opposition tries to raise these issues, but is not able to get the government to accept any wrongdoing, much less to take action. The media, as we know, has no interest in holding the government to account. It is the Opposition and civil society who are the primary targets of their coverage. Readers might be interested to know how the CAG was subverted from within.

The CAG is Girish Murmu, a Gujarat cadre officer who is so loyal to Mr Modi that, in the past, he has been caught on tape intimidating senior officials from testifying against his boss.

Former DGP of Gujarat R.B. Sreekumar, who headed the State Intelligence Bureau from April 9, 2002 to September 17, 2002, in an affidavit to the Nanavati Commission probing the Godhra riots, said that Mr Murmu “tutored, intimidated, forced and pressured” him to depose in favour of Mr Modi. Mr Murmu was then the principal secretary to Mr Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat.

Mr Sreekumar named another bureaucrat who was also present at the meeting and said he was told not to give his deposition in such a way that “more names would be opened up, leading to their summoning for cross-examination… I was also threatened that if I gave a statement contrary to the government's interests, I will be declared a hostile witness and dealt with suitably later. I told them that I would depose before the commission as per the statutory requirements and will not suppress the truth, because that would be an act of perjury”.

Mr Murmu had been “authorised and entrusted with the task of tutoring and briefing government officials deposing before the Nanavati Commission by the highest authorities of the government and home department”, and that “such a posture by Shri Murmu is possible only if he has the specific support and clearance from the higher authorities in the government: the hon’ble home minister/the hon'ble chief minister”.

Mr Modi made him the governor of Jammu and Kashmir and then the CAG. The government’s website, pmindia.gov.in, has a section on transparency which reads: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi firmly believes that transparency and accountability are the two cornerstones of any pro-people government… Transparency and accountability not only connect the people closer to the government but also make them equal and integral part of the decision-making process”.

It is hard to reconcile these words with the actual actions of Mr Modi and his government on vital issues where opacity was preferred and promoted. This entire section, headlined “Quest for transparency” on the PM's site, has only 184 words and reads as if they were strung together by someone with little intellectual capacity: “Rules and policies were not framed in AC chambers but among the people”, it says. “Draft policies were put online for people to give their feedback and suggestions” — is apparently an instance of transparency.

It states that Mr Modi’s “strong resolve to transparency backed by the manner in which he put this commitment to practice indicates an era of open, transparent and people-centric government for the people of India”. No, it doesn’t. The Narendra Modi years have been as opaque, and in many ways even more so, as those of any government before him.