Beguiling billions

The annual report of the Auditor-General for the fiscal year 2004-05 points out that the magnitude of accumulated financial irregularities (Beruju) has reached Rs.53.88 billion, with the finance ministry taking the cake for over Rs.7.16 billion, and the defence ministry coming in second. The amount covers government offices, committees, public enterprises and DDCs. According to the A-G’s 42nd report, the finance ministry alone accounts for 25.10 per cent, followed by the ministries of defence, home, physical planning and works, local development, education and sports, health, water resources, information and communication, and agriculture and cooperatives. Of the total amount outstanding, the finance ministry accounts for a big chunk, and the Supreme Court takes the first rank among the constitutional organs.

It is ironic that the finance ministry, supposed to enforce financial discipline across the government, figures as the biggest offender, and the Supreme Court, which stands, constitutionally, as the last resort of justice and fairness, fares so badly. These

examples seriously dare how fiscal discipline and adherence to rules governing financial transactions could be ensured in governance. The greater the magnitude of the irregularities, the narrower the level of financial discipline and respect for the financial rules. This mountain of irregularities means the taxpayers’ money is being misused. Beruju includes the uncleared accounts, the dues the people or organisations owe to the government have exceeded their time-limits, or officials or politicians have taken decisions in contravention of the financial rules thereby causing a monetary loss to the national exchequer.

Whether in private firms or in government, the client and other stakeholders get from the

auditor’s report a fairly accurate feel of the extent to which the books have been maintained in accordance with the universally accepted accounting norms as well as with the laws, rules and regulations. So the shortcomings pinpointed in it are meant to give the government, in the case of the A-G’s report, the instances where it should take corrective action. But the curve of the Beruju amount has kept rising, barring exceptions, over the past four decades. This indicates the degree of indifference shown by successive governments, of whatever political hue, to the need to take effective steps towards slashing the volume of Beruju, which is twice the overdue loans of the two state banks. This stresses the need to settle the Beruju amount properly or recover it on war-footing, taking stern action against guilty officials and politicians depending on the seriousness of their wrongdoing. But any such voice has always proved to be a cry in the wilderness. One wonders whether ministers, secretaries and other high-ranking civil servants would be as apathetic if their own money was involved.