Reporting a war of words

BY Himanshu Upadhyaya| IN Media Practice | 27/07/2009
So, when journalists didn’t do their homework well, it became easy for Metro Chief Sreedharan to launch an attack on the CAG of India.
HIMANSHU UPADHYAYA on the war of words between the two.

A war of words has started between Comptroller and Auditor General of India and Delhi Metro Rail Corporation following a recently tabled audit report that looked at the performance of the first phase. It all started on a fateful Sunday when an portion of the metro flyover collapsed, and the very next day three cranes collapsed. When the Telegraph carried a news story along with opinions of urban planners, on July 14th, a line entered the story: "A CAG report, lying with the Union urban development ministry, accuses the Metro of scaling down testing requirements and testing in non-accredited labs, and questioned its quality control". On reading the CAG report you find that in a sort of acknowledgement para that a team from Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IITD) was engaged as technical consultants to assist in the examination of certain technical matters. The report says that the IIT examined the issues of contract management, selection of technologies and selection of routes and corridors. 


The report got tabled on July 17th in parliament and it was also released to Press with Deputy CAG, A N Chatterjee addressing a press conference. Many of the media persons picked up his statement "there was a delay in tabling of the report. The audit findings revealed poor quality controls that have a direct link with what we are witnessing today". A correspondent with a news portal embraced the line so eagerly that he endeded up attributing the statement to CAG, and referring to A N Chatterjee as CAG of India! What journalists should have rather done was to simply underline a fact that CAG audit report contained a para on timeline of the performance audit and the time it granted to auditee corporation and ministry to respond: 


"The performance audit started with an entry conference with the management in March 2007. The draft Audit Report was issued to the management in February 2008. The audit findings and recommendations were presented in a meeting of the Audit Board held in May 2008 with the representatives that included all the functional Directors of the management. Replies from the management have been received and suitably incorporated in the Audit Report. The draft Audit Report was issued to the Secretary (Urban Development), the GOI and the Chief Secretary, GNCTD in July 2008; their replies have not been received as of September 2008."


So, when journalists didn’t do their homework well, it became easy for Metro Chief Sreedharan to launch an attack on the CAG. On July 22rd, DMRC chief E Sreedharan termed the CAG report as "uncharitable" saying that DMRC’s version was not taken into account while finalising the report though it had submitted a detailed reply to the auditor’s queries. Sreedharan went on to tell reporters the oft repeated comment, "They (CAG) have no responsibility to deliver, their job is to find fault" . We didn’t come across journalists trying to get A N Chatterjee’s byte in response to that, neither did we come across them trying to demand the copy of the replies which DMRC claimed it submitted, but were not reflected in audit report.


There’s nothing unpredictable about Sreedharan’s response, however. In another comparable instance, soon after CAG audit report indicting Goa Industrial Development Corporation for the questionable manner of land allocation for SEZs got tabled in assembly, GIDC said the report was not shared with them, even when the report listed their replies and marked several of them as ‘untenable’. What was even more surprising in that case was that CAG had audited the performance of GIDC in its earlier report for the fiscal 2002-’03 as well, and the audit findings reported therein were not taken up for discussion by Goa assembly’s public accounts committee!


A day after we got a taste of Sreedharan’s views on constitutionally established apex audit institution, Hindustan Times carried on its edit page a ‘charitable’ piece on CAG penned by Neelesh Mishra, with inputs from Abhishek Kumar. Mishra’s piece quotes a senior CAG official who spoke on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to talk to media saying, "We don’t have access to information. Legally we do, but there are no penal provisions. So if they (government officers) don’t give us information, we have no way of forcing them to".


Now what he said was not some top secret audit finding. It was a piece of information that a senior journalist covering CAG and having been conversant with CAG Duties, Powers and Condition of Services Act, 1971 will anyways know. This issue was even on an agenda of Acountant Generals’ Conference held in October 2008 and even got reported by The Times of India dated October 10, 2008, under the title, CAG wants CBI-like powers. However, there too journalist made readers believe that this observation came from a highly-placed source on conditions of anonymity, whereas the fact of the matter was that the info came from a theme paper available in public domain on the website dedicated to AG Conference. [see for more details]


The Hindustan Times story that has many paragraphs starting with ‘we suggest’ ends with a hasty quote, "Puiblic sector banks are not audited. What the heck, evven the Reserve Bank of India is not audited", said another official, "its time they were".


However, it forgets to say that rather than extending CAG’s oversight role and granting it more powers, the UPA govt in its first term even mulled over the idea of clipping its wings. A committee constituted by Department of Public Enterprise on 2nd December 2004 headed by J J Irani of Tata Sons had suggested to take away CAG’s oversight role in auditing PSUs. J Venkatesan, writing in The Hindu dated September 25, 2005, reported that a committee has been asked to draft a Bill to do away with the role of CAG on 1200-or-so government companies and PSUs (including 49 listed companies), and that the Bill is likely to be ready for consideration in Parliament soon.