The stage is set for another showdown between Union Minister Kapil Sibal and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). This time, too, a figure furnished by the country's accounting watchdog is the bone of contention.
Earlier, in his capacity as the telecom minister, Sibal had questioned the CAG on its estimation of the "notional" loss in the allotment of 2G spectrum. The minister now seems ready to fight a fresh battle with the national auditor on his original turf - the ministry of human resource development (HRD).
In a report on the accounts of the Central government, tabled in Parliament on April 24, the CAG said the department of higher education under the HRD ministry could not account for a staggering sum of Rs 1.16 lakh crore in 2009-10. The sum was released as grants-in-aid to different institutions and organisations.
SPECIAL:CAG puts governance in dock
Sibal's ministry, on the other hand, has called this figure utterly erroneous because the department could not have disbursed grants exceeding its own budget allocation for that year, which stood at well under Rs 16,000 crore. In the year prior to that (2008-09), over Rs 11,000 crore was allocated for higher education in the Union Budget.
The difference between the CAG and the ministry figures, HRD officials claimed, had arisen because the actual sum was erroneously reproduced in crore when it should have been in lakh.
An upset Sibal let his displeasure be known:
WHAT THE CAG REPORT STATES
>> The department of higher education under the HRD ministry had 150 outstanding utilisation certificates worth Rs 1,16,792.17 crore (or roughly Rs 1.16 lakh crore) in 2009-10
>> From 1977-78 up to March 2010, 2,022 utilisation certificates worth Rs 1,91,708.52 crore (or Rs 1.91 lakh crore) were pending
WHAT THE HRD MINISTRY CLAIMS
>> The department of higher education had 150 outstanding utilisation certificates (UCs) worth Rs 1,16,792.17 lakh (or roughly Rs 1,167 crore) in 2009-10. CAG has wrongly reproduced the value in crore
>> From 1977-78 to March 2010, 2,022 utilisation certificates worth Rs 1,91,708.52 lakh (or Rs 1,917 crore) were pending. CAG has wrongly reproduced the value in crore
"I wish those who state that the HRD (ministry) has not reconciled Rs 1.91 lakh crore spent by it (between 1977 and 2010) had scrutinised the accounts of the ministry and sought our comments. Had they done so, they would have discovered that the alleged figure is not Rs 1.91 lakh crore but Rs 1,917 crore over the last 35 years," he said speaking to MAIL TODAY exclusively on Sunday.
Though Sibal wasn't willing to comment further on the issue because Parliament is still in session, inside sources revealed that the HRD ministry could confront the CAG on this damaging accusation
in either the standing committee or Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC), wherever the report is tabled.
So, while the ministry accounts - which MAIL TODAY has accessed - reflected the unaccounted amount in 2009-10 as Rs 1,16,792.17 lakh (or roughly Rs 1,167 crore), the table in Appendix V-E referring to paragraph 5.18 of the CAG report showed the figure to be Rs 1,16,792.17 crore (Rs 1.16 lakh crore).
And in the paragraph providing an overview of the situation, the CAG report observed that the department of higher education did not know how Rs 1,91,708.52 crore (or Rs 1.91 lakh crore) had been spent between 1977-78 and 2009-10.
"The department of higher education hasn't had a budget provision of more than Rs 20,000 crore since 2008. Let alone the money being accounted for or not, how is it that we managed to dole out grants of over 1 lakh crore in one year in the first place?" a ministry official not authorised to speak to the media asked.
According to Surjit S. Bhalla, the chairman of a market advisory firm who has been critical of the CAG report on coal block allocations, the supreme auditing authority should consider getting more competent people on board.
"If the CAG report has such an anomaly, it's absolutely inexcusable. This is as low as you can get as far as auditing errors are concerned. The government should consider getting more competent people into the CAG. Moreover, there should be some checks on the regulating authorities so that they don't assume the power or licence to kill," he pointed out.
The debate over the possible discrepancy in the CAG figures could unfortunately divert attention from the fact that the government, even according to its own records, was clueless on how public money running into thousands of crores had been spent on higher education.
For the uninitiated, the HRD ministry keeps tabs on how its grants are spent through utilisation certificates. These certificates have to be submitted to the ministry within a year by the institutions or organisations concerned to inform the government how they have spent the money allotted to them.
The non-submission of certificates signifies that not only is the Union government unaware of how the money has been used, it is in the dark about the learning outcome - whether or not the amount has actually been disbursed for intended purposes such as scholarships.
Significantly, the ministry does not release fresh grants to the institutions whose utilisation certificates for past grants are pending.
"Unaccounted money does not necessarily mean that the amount has been misappropriated. In my opinion, this is basically a result of bad governance where fund disbursal agencies of the ministry such as the UGC and the AICTE have been lax in enforcing financial discipline on universities and institutions that have received public money," Central Advisory Board for Education (CABE) member Vinod Raina said.
The CABE is the apex body that advises the central government on education.Courtesy: Mail Today