Raipur: After Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, it’s Chhattisgarh. The Congress appears in no mood to allow the BJP to breathe easy after successfully embarrassing Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Chauhan through a sustained aggressive campaign. The party has charged the involvement of Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh and his wife in the multi-thousand crore PDS scam which was in news several months ago.

Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh. AFP

Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh. AFP

“The scam, we believe, would go up to 1.5 lakh crore,” claimed Sahilesh Nitin Trivedi, the spokesperson for the state unit of the Congress. “We have started the process of collecting evidence to prove our charges,” said Trivedi. He was referring to the campaign the party has undertaken in the last fortnight asking the district units to visit NAN (civil supplies corporation) godowns in their area and inspect the stocks. “We have decided to carry forward this campaign to its logical end and will not rest till the guilty of the scam are booked and punished,” he added.

The PDS story in Chhattisgarh goes back a long way. The state’s PDS was the BJP’s answer to UPA’s Food Security Act. Raman Singh’s two consecutive victories in the assembly elections were attributed to his ‘efficient’ PDS and it also earned him epithet ‘chawalwale baba‘. Now it turns out the story has many holes.

Raids by the state’s anti-corruption bureau (ACB) in March at the offices of NAN, the pivot of the PDS circus, and the recovery of cash worth Rs 4 crore in the drawers of the babus exposed the massive corruption in the scheme. The latter were caught in the process of distributing and forwarding the parcels of the ‘monthly’ shares to a list of names, believed to be that of the beneficiaries. The recovered diaries and pen drives included names of the top officials and politicians. The principal secretary of the department and the managing directors, both officers from the IAS, were removed and prompt denials followed of involvement of politicians and other big wigs, including the wife of the chief minister.

The investigation has been tardy since. The follow up action is not there. “Deliberate attempts are being made to destroy or temper with the evidence,” says Umesh Patel, Congress MLA. “It is not a surprise that immediately after the recovery of diary and other evidences, attempts were started to cover up tracks to the chief minister’s residence. The branch of the police conducting investigation is working under the same police officer whose integrity we had questioned after the massacre of the Congress leaders in Bastar in 2013. The officer then had headed the police’s intelligence unit,” added Patel.

The state’s PDS system depends on the NAN for its supply of food grains like rice, wheat, pulses, salt, sugar etc. “There is a window for pilferage in every activity of the department,” claimed a senior officer of the food department in Raipur. “The swindling is done less on quantity and almost wholly in quality,” he explained.

His assertion finds favour with the PDS beneficiaries in the far flung tribal villages of the state where dusty and sub-standard grains were distributed in the name of rice last year.

Soon after coming to power for the first time the state in 2003, the BJP government brought in the Chhattisgarh Public Distribution System (Control) Order, 2004 leading to a number of changes to the PDS delivery and procurement system. In 2007, on the eve of the general elections, an additional 1.9 million households (who had been excluded from the 2002 BPL survey because of the Planning Commission cap on poverty numbers) were added to the 1.33 million households already receiving subsidized food grains from the Central government at that time. This state-led initiative helped Chhattisgarh PDS increase coverage to approximately 80 percent of the rural population.

The ‘Baba’ won in 2008 and the formula was replicated in 2013. What was marketed as the Mukhyamantri Khadyann Sahayata Yojana in 2007 was re-packaged as the Food Security Act of 2013. Disproportionate ration cards were made before both the elections. Between August and September 2013, on the eve of the Model Code of Conduct coming into force, the number of BPL families in the state jumped from 33 to 70 lakh.

The recent raids by the ACB have brought the model under scrutiny and opened a can of worms. What the ACB uncovered at NAN is the proverbial tip of an iceberg. Many believe the whole PDS racket has resulted in the swindling of hundreds of crores of the state exchequer. It is clear now that the whole business of procurement of paddy from the farmers, addition of thousands of tons of paddy smuggled in from the neighbouring states like Odisha and Maharashtra, its carting and storage by the MARKFED – the co-operative arm – to the godowns, the coming into picture of rice millers, allotment of paddy to the millers, recovery of rice from the millers, supply of the rice to the PDS outlets – the total pipeline leaks throughout making the total system a fountain of corruption.

The records show the production of paddy increasing year after year with no apparent reasons justifying growth in that proportion. For example, in 2010-11, though the acreage increased from previous year’s 3.48 million hectares to 3.51 million hectares the total jump in paddy production to 9.23 million tons was too much to escape attention of the sceptics.

The state government pays over Rs 1000 crore as payments towards supplies to the NAN. On being asked as to how much do you think out of this amount is swindled. The veteran food officer, without waiting to blink eyes says “eighty percent”. He has the reason to be convincing. He has seen it all from close quarters.

Dharam Lal Kaushik, the state BJP president dismissed it as a non-issue. “The Congress is raking up an old issue. Ever since it came to fore, our Chief Minister has taken cognizance of the matter and has initiated action against those involved in it. The figures and the details given by the Congress are all wrong. After all its all a matter of records. Moreover the matter is already in court.” said Kaushik.

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Chhattisgarh PDS scam: Cong goes after BJP again; trains guns on Raman Singh