A wake-up call govt cannot ignore
On September 14, the SAD-BJP government completed six months of its second consecutive term in Punjab. Normally, such days afford the ruling dispensation an opportunity to tom-tom about the first rush of its achievements. Instead, the occasion has left the opposition smirking with glee. Hindustan Times Resident EditorRamesh Vinayak writes.chandigarh Updated: Sep 17, 2012 18:30 IST
On September 14, the SAD-BJP government completed six months of its second consecutive term in Punjab. Normally, such days afford the ruling dispensation an opportunity to tom-tom about the first rush of its achievements. Instead, the occasion has left the opposition smirking with glee.
Far from a celebratory mood, the Badal government found itself caught up in political ignominy and moral quandary over an unfolding scandal involving its cabinet minister Gulzar Singh Ranike, who was accused of embezzling welfare grants to the tune of at least Rs 3 crore. Two days after chief minister Parkash Singh Badal ordered a high-level Vigilance Bureau probe into what has by now come to be reckoned as 'Ranike rip-off', the scam-singed minister found the media heat too much to brazen it out and tendered his resignation on Sunday, citing - no prizes for guessing - "moral grounds".
Not that Ranike had any other option, faced as he was with a plethora of damning evidence tenaciously ferreted out by Hindustan Times in its back-to-back investigating reports since last month. Apparently, it was the chief minister who read the riot act to the minister and nudged him to put in his papers - part of a damage-control strategy devised by the red-faced top Akali brass. After the resignation of two Akali ministers following their conviction in criminal cases - Bibi Jagir Kaur for forcible abortion of her daughter who died later, and Jathedar Tota Singh for misuse of power - the latest embarrassment is yet another shade of inglorious for the alliance since its second coming.
The multi-crore scandal is only a proverbial tip of the iceberg of rampant and systemic corruption plaguing the social welfarism that forms the central plank of the SAD-BJP regime's well-entrenched populist policies, bleeding the state finances anaemic. Also, it unravels a top-to-bottom official collusion in siphoning off the government grants for social welfare and development. After all, what was happening right under Ranike's nose was a classic cash-and-carry mode. In circumvention of all checks and balances, the minister's private secretary and allegedly his son were collecting cheques of grants from officials and encashing them through bogus bank accounts. The grants were simply pocketed and never reached the intended beneficiaries/panchayats. Shockingly, the state authorities sent 'utilisation certificates' to the Centre for the embezzled funds.
Left to the government, the scandal was all set to be pushed under the carpet. Even after two FIRs were filed in Amritsar last year, the authorities sat tight over investigations. Even more shocking was disbanding of a special investigation team on representation by none other than the prime accused and Ranike's private secretary Sarbhdyal Singh who feigned innocence and has since been absconding. The probe was subverted to the extent that its scope was curtailed to merely looking into his grievance.
It is this whiff of scandal and the authorities' blatant efforts to hush it up that prompted this newspaper to doggedly carry out a multi-level investigation over the past six weeks that entailed tapping piles of official documents and conducting on-the-ground interviews with sarpanches in whose name the grants were misappropriated. The result was a series of cracking reports that de-layered the scam, and also put the minister - rather the government - in the dock.
For the Akali-BJP coalition that rode back to power on the promise of zero tolerance to corruption, the scandal and its fallout represents a stunning blow to its image and credibility. It also puts a big question on deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal's much-touted pitch that his governance reforms are the most potent antidote to administrative as well as political corruption. While the Vigilance Bureau has been reduced to a political score-settling tool and lost its credibility, the Badal government is yet to deliver on its poll promise to strengthen the Lokpal which remains a white elephant.
The latest scandal has only reinforced the horrendous scale of leakages in social welfarism - a fact that the government is well aware of. In its second status report in 2009, the Punjab Governance Reforms Commission had revealed the home-truths. In the Shagun scheme, roughly Rs 40 crore (more than half of the annual budget outlay) is siphoned off in the name of fake or non-existent beneficiaries. Worse, the state wastes Rs 200 crore on ineligible beneficiaries for old-age pension every year. The report found the financial wastage on both flagship schemes "too alarming and gravely disconcerting".
Yet, the governance reforms haven't changed much because the pace of their implementation remains slow and patchy. The Ranike episode is a wake-up call that the government can ignore at its own peril.