A lakh of rupees for 'repairing' a non-existent community centre, another lakh for a dharamshala that remains in ruins, and Rs 2 lakh to an organisation of cycle-part manufacturers for a dispensary that never was -- all in Ludhiana and all grants given by the then minister and senior Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader Hira Singh Gabria in the 2007-2012 SAD-BJP term.
Post the rip-off that led to resignation of Gulzar Singh Ranike from the Punjab cabinet, here's another classic example of how crores of public money disbursed in discretionary grants by ministers go unaccounted for, and into the hands of their nears and dears in blatant violation of rules. Of the total Rs 8 crore disbursed by Gabria in Ludhiana, Fatehgarh Sahib, Patiala, Hoshiarpur, Mohali, Ropar, Jalandhar, Amritsar, Sangrur, Ferozepur, Moga, Bathinda, Gurdaspur, Faridkot, Kapurthala and Mansa, utilisation certificates (UCs) of a mere Rs 38.6 lakh have been received. This information has been procured under the RTI Act by Ludhiana-based NGO Vigilant Citizens' Forum.
A further probe by HT revealed holes in the disbursal of these grants by Gabria, who could not retain the Ludhiana (rural) seat this time even as the SAD-BJP got a historic second consecutive term.
In the border district of Tarn Taran, Rs 2.5 lakh were granted for construction of a community centre at Chohla Sahib, Gabria's ancestral village, in 2010-11. Till date, no such centre exists. "We have the plan," said Gabria's cousin Bhupinder Singh Gabria, executive member of Baba Vishwakarma Committee that received the grant. The Chohla Sahib nagar panchayat got another Rs 2.5 lakh for streetlights. Sarpanch Amrik Singh failed to the show the lampposts: "They were rather short, so people took away the bulbs and the poles have been uprooted. It didn't work."
Ministers get Rs 2 crore a year as discretionary grants for disbursal. The amount was Rs 1.5 crore before 2011-12. As per procedure, they issue grants against requirements submitted to the block development and panchayats office (BDPOs). Though the BDPOs are supposed to hand the grants over, the cheques are usually collected by the leaders and disbursed at public functions. (Sometimes, as was the case in the Ranike rip-off, cheques could even be put into fake accounts and the grant siphoned off.)
The district development and panchayats office (DDPO) is then supposed to submit the UCs. "We have sent several reminders to the DDPOs," was all that Balwinder Singh Multani, director of the rural development and panchayats department, said.
As for Gabria, he said it is a minister's job is to disburse grants "and up to the department to check if the money has been properly utilised". He added, "We have to give grants to keep our voters happy."
But disbursal can happen only if the minister receives the money himself first. Here, even though rules state that new grants will be released only if UCs for previous fiscal years are submitted, Gabria kept receiving grants for distribution throughout his five-year tenure.
Also, as per rules, a minister cannot disburse more than 50% of the grant in his assembly constituency and, thus, most ministers give money to other districts so that the maximum grant is released.
MATTER IN COURT
The Punjab and Haryana high court had on August 1 disposed of a PIL after the state government gave an undertaking to make the disbursement of the discretionary grants more accountable. Principal secretary (rural development and panchayats) MS Sandhu had submitted an affidavit in the court that all recipient NGOs and other organisations receiving such grants shall be open to audit and be dealt with under the ambit of the RTI Act.
The state also submitted in the court that the entire policy of the discretionary grants and its disbursement shall be put on the department's website.