As the lid comes off a scam in purchase of library books for Punjab government schools, education minister Sikander Singh Maluka has emerged at the heart of the Rs 9.28-crore scandal.
Maluka ignored all procedures and authorised director, public instructions, elementary, (DPI-E) to finalise the purchase, whereas it was actually to be done as per Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) authority’s norms.Among those bypassed were the chief secretary, principal secretary (education) and the director general of school education (DGSE).
DPI-E Prithpal Kaur — who was made head of a three-member “purchase committee” by Maluka in questionable orders on February 28 — issued tenders in a low-circulation newspaper and chose to “nominate” a firm named d ‘Friends Enterprises’ from the rural town of Sardulgarh in Mansa to supply the books.
In a quaint move, the minister, while forming the committee for purchase, did not expressly mention what the purchase was for, under which scheme and with what funds. The firm has, however, collected crores in SSA grants — Rs 3,000 each from many primary schools, and Rs 10,000 from upper primary — by flashing the DPI-E’s “nomination” letter.
Worse, ‘Friends Enterprises’ was actually registered with the taxman as ‘Guru Nanak RCC Pipe Factory, Sardulgarh’, and supplying books at inflated prices. (In an overnight action, the firm’s name was changed on Friday.)
Also, many of the books have been questioned over their allegedly vulgar content, too, which has led the trail to the scam at the nub.
SSA guidelines say school management committees are to spend the money on books they find fit. DGSE Kahan Singh Pannu thus issued a circular on March 31 that the committees could choose books from the state’s language department catalogue.
In a parallel development, the DPI-E issued the “nomination letter” on March 22 to Friends Enterprises.
The DGSE, who was asked to probe the matter when some news reports emerged about “vulgarity” in the books, has gone ahead and listed flaws in the procedure followed by the DPI-E. In fact, the DGSE has questioned the very logic of the ‘tender and nomination’ in the first place, when the SSA rules had already been followed and the schools authorised to buy from language department catalogue. Contacted, Pannu declined comment.
It is learnt, though, that Pannu has recommended action against the DPI-E, the three-member purchase committee and also the four-member content committee that is said to have approved the books supplied by Friends Enterprises. Action has been recommended against the firm too.
In what points the finger directly towards Maluka, he handpicked members of the DPI-led purchase committee for no defined scheme but just to “buy books to raise the standards of education”. A four-member academic committee that assisted the purchase panel had people from Maluka’s area of influence (he represents Rampura Phul in Bathinda district). These were Bathinda district education officer (DEO) Harkamaljit Kaur, science supervisor Jarnail Singh also from Bathinda, a Hindi teacher and a math teacher from Maluka’s own village school.
Of the four tender applicants, one is reported to have not filed the earnest money in time, another did not offer any discount, while yet another –Sunrise, Sardulgarh – offered 14% discount as compared to 15% offered by Friends Enterprises, which is actually a pipe-maker.
Incidentally, Sunrise’s earnest money demand draft issued from ICICI Bank is numbered just one after that of Friends Enterprises (205158).
In the name of action so far, Maluka has only taken note of alleged vulgar content. He claims to have put an embargo on the purchase and issued a showcause to Friends Enterprises and the DPI-E.
But even as the vulgar content is in books that came from Friends Enterprises, Maluka has also suspended the Bathinda district language officer and issued a notice to the language department director. The language department books, which reached only few schools, were not called into question anyway.
Staying away from the nub of the matter – a multi-crore scam – Maluka insists there’s nothing wrong in the vague tendering and nomination that effectively violated SSA norms and put the money in the pockets of a questionable firm.
The books have been forced onto hundereds of schools in SAS Nagar, Hoshiarpur and other districts, with the block and district level officers issuing verbal orders to schools to buy only from 'Friends'.
Questions of price
Friends Enterprises not only forced books onto schools by flashing the DPI’s nomination letter but actually sold titled that had printed prices much higher than the market MRP.
Even after 15% discount by the firm, the printed prices remain wide apart.
A quick check of five random books at Chandigarh shops revealed this:
Title (hardback) Price charged Market price
Robinson Crusoe 270 150
Pashu-Panchhiyan dian kahaniyan 270 200
Alif Laila dian kahaniayan 270 160
Naani ma dian baatan 250 150
Hit-Updesh dian kahaniyan 270 160