Almost eight years after starting crop diversification to break the wheat-paddy logjam - and having sunk several crores of rupees in the process the Punjab government is set to close four farm councils which have been rocked by pilferage and forgeries.
The proposal to formally disband these government-funded councils is likely to be placed before the cabinet, which is slated to hold a meeting on Monday, government sources said.
The multi-crore rip-off has been under the scanner of various agencies after Hindustan Times first exposed this scam in March 2010 and subsequently published a series of reports highlighting pilferage, forgeries, fake bills and unlawful expenditure by officials at the helm of the project. The Punjab Police had arrested more than a dozen people in this scam; they are now on bail after spending at least six months in jail.
In this case, the government has recently initiated twin action disciplinary proceedings and recovery of more than Rs 6 lakh against 1980-batch Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer Himmat Singh for indulging in "financial impropriety". The major charge against Singh is that he, during the 27-month-long leave, kept brazenly spending government money on his tours in the capacity of vice-president of the farm councils.
Already, the state government has terminated the land lease contract with farmers after paying them land lease money till November 2013, apart from relieving the entire field staff and stopping all operations of the farm councils. But the government has retained three senior-level officials to deal with the ongoing inquiries and court cases.
Initially, the councils had taken on lease about 3,000 acres from farmers and were paying about Rs 5 crore per annum as lease money. While 1,800 acres had been given back to farmers along with the lease money, about 1,250 acres were returned in November last year to the farmers.
Sources say the councils are under Rs 57-crore debt (including interest), which the government will have to pay to different banks. The negotiations are on with the banks to settle this urgent financial matter, a senior government functionary said.
The councils set up by then Capt Amarinder Singh government in February 2006 had taken huge loans from banks, besides several crores of rupees pumped in by the government.
At the root of the diversification rip-off are four councils on citrus-and agri-juicing, value-added horticulture, organic farming and viticulture (grape cultivation), set up for initiating crop diversification by promoting horticulture and organic farming.
With wheat and paddy crop turning out to be a high-input-low-yield scenario, then Congress government in Punjab had launched the project to lead farmers to high-value agriculture, proclaiming that it would shift at least 20,000 acres to horticulture and organic farming by 2007.