Punjab cabinet minister Gulzar Singh Ranike has repeatedly passed the blame onto his staff for embezzlement of rural grants issued from his discretionary funds in 2011. But the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) veteran - and, in fact, the state government - is squarely under the scanner now, as the first scam of the six-month-old re-elected Akali-BJP regime unravels layer by layer.
Not only is the scam - first reported by HT on August 25 -- growing bigger than Rs 1.15 crore in monetary scales, but it also stretches back several years and involves pocketing of central funds issued to the minister's constituency Attari under the Border Area Development Programme (BADP). All this while, the Punjab government kept telling the Centre that the BADP funds had been utilised, even as the money never reached the actual beneficiaries.
The modus operandi was simple - bank accounts were opened in the names of people who acquired fake identity papers as being beneficiary panchayat members, the minister's staff or son collected the grant cheques from the block development and panchayats office (BDPO), credited these into the fake accounts, and the impersonating account-holders withdrew this money using cheques issued to 'self'.
While nearly Rs 2 crore were embezzled in the name of rural grants in 2011-12 alone, Rs 60 lakh of BADP funds were pocketed in 2008-09 and 2011-12 fiscals via fake accounts in the Ranjit Avenue branch of IndusInd Bank in Amritsar. The revelations are part of an ongoing internal inquiry by the panhayats department and the district administration.
A case for the BADP fund embezzlement was registered in May 2011, but no one was named as accused. Within days, the inquiry was shifted to the Attari deputy superintendent of police (DSP), and conveniently for Ranike -- who was a minister in the 2007-12 SAD-BJP government and retained the position this time -- neither he nor his staff has ever been questioned.
Attari DSP Gurbax Singh, who joined five months ago, took this plea: "I have joined only recently and am not familiar with the previous investigation. I have asked the SHO concerned to proceed as per law."
According to the internal probe documents accessed by HT, most of the rural grant and BADP grant cheques were collected by Ranike's personal assistant (PA) Sarbhdyal Singh or his son Gurinderpal Singh Ranike, who is the vice-chairman of the Amritsar zila parishad. The BDPOs report directly to zila parishads.
As reported by HT, Sarbhdyal remains on the run ever since another FIR was lodged for embezzlement of the rural grants in June this year. In that case, three arrests have been made so far, two of the fake account-holders and another of a bank official.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg. Order a central agency probe, and you will find many more such scams stretching back several years. There needs to be an audit of other fiscals too," said an official connected with the probe.
The district administration, on May 22, 2011, wrote a demi-official letter to the financial commissioner (rural development) and the principal secretary (planning) for a detailed probe. That probe never began.
SCALE OF SCANDAL, SO FAR
*In Attari segment, in the fiscal 2011-12 alone, the amount siphoned off in the name of rural grants from discretionary funds of Ranike is Rs 1.99 crore, and counting. Villages affected include Chak Mukand, Ramuwal, Dhattal, Mandiala, Ibn Khurd, Naraingarh, Khasa, Kotla Dal Singh, Dhol, Rakh Cheeta, Chak Mukand, Bodh, Kotli Nasser Khan
*Under the Border Area Development Programme (BADP) head, funds embezzled in 2008-19 were Rs 40.05 lakh and Rs 18.5 lakh in 2011-12. Other fiscals not audited yet. Affected villages include Ranike, Attari, Neshta, Bagrian, Khasa, Dhattal and Ramuwal, all in the Attari assembly segment within Amritsar district
*Accounts for embezzlement were opened in IndusInd, ICICI Bank and Bank of Maharashtra in the names of sarpanches of Chak Mukand, Mandiala, Ramuwal and Dhattal. In ICICI, the accounts were opened upon formal introduction by Rahul Bhatia and Kapil Malhotra. In Bank of Maharashtra, most accounts were introduced by a man named Karam Singh