The tip-off came from an RTI activist -- an FIR in a case of embezzlement of rural grants worth at least Rs 1.15 crore through fake bank accounts was gathering dust at the Amritsar (rural) SSP's office. But the cops were not willing to join the dots as the grants were disbursed - rather bungled -- from the discretionary funds of cabinet minister Gulzar Singh Ranike in his constituency Attari.
The activist just called and said, "I have been asked to contact you, as I have something big on corruption." In half an hour, I was in the possession of over 200 pages of documents that narrated the entire story.
The files narrated how the minister's PA Sarbhdyal Singh had been opening fake bank accounts of at least 12 village panchayats and withdrew the entire Rs 1.15 crore in less than three months. The documents also contained the lookout notice for Sarbhdyal, and DGP Sumedh Saini's orders shifting the inquiry to the SSP (rural) after Sarbhdyal pleaded not guilty.
Our editor's quick nod to look beyond the mere documents was enough for me to decide pursuing the story in three parts- the scandal, the role of the police and the condition of the villages that never got the grant.
Carriers of hope
With rough notes in my notebook, I left at 6 am after taking prior appointment with a few who sources in Attari and the region. First halt at an officer's premises yielded more information about the banks where the fake accounts were opened, and another local man was waiting for me with information as we moved towards the ill-fated villages.
My photographer colleague Munish Byala was eager to show the crippling poverty, sewage-flooded lanes and the people. "It is good that you (HT) look beyond Chandigarh," said our guide, a farmer.
"Look here…" "No first come here please…" "Look at my dwelling first." The voices came from the rural poor who surrounded us, with the hope that "the team from Chandigarh" will improve their fate.
An old woman urged us: "Likho likho, taa hi saada kujh banooga, bhai! (Please write, brother! Only then will our fate improve)."
The hope was overwhelming, also empowering.