Several crores received as donations for the Punjab Chief Minister’s Relief Fund — set up to help victims of calamities like floods, fire and serious accidents in 1954 — were misused or embezzled over the last 25 years.
Unspecified crores of rupees were disbursed by successive chief ministers as Diwali handouts for office staff, their office expenses, staff honorarium, grants for foreign tours, press clubs, bar associations, sangeet sammelans, medical treatment of MLAs, sports clubs, etc.
Money was also loaned to individuals and clubs. Official records show that from 1984 to 1993, when terrorism was at its peak in Punjab, Rs 28.46 lakh was reportedly embezzled.
Successive Punjab governments did nothing despite repeated objections from auditors. The Punjab Chief Minister’s Relief Fund was established in 1954, but functioned without rules for almost 55 years.
Chief Secretary Ramesh Inder Singh said: “Since the money is disbursed directly under the signature of the chief ministers, I would not like to comment.”
All this came to light recently after a Ludhiana-based NGO, Resurgence India, obtained records pertaining to the fund under the Right To Information (RTI) Act. This is the same NGO that exposed misappropriation of Red Cross funds by deputy commissioners in Punjab.
After the Red Cross scandal was revealed by HT in December 2007, the Punjab government instituted a high-level probe. Unhappy with the subsequent inquiry report, the Punjab and Haryana High Court recently set up a committee of two former judges to probe the matter.
The money with the Punjab CM’s Relief Fund was Rs 48.72 crore from 2002-03 to 2007-08, implying that on an average Rs 10 crore was collected and spent annually, records show. This money mostly came from individual donors.
As per the minutes of a meeting on July 17, 1973, the fund was meant primarily for relief measures. But, in the absence of proper rules, these minutes were the only guiding force till January 14, 2009, when new guidelines were notified.
On November 11, 1977, the government issued an order with the concurrence of the then chief minister Parkash Singh Badal (who happens to be in power now too) that prohibited grants from the fund to government employees as they “cannot be said to be persons in distress” and because it “smacks of favouritism”.
RTI records show the Punjab government could not account for Rs 28.46 lakh received between April 1984 and March 1993 despite auditors raising objections for years. The auditors raised the matter in 10 reports between 1993 and 2006, but the government kept mum.
It was only in 2004 when the government found itself cornered that it claimed that the records were destroyed in a fire, which broke out after a bomb blast at the Punjab Civil Secretariat on August 31, 1995.
But, according to Chandigarh Assistant Superintendent of Police Madhur Verma in a reply to another RTI application on June 4, 2009, no first information report or daily diary report was registered about any fire or destruction of office records in 1995. The only police case registered was regarding the assassination of Chief Minister Sardar Beant Singh.
A copy of the first information report obtained by Hindustan Times reveals the blast occurred outside the Secretariat when Beant Singh was getting into his car. There was no mention of any fire or destruction of records in the CM’s office.
“The claim that records were destroyed appears to be an alibi. Moreover, why did the government not look into the issue in 1993 itself when auditors raised objections for the first time?” asked Hitender Jain, general secretary, Resurgence India.
Former Punjab CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal faced a vigilance case for almost seven years for allegedly embezzling Rs 20 lakh from the fund during her tenure in 1996. A Chandigarh court framed charges against her.
However, after the Parkash Singh Badal government was formed in 2007, the state vigilance bureau last year withdrew the case against Bhattal, saying the receipts pertaining to the Rs 20 lakh had been found.