Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has ordered a high-level probe by the state’s chief secretary into a multi-crore-rupee scam in what was billed as the state’s most ambitious agricultural diversification project, launched by the Congress government led by Captain Amarinder Singh in February 2006.
Badal has promised stern action against “guilty officials” after ordering the inquiry on the basis of a report in the Chandigarh edition of Hindustan Times on Monday.
With wheat and paddy crop turning out to be a high-input-low-yield scenario, the Congress government had launched the project to lead farmers to high-value agriculture, proclaiming it would shift at least 20,000 acres to horticulture and organic farming by 2007.
Four years and Rs 81 crore later, the much touted project has almost wilted, with its diversification objective not growing beyond 3,800 acres.
Instead, it has turned out to be a flourishing multi-crore-rupee scandal involving gross mismanagement and misuse of public money with no accountability to the government, according to a plethora of official documents procured under the Right To Information (RTI) Act.
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). The councils — termed Special Purpose Vehicles — were registered under the Societies Registration Act in 2006 by the Department of Agriculture for initiating crop diversification by promoting horticulture and organic farming.
While Himmat Singh, a senior IAS officer and close confidant of Amarinder Singh, was appointed vice president of the councils, Vikramjit Singh Chimni, a tea estate manager with an bachelor’s degree in arts, took over as Chief Executive Officer.
After spending Rs 81.74 crore, the councils are now bankrupt and its projects are in a limbo.
It took Resurgence India and People for Transparency — NGOs known for exposing official corruption through the RTI Act — assisted by Progressive Development Facilitators — a dogged legal battle for more than a year to unravel the details of how a clutch of hand-picked officials at the helm of the project brazenly flouted basic norms to favour companies and individuals and misused government money on foreign tours and expensive indulgences at luxurious five-star hotels and clubs.
“In the absence of any check from bosses in the agriculture department, the councils became personal fiefdom of officials,” said Hitender Jain of Resurgence India.
Defending the project and his role in the irregularities, Chimni told HT on the phone, “There are lots of baseless accusations. There is complete transparency and we have nothing to hide. The thing is, it has to be put in context, the right context. I am in fact out of station. These issues cannot be summed up in a few minutes on the phone.”
Incidentally, Chimni and five others travelled to the USA at a cost of Rs 40.61 lakh. Chimni even surpassed his immediate boss, Himmat Singh, by staying in hotel rooms with rents as high as Rs 33,000 per day.