The Punjab vigilance bureau (VB) has initiated five separate probes into allegations of embezzlement of gram panchayat funds by village sarpanches and panches across Punjab. While two of these probes pertain to panchayats in Ferozepur district, one each is from SAS Nagar, Amritsar and Patiala districts. Besides, the bureau has also registered an FIR against the former sarpanch of Mehmadpur village in Kapurthala district for similar allegations.
The VB crackdown on rogue panchayats follows orders of the Punjab and Haryana High Court that had “empowered” the VB in November 2016 to take action in such cases. Taking up a case of inaction against the sarpanch of Mehmadpur, Justice Fatehdeep Singh of the high court had set aside a government circular that did not allow the VB to directly take up cases where allegations of corruption were against sarpanch and panches, and members of the municipal bodies.
Such cases could earlier be probed only by the department of rural development and panchayats in cases of sarpanches and panches and the department of local bodies in cases of municipal body members. The case could be forwarded to VB for action only if an initial probe by these departments found something substantial in the allegations.
The court directed the VB to constitute separate teams headed by its director and by roping in SSPs and senior officers to scrutinise such complaints in the district concerned to carry out investigations and register FIRs accordingly. The VB teams have been set up and the five complaints received after the court orders were scrutinised and probes ordered.
Regarding the complaints received by the VB before the court orders, the bureau has asked the department of rural development and panchayats to give the status of action initiated by them on over three-dozen complaints of embezzlement forwarded by the VB in the past five years.
Other than the complaints forwarded by the VB to the department, a host of complaints have been received directly by the department, pointing towards rampant corruption in panchayats in the use of funds.
The situation is compounded by the fact that panchayat funds in Punjab are audited internally by the examiner, local funds and accounts (ELFA), which takes years to complete a single audit cycle. The Punjab auditor general’s annual technical inspection report of 2013 noted that out of the over 13,000 panchayats, funds of almost 60% had not been audited. The report also noted that there was large-scale non-reconciliation of withdrawals and deposits in banks in panchayat accounts, besides panchayats were not maintaining records. It also noted that the panchayats were not even responding to the objections raised by the ELFA.
In 2014, the SAD-BJP government decided to undertake external audit of the use of panchayat funds. Punjab was divided into five zones and villages falling in these zones were to be handed over to independent audit companies. Bids were called for from private accountants. However, following objections raised by the panchayats, the move was put off.
Other than stemming the rampant corruption, the state will have to devise a better system of audit if it wants to stake claim on government of India funds. The 14th finance commission, while doubling the grants to panchayats, has now insisted on audited accounts of panchayats before release of these grants. The performance grant component will be released to the panchayats only when it submits an audited account for the previous year.