Govt asks Assam to probe PM-KISAN fraud charges
Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal has ordered investigations under the watch of a top state bureaucrat, who will give his report in a month, the chief minister’s office said in a statement on Monday.Updated: May 21, 2020 13:17 IST
The Union agriculture ministry has asked the Assam government for a report and a probe into a potential fraud in PM-KISAN, the federal cash-transfer programme for farmers, which allowed non-farmers to get cash in the state as authorities halted further payments, an official said, requesting anonymity.
Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal has ordered investigations under the watch of a top state bureaucrat, who will give his report in a month, the chief minister’s office said in a statement on Monday.
The Centre is likely to advise a category of states with more relaxed enrolment norms to clean up beneficiary lists, the official added.
“The responsibility of identification of beneficiary rests with the states,” this person said. “It is for the state to then initiate criminal proceedings and recover the money.”
The possibility of ineligible people posing as farmers and enrolling in the scheme heightened after a software that manages the programme found sampling errors of land records not adding up, according to a second official familiar with the matter.
Field officials in Assam are scrambling to vet beneficiaries. “We have been able to identify 9,000 ineligible beneficiaries in our district,” Prabin Saikia, an agriculture department official scrutinising records in northern Assam’s Lakhimpur, a tea-growing district, said.
There has been communication between the Centre and the state on the issue, the first official said.
In Guwahati, Pushpadhar Das, a farm expert, said it appeared that people who got counted in “include pensioners, non-farmers, income-tax payers” and that “names of more than one person from each family” are on the list.
Under PM-KISAN, the government provides income support of Rs 6000 a year to farmers with a valid enrolment, paid in three equal cash transfers of Rs 2000 -- one every four months. It was launched on 24 February 2019, when the first instalment was paid. In the last tranche, paid in April amid the lockdown, nearly 70.7 million farmers were given Rs 16000 crore under the programme.
Cash support under PM-KISAN is given to “a farmer family comprising husband, wife and minor children who own cultivable land as per land records,” according to the programme’s manual.
In all states, barring the Northeast and Jharkhand, farmers need to offer four sets of documents to be eligible for cash: updated land records, the 12-digit biometric Aadhaar, phone number with know-your-customer-proof and bank details.
These are then converted into data and “triangulated” (or cross-linked and verified) through a software, known as the public financial management system (PMFS), that enables automatic transfer of cash into bank accounts. The PMFS, the backbone of direct benefit transfers, is designed to reject any claim if the “triangulation” doesn’t match.
Not all of the above-cited documents however are mandatory for northeastern states, where Aadhaar penetration is below 6%, according to the Union government’s Report on Doubling Farmers’ Income.
“In some of the northeastern states, land ownership rights are community based and it might not be possible to assess the quantum of land-holder farmers,” the second federal official said. This could have allowed the breach, he said.
“Human errors have occurred where data-entry operators failed to match names of beneficiaries and their villages correctly, but most others were intentional inclusion of names of ineligible persons,” Das said in Guwahati.
Scamsters gained advantage of a hurried roll-out of the scheme in 2019 and relaxed norms, Das added. “Unintentional errors as well as falsification of records took place. Some say there was a competition among officials on who could enter more names.”
The Assam government had already ordered re-verification of beneficiaries before a probe was announced. The deadline for it is mid-June.
“These things are bound to be caught eventually because as and when records are updated, the software is designed to do its job of spotting fraud and rejecting claims. The largest rejections have happened in Uttar Pradesh,” said KS Mani of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.
Mani cautioned that northeast could see problems in future too because the PFMS is an Aadhaar-based platform and disbursal for northeast and Jharkhand is made through the PFMS without the authenticity-ascertaining process of triangulation.