Chandigarh: Punjab Chief Secretary Vini Mahajan’s report to Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh last month on the alleged Rs 64 crore Dalit scholarship scam seems to have ignored incriminating evidence and contravention of standard administrative practices as it gave a clean chit to Social Welfare Minister Sadhu Singh Dharamsot.
An analysis of Mahajan’s report by ThePrint revealed that it not just diluted the extent of the scam in monetary terms, but also ignored the criminal offences involved, eschewing any effort to unravel allegations of corruption.
Mahajan’s 18-page report was based on another report prepared by a three-member committee of IAS officers who probed the ‘scam’. Principal Secretary, Finance, K.A.P. Sinha headed this committee.
Following the submission of the chief secretary’s report on 21 September, the government transferred the then principal secretary, social welfare, Kirpa Shankar Saroj, who had unearthed the scam.
The social welfare department disburses the Centre’s post-Matriculation scholarship funds to Dalit students.
Saroj, a 1989-batch IAS officer, is the additional chief secretary and now posted as the principal secretary, animal husbandry.
In a 54-page report submitted to Mahajan on 25 August, Saroj had indicted his boss, Dharamsot, in the ‘scam’ alleging that the minister along with his chosen officers in the department, including deputy director Parminder Singh Gill, not only disbursed crores of rupees to “ghost colleges” but also distributed several crores to those institutes from which the government had to make recoveries for wrong and excessive payments made earlier.
ThePrint has seen this report, which said Rs 39 crore was “missing” from records, an amount of Rs 16.91 crore was paid fraudulently to colleges, and another Rs 8.53 crore that was to be recovered from colleges was illegally written off.
The chief secretary’s report absolved Dharamsot of all the charges levelled by Saroj.
When ThePrint reached Dharamsot, he said he never signed on any file that had not come through proper channels, and that all decisions with regard to sanctioning of scholarship funds to colleges “were taken in accordance with the instructions issued by the cabinet”.
ThePrint emailed queries to Suresh Kumar, Special Principal Secretary to the CM, but he said all the questions have been forwarded to the chief secretary.
A detailed questionnaire was mailed to Mahajan regarding her report Wednesday and Thursday, but there was no response till the time of publishing.
Queries were also mailed to Sinha Wednesday regarding the findings of the probe committee, but he didn’t respond.
ThePrint called up Saroj several times, but he remained unavailable till the time of publishing this report.
No action yet
Mahajan’s report pinned the blame for the ‘scam’ on Gill and a finance officer, Charanjeet Singh, and stated that facts were “misrepresented” to minister Dharamsot on the files pertaining to payment to colleges and that he merely signed on them.
While Saroj’s report said it was a Rs 64-crore ‘scam’, Mahajan’s report diluted the size of the scam to Rs 7.33 crore as “excess payment” made to 10 institutes, causing a loss to the exchequer, with a “caveat” that there could be more such instances.
The report recommended recovery of this amount from the institutes, besides “exemplary action” against them and the officers of the department who facilitated the payment.
However, three weeks after the report was submitted to the chief minister, no action has been initiated against any officer or the beneficiary institutes.
The report, while admitting serious irregularities in the disbursal of the scholarship funds, tampering of official files, and re-auditing of audited institutes, makes no attempt to dig further and investigate how and why certain colleges benefitted from these irregularities.
In her report to the CM, while accepting and incorporating the findings of the probe committee’s report, the chief secretary made no attempt to give Saroj an opportunity to respond to the findings of the committee.
Minister sanctioning funds
Saroj had alleged in his August report that Dharamsot deviated from the standard administrative practice and sanctioned funds to colleges. Sanctioning of money is done at the level of the director.
But the chief secretary said in her report it was within the purview of the minister to “supervise and monitor” the scheme of his own department.
In a note, which the minister wrote in a file (pertaining to payments to colleges) on 18 April 2019, he explicitly ordered that payments be made only in accordance with the directions of the state cabinet, Mahajan’s report said.
While the chief secretary put forth this note in her report as an act of transparency by the minister, she ignored another note by Dharamsot in another file on 9 February 2018 in which he explicitly asked that files for the sanctioning of Rs 115 crore (released by the Government of India under the scheme) to colleges be “shown” to him.
Saroj had in his report referred to this note of Dharamsot, saying he showed personal interest in files sanctioning payments to colleges.
From April 2019 until September 2019, Dharamsot sanctioned over Rs 100 crore to more than 500 colleges under his signatures, Saroj said in his report.
In some cases, the movement of these files was without proper diary numbers, pointing to the possibility of these files having been carried by hand to him. In some cases, the minister also signed on split files (smaller units of main files), said Saroj’s report.
The chief secretary also flagged this in her report, but added all such files were moved through proper channels.
“In my discussion with the committee of officers, I had specifically asked them if any instance of an inappropriate order emanating from the minister on any bypassing of the ACS (additional chief secretary) was seen on the files. The committee confirmed that there were no sanction orders or other approvals directly given by the minister. The files seen by the (probe) committee were sent to the minister through proper channels i.e. from the directorate and through the ACS,” said Mahajan in her report.
‘Minister was misled’
Mahajan stated in her report that clear instances of misrepresentation of facts to the minister have been discovered.
“There have been cases with clear misrepresentation on files, where it has been stated explicitly that the amounts due are as per government directions and have been checked by the concerned finance wing/officers of the department.”
She added: “After the file has moved through proper channels and been examined at various levels, including the fact that claims of the amount having being vetted have been made on file, it would be amenable to logic that the directorate has done the due diligence required by putting up the file and what has been represented is trusted to be correct. In fact, it would amount to a criminal breach of trust and fraud in case this was not the correct position.”
Her report, however, doesn’t say anything on who was responsible for the misrepresentation of facts to the minister, leading him to sign on files he shouldn’t have.
‘Difference of opinion’
The chief secretary’s report also remained silent about Saroj’s allegations of Gill’s proximity to the minister.
Indicting Gill in his report, Saroj had pointed out that the minister had hand-picked him to look after the work of the scholarship scheme, despite the fact that delegation of work to deputy directors is the job of the director and not the minister.
The chief secretary in her report, however, explained this as a “difference of opinion” between the minister and Saroj over delegation of work… “indicating a deeper rift and existence of different groups working at odds in the department”.
Therefore, she added, “this difference between the two cannot be inferred to mean malafide or wrongful interference by the minister”.
Saroj had also alleged that Gill was briefing the minister about the scheme directly, carrying files physically to him and getting sanctions approved.
The chief secretary’s report has nothing to say on such deviations from normal administrative practices.
Criminal actions ‘ignored’
Sources in the social welfare department told ThePrint that when the three-member committee was conducting its probe, they were given crucial documents that substantiated Saroj’s allegations, but they chose to “ignore” them.
When the committee was handed over the documents pertaining to the scam, a cover letter was also provided that gave a blow-by-blow account of how the entire scam was unearthed, the role of the officers concerned and the minister, and the manner in which money was disbursed to certain colleges.
Below are the images of the cover letter accessed by ThePrint.
The probe committee, however, point-blank refused to take the cover letter on record, a source said.
On 29 August 2019, some files pertaining to payments to some colleges were brought to Saroj by Gill for approval, saying Dharamsot had asked for it. This was stated by Saroj in his August report.
Saroj then pointed out that such files regarding payments should not be sent to him or to the minister, and should be dealt with at the level of the director. Saroj then wrote a note on two of the files stating what he told Gill and this note became the starting point of his inquiry, his report said.
However, the note went missing from the files. The note is now available in the duplicate copies of the files.
Below are the images of duplicate copies of the file and the note by Saroj.
The chief secretary’s report also acknowledged that these notes went missing, but it added that “it could not be ascertained as to who was responsible for the same”.
‘Illegal’ sanction of Rs 17 crore ignored
According to Saroj’s report, despite his clear note that approval for payments should be given by the director, Gill facilitated payment of Rs 16.91 crore to 43 colleges on 13 September 2019 without a proper nod from the director.
On two files pertaining to payment of almost Rs 11 crore (out of the Rs 16.91 crore) to 16 colleges, Saroj’s note was removed and fresh pages were inserted to get the director’s approval.
For instance, in place of Saroj’s note on page 17 of one of the files, a new ‘page 17’ was inserted for approval of payment of Rs 33 lakh in total to two colleges. The director had signed on this inserted page on 11 September 2019.
Below is the copy of the new page 17 that was inserted.
On another file pertaining to payment of Rs 10.68 crore in total to 14 colleges, fresh pages were similarly inserted to get an approval, which was given on 16 September 2019, three days after the payment was already done.
Since payment to these 43 colleges was made from the state’s treasury, it required the electronic signature of the director, which too was misused by some department’s officers, the source added.
Below are the images of payment orders to colleges.
But the chief secretary’s report makes no mention of this illegal payment of Rs 16.91 crore.
No probe into possible corruption
CM Amarinder Singh had in June 2017 ordered the audit of more than 4,000 institutes that had received the scholarship amount, as there were discrepancies in the payments or in their use by the colleges.
Following the audit, it was found that a host of colleges had been sanctioned an extra amount of the scholarship money, which needed to be recovered from them.
But the department found a way of giving respite to some hand-picked institutes from paying up the recovery amounts and started its own “unauthorised” process of re-auditing the already audited colleges.
Saroj had highlighted this re-audit in his report and the three-member committee also emphasised on it.
The chief secretary’s report also emphasised on the probe committee’s remarks about re-auditing, but it did not recommend a criminal probe into why financial benefits were given to some colleges.
Saroj’s report said when the illegal sanction of Rs 16.91 crore was done by deputy director Gill, it included payments to nine institutes from which the department had to recover Rs 8.53 crore.
ThePrint also accessed some documents that showed Dharamsot had in April 2018 approved a recovery of Rs 12 lakh from a college, and in August, approved a payment of Rs 90 lakh to the same college.
Below are the images of the documents showing Dharamsot’s approval for the recovery of Rs 12 lakh.
Below are the images of the documents showing Dharamsot’s approval for the payment of Rs 90 lakh.
The source from the department said Rs 90 lakh was released to the college from the department’s bank account the same day the minister approved the payment.
This amount was taken from the treasury a fortnight later, according to Saroj’s August report.
‘No missing funds and no ghost institutes’
The Government of India had released Rs 303.92 crore to Punjab under the post-Matric scholarship scheme for 2015-16 and 2016-17.
Before Saroj’s report in August, at least two other inquiry reports by the department pointed out that Rs 248 crore had been drawn from the treasury for payment to colleges out of which the actual payment made was Rs 209 crore.
Saroj pointed out in his report that there was no record available for the remaining Rs 39 crore, which he stated could have been either paid to ghost institutes or embezzled.
Last year, as the principal secretary of the department, Saroj ordered that show-cause notices be issued to various lower-rung officials to explain this missing amount. However, none of the officials could offer an explanation.
After his report in August, officials in the department discovered reverse entries of Rs 12.27 crore (made last August) and Rs 12.91 crore (made in March this year) from the department to the treasury.
The remaining Rs 14 crore was also suddenly traced in cash books before the probe committee members started their investigation, said the source.
But it still remains a mystery why the amount was taken out of the treasury in the first place, where it was used and how it returned. Mahajan’s report didn’t flag any of these.
‘Nothing to do with re-audit of colleges’
Asked about the irregularities, Dharamsot denied any wrongdoing on his part.
“The secretary would put up the files to me and I would take a decision on them. Regarding sanctioning of funds to the colleges, all decisions were taken in accordance with the instructions issued by the cabinet,” the minister told ThePrint.
On the re-audit of colleges, Dharamsot said he has nothing to do with that decision.
“I asked to show the files to ensure that nothing wrong is done. I have been told that a system of re-audit of colleges was started, but I have nothing to do with that decision. But I believe that nothing malafide has come out of it. Since the chief secretary’s report has been submitted to the chief minister, it is for him to take further action on those found guilty. It would not be correct for me to get involved in taking action against those accused,” he added.