In the upscale Indira Nagar area of Chhattisgarh’s Rajnandgaon district stands the sprawling two-storey bungalow of former BJP minister Leela Ram Bhojwani. Until last December, Bhojwani was also the chairperson of the Chhattisgarh State Civil Supply Corporation, which is the nodal authority for the public distribution system in the state. But the former PDS chief holds a general category ration card, and his three daughters-in-law hold ration cards meant for BPL households.
The cards issued in the names of Bhojwani and his daughters-in-law are among 14 lakh fake ones issued under the state’s much-acclaimed Food Security Act that was enacted in January 2013. Incidentally, Chhattisgarh is considered to be a “model state” for decentralising its PDS system and ensuring minimum leakage of ration supply.
In the space of a month, from August-September 2013, when PDS distribution began under the new Act, the state saw a 100 per cent increase in BPL families — from 33 lakh in August to nearly 65.8 lakh a month later.
For a state that has been claiming a high growth rate in the 10 years of Chief Minister Raman Singh’s rule, 94 per cent of its total households are now BPL, going by the ration cards issued to them. Besides, while the state has only 56 lakh households, under the Act, ration cards had been made for 70.27 lakh households.
While a handful of these forged cards were cancelled by some collectors at the district level earlier, in June this year, the Chhattisgarh government began a systematic verification of the ration cards issued after the new Act came into effect. Within a month, over 14 lakh ration card holders were found ineligible and around 10 junior government employees were suspended.
Under the Chhattisgarh Food Security Act, Bhojwani and his daughters-in-law are not entitled to ration cards. While the three women, who live in the Indira Nagar bungalow, are nowhere near the poverty line and certainly not ‘below’, the Act prohibits several categories of households from carrying even a general ration card, among them owners of houses like Bhojwani’s that are over 1,000 sq feet in area, or households where even one member pays income tax.
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But government records say ration was regularly lifted against their cards, month after month. Bhojwani, who doesn’t hold any post in the government now, was the official representative of Raman Singh in Rajnandgaon constituency, from where the Chief Minister’s son Abhishek Singh won his debut Lok Sabha election this year.
“This is all a fraud. I don’t know how our names were included. My family and I have not lifted any ration and we have already asked for a probe into it,” Bhojwani told The Indian Express.
The crisis began after Chhattisgarh enacted the Food Security Act in early 2013 and to capitalise on it electorally, began a massive drive to make new cards just before the November Assembly elections. In September, just before the model code of conduct was to be implemented, it asked the PDS department to supply ration to fair price shops for 66 lakh BPL households.
From last September to June this year, these BPL households withdrew ration for a full 10 months. This led to a sudden spurt in ration outflow, causing a loss to the state exchequer that is estimated to be anywhere between Rs 1,400 crore and Rs 3,200 crore. The government has now cancelled many of the cards and put many others on hold.
“We have cancelled 1.81 lakh cards and 11.96 lakh other card holders were found to be ineligible. The state government has learnt that some affluent people, who are ineligible, have made ration cards. We have asked them to present their case and are verifying more cards,” said Food Minister Punnu Lal Mohile who called it a “procedural lapse”.
An investigation by The Indian Express, however, revealed that top officials in the Chhattisgarh government and administration knew about the scam but didn’t react or chose to look away when junior employees flagged the issue of the number of BPL households rising disproportionately.
While the total quantity of PDS commodities supplied was 1.80 lakh MT in August last year, a month later, in September, the Directorate of Food asked the supply department to provide 2.96 lakh MT to the shops, an increase of nearly 65 per cent. The Indian Express has copies of these orders.
The PDS officials wrote back, saying it amounted to a sudden and abnormal increase of ration. They also questioned the increase in the number of BPL households and pointed out that the food subsidy would shoot up from Rs 2,100 crore to Rs 4,100 crore a year. The matter was raised at the top most level of the Food Department, but the government went ahead.
Then Food Secretary Vikas Sheel, who is now Secretary, General Administration, did not respond to repeated messages and phone calls from this correspondent.
The CM’s Office said, “Whenever any scheme is launched, the government tries to ensure that rightful beneficiaries are not left out and wrongful beneficiaries are not included in its ambit. As we found that wrongful beneficiaries were included in the food scheme, we began striking down their names. However, since extra care is to be taken to ensure that rightful beneficiaries are not left out, the process of elimination takes time.”
Under the Chhattisgarh Food Security Act, the government discarded the old categories of BPL and APL and brought in new categories of Antyodaya families, priority households and general households. Each household was to have one card. A month before September 2013, when supplies began under the new Act, Chhattisgarh had 54 lakh ration card holders, 33 lakh BPL and 21 lakh APL families, but within two months, the total number of cards swelled to 70.27 lakh. Of these, 17.15 lakh cards were Antyodaya families, 48.65 lakh priority households, and just 4.36 lakh APL or general households. While the number of APL or general families had reduced drastically, poor households doubled to 65.8 lakh, nearly 10 lakh more than the total households in Chhattisgarh.
From September last year, when the government issued the order asking for ration to be supplied to fair price shops for 66 lakh BPL households, the ration withdrawal in the state saw a sudden increase and continued for 10 months until the general elections in May. But where did this extra food go?
“The number of people in the state remained the same. While PDS supplies increased massively, rice and salt consumption per person could not have increased. All the extra food items were circulated among PDS shops, forged card holders, open markets and then back to the PDS shops. The government did not even lay down the rules mandated under the Act for implementing the food law,” said PCC chief Bhupesh Baghel.
“There could be some procedural irregularity, some rules might not have been made, but there was no scam. If our intentions were wrong, we would not have verified all cards,” countered BJP spokesperson Sanjay Srivastava.
“All rules and procedures were followed during the making of the cards,” said a statement issued by the Food Department.
While Agriculture Minister Brijmohan Agarwal denied any loss, officials estimate otherwise. According to state government records, a BPL ration card entails a subsidy of Rs 1,000 a month. For 14 lakh cards, it amounts to Rs 140 crore a month and Rs 1,400 crore for 10 months from September-June. Some officials estimate that the actual quantum of loss should be quantified by deducting the earlier BPL cardholders (33 lakh) from new ones (65.8 lakh). Accordingly, around Rs 3,200 crore was lost in subsidised ration given to ineligible and non-existent card holders in the last ten months.