The Nagpur bench of Bombay High Court Wednesday said it was going ahead with constituting a panel of retired judges to monitor all pending government inquiries into misappropriation of public money.
The bench, comprising Justice Bhushan Dharmadhikari and Justice Zaka Haq, issued the order in a case of alleged embezzlement of funds worth crores in MNREGA works implemented by the forest department in 2010-11 and 2011-12 in four tehsils of Yavatmal district: Kelapur, Ghatanji, Ralegaon and Zari-Jamni. A petition filed by social activist from Ghatanji, Madhukar Nistane, in this regard was disposed of by the bench, saying the panel will now monitor the probe into the case along with all other such cases concerning other government departments.
Wednesday’s order comes a day before the same bench takes up five PILs in an alleged irrigation scam in Vidarbha. The bench had two weeks ago said it was contemplating setting up a panel of retired judges to monitor the probe by the two Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) SITs for Nagpur and Amravati districts. Last Thursday, all defence lawyers, including one for former Deputy CM Ajit Pawar, had strongly argued that constitution of such a panel was not within the jurisdiction of the court.
Like in the irrigation probe, the bench was miffed by “no progress” in the departmental probe into the MNREGA case. The bench said, “In all such matters, the government is not taking prompt and serious action and public money is being lost. Time and energy of the judiciary and the executive is being wasted. If the government is not able to act and take only belated action after court order, in public interest, it is necessary to have a specialised and independent machinery to monitor such aspects. Such machinery may be required to be kept free from influence of executive also. Therefore, we think it appropriate to constitute a committee consisting of a retired HC judge and retired district judge. The names of judges will be finalised after consultation with the registry of the court. The committee will monitor all such matters wherein delinquents and others are involved in the misappropriation, the criminal cases and the departmental inquiries, for speedy disposal where the committee finds that prima facie there is misuse of funds,” the bench said.
With Wednesday’s order, the bench has virtually sealed the fate of the ACB probe too, when the matter comes up for the bench order on Thursday.
“In the Yavatmal MNREGA case, the spending in the scheme had gone up from Rs 35.83 lakh in 2010-11 to Rs 3,658 lakh in 2011-12. This was found to be an impossible rise by then Collector. Forest staff beginning with then range forest officers and below, totaling 35, have been facing DE in the matter. FIRs were registered in June 2011 but the chargesheets were filed only in July 2018. The staffers were found to have prepared fraudulent muster rolls, used beneficiaries’ EGS cards to create fake cases for payment and used machines to execute the work,” said petitioner’s lawyer Mahesh Dhatrak.
“Secretary of Soil and Water Conservation and EGS department Eknath Dawle also gave an affidavit on Wednesday explaining progress in the DE in the case but the bench wasn’t apparently amused and said this was an eyewash,” Dhatrak added.
Incidentally, one of the complainants in the case was then BJP president and now state Finance and Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar.