IN WHAT could spell trouble for former minister Vijay Kumar Gavit, now a BJP MLA, the government has initiated criminal action in the alleged multi-crore tribal welfare scam, in which crores meant for the welfare of poor tribal households were reportedly siphoned off when Gavit was the tribal development minister.
Gavit, who quit the NCP to join the BJP in 2014, was the tribal development minister between 2004 and 2009 in the Congress-NCP regime. He had denied any wrongdoing in the matter.
In May 2017, an inquiry commission, headed by Justice (retd) M G Gaikwad, had found merit in allegations raised in a PIL filed in the Bombay High Court, contending that a politico-officio-contractor nexus had siphoned off thousands of crores in tribal funds between 2004 and 2012 by propping up “dubious” schemes. Based on the findings of the commission and going by the directives of the HC, the tribal development department has initiated the process of filing FIRs in cases of fraud in which prosecution has been recommended by the commission.
Earlier, the government had appointed a one-man committee under retired bureaucrat Prabhakar Karandikar to go through the commission’s report and suggest the methodoly for initiating action against the guilty.
Kiran Kulkarni, Commissioner of Tribal Research and Training Institute (TRTI), an autonomous body functioning under the tribal development department and overseeing the government action, said three FIRs have been lodged in the past week. The FIRs have been lodged for irregularities observed by the commission in cases handled by the tribal project offices in Ghodegaon (Pune), Gadchiroli and Chandrapur districts. Among those booked are officials heading the tribal project offices at that time. “More such cases will follow,” Kulkarni said, adding that it is estimated that about 600 to 650 people are involved in the alleged scam.
The Gaikwad commission, which investigated the implementation of welfare schemes in 24 tribal project offices, had come across financial irregularities in 23 of them. But based on the Karandikar panel’s findings, the government has decided to lodge FIRs in cases in which the nexus can be established beyond doubt.
Contending that over Rs 100 crore in tribal welfare funds had been misappropriated, the Gaikwad commission had recommended criminal prosecution against over 50 serving or retired government officials over alleged illegalities and dereliction of duty. It had also demanded action against private contractors who had benefitted. A few officials and a retired bureaucrat have reportedly been named in the report.
The commission had passed some adverse remarks against Gavit, holding him accountable for the discrepancies on some counts. Though its final recommendations did not spell out what action was to be taken against him.
Blaming the tribal department under Gavit for “allotting supply contracts to select contractors”, the commission had said that “this had been done without following the tendering process in violation of norms”. While accusing the department of “misdirecting” most of the welfare schemes, it had blamed Gavit for irregularities in the purchase, transportation and supply of oil pumps for tribal farms. Further, it had accused then executive committee (EC) of the Tribal Development Corporation, of which Gavit was the president, of “illegally allocating a contract for the transportation and fitting of these oil pumps to a Nandurbar-based contractor, who was found to have diverted most of the oil pumps to ineligible beneficiaries”.
The executive committee was also pulled up for irregularities and illegal diversion in a scheme for the supply of gas units and burners to poor tribal households. “The scheme was undertaken without identifying the beneficiaries. We found that 27,602 gas units were illegally disposed of, committing an offence of Rs 7.32 crore. The executive committee ordered the supply and the purchase of gas burners without assessing the requirement… While 1.23 lakh gas burners were purchased, about 25,527 remained undistributed and rusted with time. This led to loss of another Rs 3.65 crore. Also, several gas agencies were paid an advance which is yet to be recovered. Due to negligence of the EC and a monitoring panel (under it), the scheme dragged on for 10 years,” observed the Gaikwad panel.
Following directives of the HC, the government on April 15, 2014, appointed the Gaikwad commission to probe allegations raised in a PIL filed by Bahiram Motiram and Gulab Pawar, which blamed the politico-officio-contractor nexus for misappropriation of tribal funds and sought an inquiry against Gavit, his successor Babanrao Pachpute, former MoS Rajendra Gavit, and Gavit’s brother Sharad, a former legislatior. But the commission found no evidence against the last three.