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Many ways to dupe a poor student: steal IDs, lie about source of funds, pocket most of it — all officially

An investigation by The Indian Express has found schools fudging data, even changing the religion of students to show them as minorities; many keeping a chunk of the scholarship for themselves.

Written by Abhishek Angad | Updated: November 2, 2020 2:23:39 pm
The in-charge at the Assembly of God Church School in Ranchi has been suspended. (Express Photo: Abhishek Angad)

INSIDE THEIR unplastered two-room house in the dense Behratoli area of Ranchi, Rashid Ansari, a mason, and his wife Salma Khatun, are badly shaken. They have just come to know from this reporter that the “charity money from Saudi Arabia”, of Rs 10,700 each that came into their accounts, was part of a statewide scam targeting a national scholarship scheme for minority school students.

And that they are among several unsuspecting victims defrauded by a nexus of middlemen, bank staff, school authorities, and state government employees to siphon off money from the Pre-Matric Scholarship initiative under the Union Ministry of Minority Affairs.

This is just one of their methods. An investigation by The Indian Express has found schools fudging data, even changing the religion of students to show them as minorities; many keeping a chunk of the scholarship for themselves. There are cases where parents have been coerced into striking deals with middlemen, agreeing to forgo a big share of their dues in return for a fraction.

Then there are several cases of bank correspondents, agents, and school staff conniving to steal User IDs and passwords to divert benefits from schools that never applied for any — including using the name of a Kendriya Vidyalaya in Sahibganj. The Indian Express tracked down individuals who were allegedly the pivot of this nexus: from Mustaqh, called “the agent of agents,” to Dinesh Sahu, a teacher who also owns a school in Ranchi.

Read | Jharkhand scholarship scam: Aadhaar obtained, account hijacked, and hostel faked

All of this, right under the noses of district, state, and central authorities who have been tasked with verifying the applications before disbursing the scholarships meant for students from families with annual income below Rs 1 lakh, and who had scored at least 50% in their previous exam.

On Sunday, The Indian Express reported how the scam had ensnared schools, students, and parents across four districts in Jharkhand despite multiple checks in place, including Aadhaar IDs, fingerprints, bank accounts, and an online database.

It turns out that this scam has multiple trails, with “charity from Saudia Arabia” emerging as a recurring theme.

“I was told the money was from the Saudi government. I gave the middleman my Aadhaar number and account details. My wife and I received Rs 10,700 each, and we gave half the amount to the middle man,” said Ansari, 39. “I took the money because we are a family of eight and have been facing severe hardships since the lockdown was imposed.”

Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren holds a copy of The Indian Express report at a press conference in Dumka on Sunday. (Express Photo)

Records show Ansari has been listed as a beneficiary of the scheme that gives Rs 1,000 per year to students of Classes 1 to 5; and Rs 5,700 a year to students of Classes 6 to 10 if they are day scholars, or Rs 10,700 if they are in hostels. Jharkhand received Rs 61 crore for the scheme in 2019-20, from a central allotment of Rs 1,400 crore.

In the same locality, another beneficiary of Rs 5,700 “from Saudi”, 21-year-old Sarjun Khatoon, has been shown as a Class 9 student of Adarsh High School in McCluskieganj. “I have never heard of this school, and I received Rs 2,200 in cash from the agent,” she said.

Read | Jharkhand CM orders probe into scholarship scam: ‘action soon’

Over 400 km away, the scam played out through a different method — details of an entire school were used to avail the benefit without their knowledge. In Sahibganj, middlemen targeted a Kendriya Vidyalaya with records listing 123 beneficiaries, including 122 hostel students. Daniel Tirkey, the principal, said: “I have no information about this scholarship scheme. There is no hostel in our KV, and we did not fill any application form.”

When The Indian Express dialled the contact number of a beneficiary listed as Nusrat Bano, a student of Class 9, the call was answered by a man who identified himself as Vikas Ganjhu, a 22-year-old shop-owner from Salwe village in Latehar. “Middlemen filled our forms and promised us money. We haven’t received anything so far,” he said.

In Dhanbad, St Xavier’s Mission School owner Ghyanshyam Sav found while following up on applications that the contact number had been changed in the forms. “It was the number of a woman from Wasseypur. When I got my number reinstated, I found that 100 fake students had been added under the school’s name on the portal,” he said. “The authorities said it was a server error. How can there be a server error on a physical piece of paper?”

Connecting the dots, from agent to school

Across six districts, students, parents, and school authorities explained how the scam plays out on the ground. In a typical case, they said, middlemen convince a school owner to provide the login ID and password on the NSP, or use a fake school letter pad to obtain them. Then, they involve banking correspondents to open accounts of prospective beneficiaries using their Aadhaar cards and fingerprints before applying for scholarships on their behalf.

“Once the scholarships are credited, the next step depends on the deals these middlemen strike, either with the beneficiaries or schools. Sometimes, the beneficiaries remain unaware and the money is split between the agents, banking correspondents, and school staff. Sometimes, the schools are unaware,” said a school official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Pastor Anil Chakor, chairman, Assembly of God Church School in Ranchi, identified a “middleman” as Dinesh Sahu. Ansari and Ara pointed to another in Behratoli: Tanveer, a tailor, who claimed he was directed by Maulana Tabrez Bukhari of Darul-Salam Academy in Ranchi. The Indian Express tracked down all three.

Read | Scholarship scam: Tribal boy is shown as Parsi, woman told money from Saudi

“Maulana Bukhari told me to collect the Aadhaar cards of those who look like students. I was to get Rs 100 per person. I collected details of around 100 persons, but only 21 got their money. This job involves a lot of hard work and I have refused to do it any more,” said Tanveer.

“What Tanveer meant was to collect Aadhaar cards of students of Darul-Salam Academy. But since my school did not have an U-DISE (Unified District Information System for Education Code) number, which is required for applying, we could not go ahead,” said Bukhari.

Local residents and Maulana Bukhari described a man they identified as Mustaqh as the “agent of agents who has done lakhs of transactions”. Subsequently, The Indian Express received a call from a man who identified himself as Mustaqh. “Who asked you to come behind me?” he asked, and refused to respond to queries about his alleged role in the scam.

Another trail, identified by several beneficiaries, led to a banking correspondent, Hashim, a resident of Urguttu in Ranchi’s Kanke block. “I have opened several bank accounts but I have not been involved in cheating. I always give receipts to school owners,” said Hashim, who runs an establishment under the Large Area Multi-Purpose Cooperative Societies (LAMPS) that provides interest-free short-term loans or agricultural credit to tribal members.

From Explained | What is Jharkhand’s pre-matric scholarship scam?

Apart from Chakor, staff of several schools identified Dinesh Sahu, a teacher who owns Santosh Shramik School in Ranchi’s Pithoria, as a key figure. “Sahu told us about the scheme. We gave him the user ID and password, and he said our students would receive the scholarship. Later, we found that none of our students had been made a beneficiary,” said Rijhu Mahato, Vice Principal, Indian Public School, Murpuri, Ranchi.

In Sundru village of Lohardaga, residents said Sahu and banking correspondents had visited them to open accounts for students. “One of them was carrying a laptop and another was carrying a (Point of Sale) machine. Many children were asked to get their mobile phones and reveal OTPs. But we became suspicious and confronted them. We allowed them to leave only after they promised that they wouldn’t come to the village again,” said Mumtaz Alam, a resident.

When contacted, Sahu said: “I am a Left-leaning person and do some farming on the side. I want the students to prosper, that’s all. I had gone to the village to make them understand the process. The money comes to the students’ accounts, how can I take it? All these allegations are false.”

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