“Huge movement of illegal liquor took place during the lockdown period in Haryana” possibly due to “negligence and collusion of certain officials of the excise and the police department”, the SET, constituted on May 11 after theft of huge quantity of seized liquor from a Sonipat godown, has said. After accepting the SET’s 2000-page report, Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij has now marked a Vigilance Bureau probe into the matter, and ordered registration of an FIR.
In its report, the SET has said that excise department officials did not initiate required action to check smuggling of liquor before and during the lockdown period, while the police officials registered criminal cases against drivers of vehicles carrying smuggled liquor and kept letting go of the big fish allegedly involved in the liquor smuggling trade across Haryana.
State Home Minister Anil Vij said, “Since it was an SET, not an investigating authority, thus I am giving it to State Vigilance Bureau to register criminal cases and thoroughly investigate the issue.”
He added: “We have fully accepted the SET’s report. There are six chapters of the report. SET has spoken to various officers of Excise and Taxation Department and Police Department and given their observations in the report. Based on SET’s findings, we are recommending action against the erring officials including Shekhar Vidyarthi and Prateeksha Godara and all the other officials. There are also various officials against whom criminal cases are required to be registered, as recommended by SET, which shall also be done.”
The SET had recommended “appropriate action against individual officers/officials by the Competent Authority for the lapses” mentioned in the report submitted to Haryana’s Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Vijai Vardhan.
After a huge quantity of seized liquor was stolen from a godown on Sonipat’s Kharkhoda-Matindoo road, Bhupinder Singh, a Sonipat resident (later arrested from Chandigarh) was named as the prime accused in the case. A Special Enquiry Team, headed by IAS officer T C Gupta and comprising another IAS officer Vijay Singh and IPS officer Subhash Yadav, was constituted to probe the “pilferage/ theft of liquor from warehouses/ godowns, action by the Excise Department in respect of seized liquor and result of investigation of FIRs by police related to seizure of illegal liquor”. After Yadav retired, Muhammad Akil was included in the SET in Yadav’s place.
After looking into the matter, the SET in its report said: “There was no rationale for physical movement of stocks during the lockdown period. Hence, it is evident that there was huge unauthorised movement of liquor during lockdown. The complicity of some of the excise officers in this regard is writ large on the face of it and the collusion on part of some of the police officials also cannot be ruled out which needs to be probed because it was a period when there was complete lockdown and movement of not even a single soul except those involved in essential duties was permitted.”
It added: “The police, in general, is naming drivers of the confiscated vehicles, those found with the confiscated liquor etc. as accused but except in a few cases, no serious efforts appear to have been made to address the origin of the smuggled liquor and to at least issue notices to the concerned authorities of the distilleries to join the investigations in respect of which it was suspected that the liquor has been smuggled out from there. In many, cases, police has reported source of liquor from neighbouring Punjab and district Ambala and in a case district Karnal, and the brand name of the smuggled liquor has also been mentioned on the seized liquor, but the management of those factories or the excise staff posted there have not been made accused or asked to join the investigation.”
The report concludes that “it cannot be ignored that smuggling of liquor from neighbouring states specially Punjab through Haryana and illegal sale of liquor had been taking place in the state especially during the lockdown period. This is mainly because of the systemic flaws in the functioning of Excise Department at least since 2011-12 and also non-implementation of its own instructions, lack of monitoring and in some instances possible collusion or negligence on the part of some Excise as well as police officials,”.
IPS officer allotted security to the prime accused
The SET has raised eyebrows at the role of an AGMUT cadre IPS officer Prateeksha Godara, who was posted as SP (Sonipat) from August, 2018 till February, 2020.
“Ms Prateeksha Godara said that she was aware of repeated detection of illegal liquor in the district but since at that time, it was not as serious as the issue has flared up today, she had not taken those detections as serious offences as there were other serious issues to be attended too. However, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems that it would have been better to take those cases seriously,” the SET’s report reads.
On if Godara knew Bhupinder Dahiya, who is the prime accused in the Kharkhoda-Mathindoo road godown liquor theft case, Godara told the SET that “it was only once that Bhupinder Dahiya had met her in connection with threat to his life from one Raju Basodi, a dreaded gangster. Due to the threat being real, she had provided Bhupinder Dahiya with two police gunmen and immediately after arrest of one of the ‘shooters’of the Basodi gang, she withdrew both the gunmen. But since the threat to his life persisted, she had recommended a weapon licence for Bhupinder Dahiya.
A FIR also stands registered on account of threat of life given to Bhupinder Dahiya”. However, SET observed that Godara was aware about Bhupinder’s antecedents and yet she recommended a weapon licence for him. “It has come to knowledge of the SET that Bhupinder was the actual owner of illegal liquor in most of the cases that were registered in Kharkhoda. Even during interaction with Ms Prateeksha Godara, it was noticed that she was aware of the fact that Bhupinder was a smuggler of illegal liquor. Despite this knowledge, the officer had provided a gunman to Bhupinder and surprisingly even recommended an arms licence to him”. At that time, there were five FIRs registered against Bhupinder for illegal trade of liquor and other criminal activities.
IAS officer tried to block SET probe
The SET inquiry has found that Excise & Taxation Commissioner did not give instructions to shut down vends during lockdown, and attempted to block the SET’s enquiry.
IAS officer Shekhar Vidyarthi took charge of Excise and Taxation department in February, 2020. A month later, government decided to shut down all the liquor vends on March 26. The decision had to be implemented from March 27. However, Vidyarthi only issued “verbal instructions”. Later, he discovered that permits and passes were generated on the web-system during the closure period of the vends, and initiated disciplinary proceedings against the erring officials. The SET observed that “it was the personal responsibility of the ETC to ensure that proper instructions regarding implementation of decision to close the vends were issued to respective stakeholders”.
The SET also said that Vidyarthi made an “attempt to block SET’s visit to a distillery whose name was repeatedly figuring in several FIRs registered on charges of liquor smuggling”.