The HRD Ministry has approached the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to flag alleged corruption by an ex-joint secretary and a professor of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in the implementation of the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA), a central higher education scheme for states.
An audit by TISS last year uncovered that Rs 23 lakh was allegedly spent out of RUSA funds on the personal trips of Ishita Roy and her children within India and abroad. Roy, a 1991-batch IAS officer of the Kerala cadre, was RUSA’s national mission director during her stint as joint secretary at the HRD Ministry. She left the Ministry seven months ago and is currently posted as Principal Secretary, Fisheries, in Kerala.
The audit also discovered that RUSA’s national coordinator B Venkatesh Kumar allegedly misappropriated Rs 2.02 crore of the funds. He had submitted handwritten taxi bills of Rs 1.26 crore to justify some of the expenditure.
Kumar, who is Chairperson of Centre for Public Policy and Governance, School of Management and Labour Studies at TISS, was relieved of his charge of RUSA coordinator on July 27, 2019. The institute had also issued him a show-cause notice in August 2019. Sunita Siwach, a former joint secretary at UGC, was immediately appointed as the new coordinator of the scheme.
The HRD Ministry is learned to have apprised PMO of the charges in September last year. A preliminary inquiry by the Ministry against Roy and a TISS probe against Kumar are currently underway.
TISS Registrar P Balamurugan did not comment on the issue. Roy and Kumar did not respond to calls and emails from The Indian Express seeking comment.
RUSA, a centrally run scheme launched in October 2013, is aimed at improving higher education in states. The scheme is being operated in mission mode for funding state universities and colleges “to achieve the aims of equity, access and excellence”. Since 2016-17, the government has spent an average of Rs 1,500 crore every year on RUSA.
TISS has been the implementing agency of the scheme since November 2013 and, as per the government’s MoU with the institute, will incur expenditure and submit claims to the HRD Ministry for reimbursement. Kumar was appointed as the national coordinator of RUSA in November 2013.
The alleged acts of corruption in the implementation of RUSA were only discovered last July after Roy completed her stint at the HRD Ministry.
In a meeting held in July between the Ministry and TISS, the institute’s director pointed out some “serious irregularities” in utilisation of funds. Following the meeting, TISS was asked by the Ministry to conduct a complete audit of funds released under RUSA.
TISS found that Kumar, as the national coordinator, had been drawing advances periodically for various purposes, including organising conferences and seminars within the country and abroad, to meet project expenditure. During his tenure, the audit found, he had allegedly submitted dubious bills amounting to Rs 2.02 crore to justify the advance he had drawn for his stay in Delhi and abroad.
For instance, the handwritten taxi bills totalling $1,76,996 (about Rs 1.2 core) included a bill of $2,300 (about Rs 1.6 lakh) for a two-day trip from San Francisco to Pennsylvania and back. The audit found this claim to be dubious since the distance involved was nearly 10,000 kilometres. Moreover, flights were available for the same journey. Some of the other expenses claimed by Kumar allegedly did not match with his dates of foreign travel.
In September 2019, TISS also informed the Ministry about bills amounting to Rs 23 lakh in the name of Roy and her two children as part of the claims submitted by Kumar. The bills were allegedly of expenditure incurred on personal trips of Roy within India and abroad during her leave from work.
There were also bills allegedly reflecting expenditure on foreign and domestic travel of Roy’s son and daughter, who were shown as either resource persons of RUSA or ministry officials in the documents submitted by Kumar to TISS. Bills in Roy’s and her children’s name were also submitted for the period beyond her stint at the HRD Ministry.
When apprised of the audit findings, Kumar refunded Rs 51 lakh out of the total Rs 2.02 crore through cheques in August and September 2019. Roy is learned to have returned Rs 6,47,284 to Kumar, who, in turn, gave this money back to TISS in August 2019 towards air travel of Roy and her children with an admission that the expenses were for private purposes. He also refunded an additional Rs 70,116 towards air travel of Roy’s children.
Express Explained: Undermines govt’s efforts
The alleged corruption undermines the Centre’s efforts to streamline functioning of higher educational institutions in states. RUSA aims to improve the quality of such institutions by ensuring conformity to prescribed norms and standards.