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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Jharkhand scholarship scam: Fraud went on unchecked even as red flags were waved in Centre and state

On Sunday, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren reacted to the findings by ordering a probe and promising to revamp the verification system. Chief Secretary Sukhdev Singh said verification “has been stopped” till the probe is completed.

Written by Abhishek Angad | Ranchi | Updated: November 3, 2020 7:33:16 am
Blue Bells School in Ramgarh is among the schools named in the scam (Express Photo: Abhishek Angad)

On October 31, barely 48 hours after The Indian Express told him that official records had listed 180 beneficiaries from his school for the Centre’s pre-Matric scholarship for minority students, the principal of Blue Bells in Jharkhand’s Ramgarh rushed to the nearest police station.

“We have not applied for any minority scholarship…take swift action against those involved in this fraudulent activity,” wrote Mahendra Verma in his complaint at the station in Gola.

This was just the latest in a long list of complaints and red flags — from the Central Government to state anti-corruption officials to school owners in Jharkhand — warning of fraud and forgery by a nexus of middlemen, school and bank staff, and state employees, to illegally divert funds from the national scholarship.

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Most of them went unheeded.

Over the last two days, The Indian Express published the findings of its investigation that tracked hundreds of applications from 15 schools in six districts and showed how multiple layers of verification, from the school to the state level, failed to detect the scam — despite checks like Aadhaar IDs and fingerprints, and systems like Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) and the National Scholarship Portal (NSP).

On Sunday, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren reacted to the findings by ordering a probe and promising to revamp the verification system. Chief Secretary Sukhdev Singh said verification “has been stopped” till the probe is completed.

And yet, with the Centre granting Rs 61 crore to Jharkhand under the scheme for 2019-2020, the big question being asked now is this: Why were all the warnings ignored?

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

One of these alerts came on July 5, 2019, when the Secretary, Union Ministry of Minority Affairs, wrote to the then Jharkhand Chief Secretary D K Tiwary, warning of “repeated attempts to subvert” the NSP, especially at the verification stage of applications.

Norms for the scheme, which was launched by the UPA Government in 2008, state that applications need to be verified first by designated nodal heads in schools who are registered with district welfare officers. The applications are then checked by the district and state nodal officers before being sent to the Minority Affairs Ministry, which verifies and uploads them on the NSP before disbursal through DBT.

On paper, the system is fairly foolproof. But on the ground, The Indian Express found the process being subverted at the first step itself.

In several cases, middlemen either convinced school owners or nodal officers to provide the NSP login IDs and passwords or used fake school letter pads to obtain them. They involved banking correspondents to open accounts of prospective beneficiaries using their Aadhaar cards and fingerprints before applying for scholarships on their behalf.

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

Officials point to a number of reasons why the scam slipped under the radar — from connivance at the local level to staff shortage to difficulties in handling the NSP. Jharkhand’s Welfare Department, which is in charge of the scheme, has been without an in-charge of its own since October 3, when Minister Haji Hussain Ansari succumbed to health complications 10 days after testing positive for Covid.

Chief Secretary Sukhdev Singh said the “collaborative connivance of various stakeholders is a cause of concern”.

“Many schools are not verified by the district. That is where the problem lies. The forms are accepted or rejected by the district administration. First, the school owners themselves need to verify, then at the district level, and finally it comes to me. I do random checks but that is not sufficient. I am also overburdened. We need a more robust system. We have often alerted the concerned district but there is no action,” said Raj Kishore Xaxa, the state nodal officer.

At the district level, officials pointed to a staff shortage. “In Ranchi, there are only two Block Welfare Officers when there are 16 more required. The rest of the work is seen by the supervisors. We do check the authenticity and reject forms when we find any discrepancies,” said Sangeeta Saran, District Welfare Officer, Ranchi.

According to Xaxa, who is also project manager (administration) at the Jharkhand State Minorities Finance and Development Corporation (JSMDC), the implementing agency, “the scholarship portal is not very robust”.

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

On September 2, he wrote to Aditya S Singh, Under Secretary, Minority Affairs Ministry, about the “technical” problems of the NSP that did not allow for cross-verification at the state level. “We are not able to see the account numbers of beneficiaries, leaving little scope for cross verification,” Xaxa said.

But there is no answer to how the red flags were ignored.

‘Checks do not happen’

Former Chief Secretary Tiwary did not respond to requests for comment on the action taken after the alert from the Centre last year. BJP leader and Chief Minister at the time, Raghubar Das, and the then state Welfare Minister Loius Marandi, did not respond to requests for comment.

Following the NDA’s defeat in the state polls, a JMM-Congress-RJD government took over last December. Sources in the administration said the Centre’s letter was “forwarded to the Welfare Department”.

On Xaxa’s complaint about the NSP, official sources said the portal contains the phone numbers of applicants. “The verification is just a call away,” they said.

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There were other alerts, too. On July 22, 2019, the Jharkhand Anti-Corruption Bureau wrote to the Principal Secretary (Cabinet Secretariat) and Vigilance Department on a complaint it had received about “fake” beneficiaries.

Referring to a letter from authorities at Madrasa Alia Arabia in Ranchi’s Kanke, where teachers found that all 102 students listed as beneficiaries for 2019-2020 were “fake”, the letter stated: “It is requested that the school education department do the needful.”

“An inquiry was initiated but nothing came out of it,” said a senior state government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Ranchi Deputy Commissioner Chhavi Ranjan said verification happens frequently. “But if irregularities still happen, it is a matter of concern,” he said.

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JSMDC chairman and Welfare Department secretary Amitabh Kaushal said: “I cannot comment until I see specific cases.” But JSMDC nominee director Iqbal Imam acknowledged that “there are various issues”. “Our roles have not been clearly designated, so checks do not happen at our level. Since the coronavirus outbreak, not much is happening,” he said.

A senior state official summed up the situation: “There is just no will to act.”

Ultimately, it’s left to a handful of schools to take action on their own. Pastor Anil Chakor, chairman, Assembly of God Church School in Ranchi’s Hutup, said they have suspended the school in-charge after authorities came to know that he allegedly “stole the school’s letterhead and stamp to get the User ID and password from the NSP”.

But at the same time, several schools sent complaints to district officials only after The Indian Express started verifying the beneficiaries. “Many of them are now desperately trying to distance themselves from the scam fearing an investigation,” said a district official.

In his police complaint, Blue Bells principal Verma wrote: “I have got to know from…reporter of Indian Express day before yesterday that total of 180 students have applied for minority scholarship in an unauthorised manner from our school…It is a humble request to you to please look into this as a matter of serious concern.”

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