THE Tamil Nadu government has discovered a scam amounting to over Rs 110 crore in the PM-Kisan Scheme, with money withdrawn fraudulently online with the help of government officials and local-level politicians. Initial estimates show nearly five-and-a-half lakh people may have benefited as advantage was taken of clearance norms being relaxed after the Covid-19 lockdown began.
Principal Secretary Gagandeep Singh Bedi said they first noticed the unusually high number of beneficiaries being added to the scheme in August, especially from 13 districts. While 18 people, all ‘agents’ or ‘brokers’, have been arrested, 80-odd officials associated with agricultural schemes have been dismissed and 34 officials suspended, Bedi said. The suspended officials include three assistant directors of the Agriculture Department.
Of the Rs 110 crore-plus siphoned off, Rs 32 crore has been retrieved, mostly from bank accounts directly. The government said they expected to retrieve the remaining amount too, within 40 days.
Many people who were added onto the list of beneficiaries illegally were reportedly unaware of the fraud, with men posing as officials asking them for their details so that they could receive “Corona cash” from the government.
As per officials, the modus operandi was simple. Under the PM-Kisan or Pradhan Mantri-Kisan Samman Nidhi Scheme, Rs 6,000 is paid annually to a member of a landholding family, in three instalments. Since March, this has been cleared on the basis of entry of details such as names, size of plots, and bank and Aadhaar details of beneficiaries on a government portal, with district authorities approving the same using a login and password. The officials involved in the scam allegedly shared the login and password details with brokers. The latter, in turn, earned up to Rs 2,000 per beneficiary. Since March, two instalments have been paid out per beneficiary.
Bedi, also the agricultural production commissioner, said more arrests would take place. “A crime syndicate was behind this, working out of computer centres in local areas. Brokers collected details of individuals and got the same approved with the help of officials.”
Bedi said alarm was raised when there was a sudden surge in beneficiaries of the PM-Kisan Scheme, started last year, from 39 lakh in March to 45 lakh by August, with most of the spike coming from a few districts. “After the Covid-19 epidemic started and the district administrations became busy with preventive steps, the number of beneficiaries went up. Earlier, a team headed by district collectors approved the beneficiaries, after checking land records and ration cards. But, to make the process accessible to everyone, the Centre started the online application system, which was manipulated by fraudsters.”
Most of the money is believed to have been siphoned off in Kallakurichi, Villupuram, Cuddalore, Tiruvannamalai, Vellore, Ranipet, Salem, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri and Chengalpet districts. A CB-CID official said in 25 districts, only a few genuine beneficiaries were added to the scheme in the time period concerned.
Cuddalore district is estimated to have over 70,000 illegal beneficiaries, Kallakurichi two lakh, Villupuram one lakh and Salem over 10,000.
Cuddalore Collector Chandra Sekhar Sakhamuri said 27,600 people in the district’s beneficiaries’ list were found to belong to other districts. “About 70,809 bank accounts are being probed, we have recovered Rs 5 crore while Rs 14.26 crore is yet to be retrieved. Over 150 teams are engaged in the recovery process now, visiting the ineligible people to get the money back,” he said.
DMK leader M K Stalin accused the ruling AIADMK of facilitating the fraud, pointing out that Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami’s native Salem figured among the districts with the maximum illegal cases. The CM and Agriculture Minister R Doraikannu have said stern action would be taken against all those involved.
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