Prepare a list of doubtful or suspicious institutions and applications, use fraud detection software, conduct random checks and audits by an independent authority, use more indicators to identify schools on the National Scholarship Portal (NSP), include more application data on the portal.
Taking note of an investigation by The Indian Express on how a nexus of middlemen, school staff and district officials were illegally diverting pre-Matric scholarships for poor minority students, these are the five key preventive measures listed by the Ministry of Minority Affairs to be implemented “immediately for securing the process” for the academic year 2020-21.
The measures were listed in a letter dated November 18, signed by Aditya S Singh, Under Secretary, and sent to principal secretaries and secretaries of all states and Union Territories.
Referring to the findings of The Indian Express investigation, the letter states: “The report details instances as well as modus operandi adopted by unscrupulous elements in collusion with some school authorities, possibly related officials and the bank correspondents, to defraud the beneficiaries under Pre-Matric Scholarship Scheme of Ministry of Minority Affairs.”
It asks states to “thoroughly investigate the matter and furnish a report to this Ministry” and says that “further longer term measures are also proposed to be taken in due course”.
As part of its investigation, The Indian Express matched entries on the NSP with beneficiary bank accounts in the Public Finance Management System (PFMS) to find cases of the scholarship being illegally diverted in Jharkhand and Bihar. It found that the scam roped in schools from Punjab and Assam as well.
In several cases, The Indian Express found, 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. Then, they involved banking correspondents to open accounts of prospective beneficiaries using their Aadhaar cards and fingerprints before applying on their behalf with help from district officials.
The Ministry’s list aims to address these loopholes. The five key measures it suggests are:
* Provide additional data on NSP: At present, the letter states, the NSP uses only one indicator to identify a school — the Unified District Information System for Education (U-DISE) code. “It is proposed that U-DISE data on other specific indicators pertaining to a school like total enrollment, class wise strength, gender wise enrollment of students, strength of minority students in the school, etc., may be shared with the NSP,” the letter states.
* List institutions from where doubtful applications have been received: The letter states that district and state nodal officers “will conduct mandatory physical verification of such institutions and furnish a declaration of having done so on the portal”. It adds that “about 2%” of verified scholarship applications should be selected by the state officer “for random check/third party audit”.
* Use fraud detection software: “The doubtful/suspicious applications identified by the NSP portal through ‘Fraud Detection Software’ will also be resent for reverification to the states,” the letter states. It adds that all such applications must be reverified by the state officer “with the hardcopy of the application and supporting documents” obtained from the institute’s nodal officer.
* Recheck verified applications: All applications already verified “as on date” should be sent for re-verification and crosscheck with school records. “Further, the NSP will also provide data on scholarship applications verified by the school this year, previous year. This will alert the INO (Institute Nodal Officer) in case there is an unusual spike in the number of applications,” the letter says.
Besides, schools will maintain year-wise hard copies of certified lists of applicants and retain them for upto five years. These documents will be checked by nodal officers “physically on random basis”.
* Verify nodal officers: The letter also asks for reverification of all district nodal officers who will ensure through the head of the school that the institute’s nodal officers are “permanent/regular employees” and that they have not shared their User-ID and password with any other person.
The letter states that “in case of any incidence of fraud, the state is duty bound to thoroughly investigate the matter and ensure initiation of penal action against the culprits”.
Under the pre-Matric scheme, poor minority students from Class 1 to 5 receive Rs 1,000 per year, and students of Class 6 to 10 receive Rs 5,700 a year if they are day scholars or Rs 10,700 if they are in a hostel. Most of the corruption is related to these last two categories.
After The Indian Express published a series of reports on the scam starting October 31, the Ministry of Minority Affairs decided to ask the CBI to investigate. Police in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad Bihar’s Gaya have also registered FIRs and started investigations.
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