Misuse of chief minister’s fund at the expense of the poor.
The Chief Minister’s Relief Fund, meant primarily to help the legions of destitute and victims of natural calamities, is being misused in Madhya Pradesh to provide pecuniary benefits to influential politicians, journalists, wealthy industrialists and even ex-princes and jagirdars.
The gross abuse of the public fund by successive chief ministers over the past few years has been going on under the aegis of the so-called discretionary nature of the fund. Principal Correspondent N.K. Singh reports on the wealthy ‘destitute’ of Madhya Pradesh.
Despite Vora’s claims that the fund’s recipients are needy people, the money seems to be often given to people with influence.
Dhanno Bai, 45, lived in a shanty town just across the chief minister’s bungalow. A cancer patient, by the time she went to the local hospital for women she was told it was third-stage cancer of the uterus and advised treatment at a specialised hospital. The nearest cancer hospital is at Indore, 200 km away. Dhanno Bai was among the poorest of the urban poor. She earned her livelihood by working as a cleaning lady.
Jai Prakash Sharma, a social worker of the area, applied to Chief Minister Motilal Vora for monetary help from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. Two months later, on February 3 this year, the chief minister’s secretariat replied to Dhanno Bai, asking her to furnish more details and another copy of her medical certificate. “We did that immediately.” said Sharma. Four months later, Dhanno Bai received another communication, sanctioning her Rs 200.
Accompanied by Sharma, Ramkrishan Prajapati, Dhanno Bai’s companion – they shared the same hut though they were not formally married – made five rounds of the Bhopal collector’s office. Officials there refused to hand over the money to Prajapati. They said that Dhanno Bai must come personally to collect the money. Said Prajapati: “I informed them that she was bedridden but they wouldn’t budge.”
Three days after Prajapati and Sharma made their last visit to the collector’s office, on July 2, Dhanno Bai died, clutching the bits of papers awarding her Rs 200. Recalled Sharma with bitterness: “We, the slum-dwellers, collected Rs 634 for her last rites.”
In contrast, Bhopal industrialist Vinod Gupta, 48, is an income tax payer, the owner of a printing press and a type foundry, and possesses a palatial house in an upper-crust locality of Bhopal and two vehicles.
Dhanno Bai, a cleaning woman suffering from cancer, died when her companion Ramkrishan failed to get the Rs 200 sanctioned to her.
Gupta also owns a two-acre plot of land in Bhopal’s flourishing industrial area, where he plans to put up a printing press at a cost of Rs 70 lakh. In addition, Gupta is the owner-cum-chief editor of a weekly, Hindi Herald.
He admits he started the magazine in November 1982, “to gain status in society” and that he has been bringing it out for the last five years despite heavy losses: “Every year I lose around Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 on the magazine.”
When Gupta suffered a heart attack this summer, he demanded – and received with far greater ease than poor Dhanno Bai – Rs 5,000 from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund.
Gupta is not alone. Princesses, ex-jagirdars, industrialists, former ministers, MPs, MLAs, ruling and opposition politicians and journalists are among the recipients of money from this fund. It was set up in 1972 with the help of public donations and contributions from the state exchequer to help drought-stricken people that year and future victims of such calamities.
For the past few years, however, an estimated one-third of the Rs 30 lakh distributed each year seems to have stopped at the top rung of the social ladder.
A complete breakdown of recipients is not available because the chief minister’s secretariat, which manages the fund on behalf of the Government, refuses to provide details of the fund’s accounts. Vora’s Secretary Nanda Ballabh Lohani, the member-secretary of the trust managing the fund, claimed that it was an absolutely discretionary fund. Declared Lohani: “We do not even submit its accounts to the Vidhan Sabha and we are not bound to disclose details of the fund’s activities to the press.”
Former princess Padmavati got Rs 20,000 for cancer treatment. Since her death, her family has been fighting for her legacy.
However, point number seven of the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund Rule, 1972, does have a provision for the annual audit of the fund’s accounts by the examiner of the local fund audit.
Commented Narmada Prasad Shrivastava, leader of the Janata Party in the state Assembly: “It is high time that accounts of the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund are presented in the Vidhan Sabha. That would keep a tab on its misuse.”
Normally, the Public Relations Department releases the names of recipients of money from the relief fund. But as Lohani confessed: “Sometimes we receive requests from people not to publicise their names.” But the names of some of the recipients, collected through various sources, reads like a veritable who’s who:
- The late Rani Padmavati, the ex-princess of Khairagarh, a small princely state in Chattisgarh region, was a minister in the Katju government. Her husband, Major Birendra Bahadur Singh, is the vice-chairman of the Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation, and spends Rs 1.37 lakh of the public exchequer’s money on himself every year. One of her sons is the MP from Rajnandgaon, Shivendra Bahadur Singh, and one of her daughters-in-law an MLA from the same area. Yet, when the ex-princess, who suffered from cancer of the uterus, demanded Rs 20,000 from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund for her treatment in 1986, she got the money immediately. Defending his action, Vora said: “What could I do? She came to me and said she had no money. When a person of her stature says something I’ve no option but to believe it.” The rani died recently and now a fierce battle is on in the family to stake claim to her legacy.
- Congress(I) MLA Abhay Singh Jhala, 63, is an ex-jagirdar. His family owns about 700 acres of land in Kachnaria area of Ujjain district. They have several cars, jeeps and tractors. He has been an MLA twice and the vice-chairman of the Land Development Bank. When Thala fell ill this year, Vora sanctioned him Rs 15,000 for treatment. Said Vora: “When I called on him at the Ujjain hospital he said he had no money, so what could I do?”
- Former chief minister Dwarka Prasad Mishra, 86, has a palatial bungalow at Jabalpur, the cost of which figured in the Gulabi Chana judicial inquiry against him. He has been a minister, and vice-chancellor. Yet former chief minister Arjun Singh gave him Rs 50,000 from the government exchequer in 1982 and Vora gave him Rs 15,000 in 1987 from the fund.
- The late Vedram was a man of property. He was sacked from the Arjun Singh cabinet on corruption charges. In a letter to Indira Gandhi in 1983, Vedram had admitted that he had “collected Rs 22 lakh for party funds” when he was a minister. Yet, the Congress(I) leader, who died recently, got Rs 20,000 for his treatment earlier this year.
- Dr Vikram Trivedi runs a private clinic in a swank locality of Bhopal. His is a commercial venture. Yet, early this year, Vora chose to give Trivedi Rs 15,000 for his clinic from the fund.
While the list of wealthy recipients seems to span only the last two or three years, the fact is that cases over six years old are forgotten and the chief minister’s secretariat refuses to supply information. Also, according to reliable sources, a time had come during Arjun Singh’s tenure when the coffers of the fund became so depleted that Singh started eating into the capital itself. So money was given to important politicians directly from the state exchequer. Among these beneficiaries:
- The late Sreekant Verma, Congress(I) MP and Hindi poet, who owned a couple of houses but was given Rs 3 lakh by Arjun Singh for his medical treatment.
- The late Surendra Nath Khare, a Congress(I) MLA, was sanctioned ex gratia aid of Rs 5.5 lakh in 1983 for treatment of kidney trouble in the US. But the doctors there sent him back to India and he was treated in Bombay.
- In 1983, Congress(I) MLA R.K. Sharma collected Rs 2.34 lakh for heart surgery at Houston, in the US.
Many of these recipients did not submit accounts to the Government. The accountant general’s office is alleged to have raised objections to the practice. The wealthy are now given money from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. That no accounts for the fund have to be submitted is, of course, purely incidental.
As chairman of a government corporation, Dubey gets medical reimbursement. But he prefers to take money from the fund for treatment.
It is not just ruling party members, however, who are allowed to thus draw on the poor’s preserves. BJP leader Shitala Sahay, a minister in the Janata government, with a flourishing practice as a lawyer and two houses – one in Bhopal and one in Gwalior – took Rs 20,000 for medical treatment this year from the fund. Lalji Patel, independant MLA from Maihar, was given Rs 20,000 this year for his son’s treatment, which was done free at a government hospital.
Journalists too are not exempt from the disease. Padmnabh Telang, 77, editor of Chetna, a weekly published from Bhopal owns a huge house, a hotel and a printing press in the town and landed property at Sagar. He is also the local agent of Bennett, Coleman and Company. One of his sons is a doctor, another an engineer and a third is a lawyer. “My monthly family income is over Rs 15,000.” boasts Telang. Yet he was twice given help – once in 1986 and once this year – from the fund for medical treatment. He got over Rs 10,000.
The former bureau chief of a news agency, who maintains a car and owns two houses – in New Delhi and Bhopal – collected Rs 17,000 in two installments for medical treatment in 1986. He was in the august company of Chief Editor of the weekly Bam Dam Diga Diga. Anil Shrivastava, who got Rs 5,000 for his wife’s treatment this year.
In fact, many people find it easier to draw money from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund simply because no accounts have to be submitted. A glaring example is that of the veteran Congress leader, Mathura Prasad Dubey, 77, chairman of the Madhya Pradesh Energy Development Corporation. As chairman of a government corporation. Dubey is entitled to reimbursement of medical expenditure.
But that is a cumbersome procedure. And the corporation would not pay for the travel and taxi bills of expenditure incurred by accompanying relatives. Dubey found it easier to take money from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund for his treatment at Bombay recently. Said he: “The chief minister’s secretariat is still examining whether the financial burden could be passed on to the corporation.”
Similarly, MLAs are allowed free medical treatment in government hospitals. They can also claim reimbursement from the Vidhan Sabha for specialised treatment outside the state. But they seem to be indiscriminately granted money under this head from the ‘discretionary’ fund.
Vora, however, claims that such cases are few and far between. He says that he normally tries to verify facts from concerned district collectors and most of the recipients of the fund are poor and needy people. “Even the poorest of the poor are now able to get money from the relief fund,” he said. He concedes that even rich people sometimes approach him for help. “Mostly they come on medical grounds and if I don’t help them I may be called heartless,” argued Vora.
As a top-level official in the chief minister’s secretariat, who did not want to be identified, admitted, some people have taken money twice and even thrice from the fund. Influential people find it easier to get money while poor people without any connections run from pillar to post.
Said Lajja Shanker Herdenia, a Bhopal journalist who recently issued a statement against the practice: “Earlier money was given to only victims of natural calamities and destitute, that too after verification by collectors of the concerned districts.” Raj Bhardwaj, another journalist who was also a signatory to the statement, concurred: “Now money is shamelessly demanded and mindlessly given. No procedure is followed. No criteria are adopted.”
Obviously, the fact that the fund is meant expressly for those who have absolutely nothing, is not important. For there to be a single beneficiary other than a destitute man would be highly irregular. This queue of MPs, MLAs, journalists and their ilk is nothing short of scandalous. But it is a matter for the chief minister’s discretion, and discretion is obviously the better part of valour.