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08 October, 2013

Fodder scam lesson

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Politicians have blocked the passage of a tough law to deal with corruption in high places but two court verdicts of the past week show that the existing legal provisions are sufficient to bring offenders to book if only the authorities have the will to act.

In these cases trial courts convicted and jailed two former Bihar chief ministers, two members of Parliament and three senior Indian Administrative Service officers on corruption charges.

Lalu Prasad Yadav, who headed two governments between 1990 and 1997 and Jagannath Mishra, who was at the helm thrice before him, are the convicted former chief ministers. They, along with Lok Sabha member Jagdish Sharma, were convicted in one of about 50 cases registered in connection with the Bihar fodder scam.

In another case, Rajya Sabha member Rasheed Masood was convicted for allegedly selling seats in several medical colleges.

Yadav, Sharma and Masood became the first MPs to lose their seats in terms of the Supreme Court ruling disqualifying persons convicted and jailed for two years or more from seeking or holding elective posts.

If the tortuous course of the cases against these leaders indicates how systemic failures help the corrupt to get away, it also makes clear that if existing laws are implemented effectively the guilty can be brought to book.

The fodder scam cases arose out of continuous loot of the treasury for at least two decades. What began as a small-time activity of low-ranking officials gradually grew into a huge fraud of which top bureaucrats and political functionaries up to the level of the chief minister also became beneficiaries.

The modus operandi was to fabricate records of livestock in farms under the animal husbandry department and draw funds to buy equipment for the non-existent farms and fodder and medicine for the non-existent cattle. The loot was of the order of Rs9.40 billion.

The Comptroller and Auditor General, the constitutional authority who scrutinises government accounts, informed the Chief Minister of Bihar in 1985 that there was heavy delay in the submission of monthly accounts by the state treasury and this indicated the possibility of temporary embezzlement. Later chief ministers too were warned similarly but no one took remedial action, possibly because the high-up had been drawn into the scam by then.

In 1992, Bidhu Bhushan Dwivedi, a police inspector, stumbled upon the racket and submitted a report which hinted at chief ministerial level involvement in it. He was transferred and suspended. The high court later reinstated him and he became a key witness in the scam cases.

The fraudsters’ goose was cooked when Amit Khare, a young IAS officer serving as deputy commissioner, acting on information, raided animal husbandry offices in his district and seized records which contained clinching evidence of the scam. The media attention that followed made it impossible to sweep the dirt under the carpet. Khare is now a joint secretary in the central government.

Acting on a public interest petition, the Supreme Court entrusted the probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Yadav, who was chief minister at that time, had to step down. He later served as a minister in the central government but the cases against him continued. Those convicted with him include 13 government officials, three of them members of the IAS, and 20 fodder suppliers.

The case against Rasheed Masood dates back to 1990-91 when he was Health Minister in the VP Singh government. He had begun his parliamentary career as a Lok Dal member and was in the Samajwadi Party before joining the Congress.

According to Transparency International, 86 per cent of the participants in the survey it held to prepare the Global Corruption Barometer 2013 said Indian political parties were corrupt. Other institutions in the list, in descending order of perceived corruption, are: Police (75 per cent), Parliament/legislatures (65 per cent), Public officials (65 per cent), education system (61 per cent), Medical and health (56 per cent), Business/private sector (50 per cent), Judiciary (45 per cent), Religious bodies (44 per cent), Media (41 per cent), NGOs (30 per cent) and Military (20 per cent).

When corruption is so pervasive, tracking and jailing the offenders is a mammoth task. A stiff law cannot, by itself, take the country far if the political and bureaucratic machinery, which must implement it, is highly corrupt. The most important fodder scam lesson is that a few honest men can make a difference.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 8, 2013.

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