India Starves While Politicians Steal $ 14.5 Billion of Food MEHUL SRIVASTAVA & ANDREW MACASKILL
Continued from yesterday ...
In the Uttar Pradesh state capital of Lucknow, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officer Ahmad, 52, said the inquiry he heads is the largest he has undertaken.
His group of 22 investigators and a few researchers operates out of a run- down, three-story colonial building neighboring a hairdresser and a grocer. Ahmad’s team, cobbled together by a 2008 government order that allowed him to poach 14 officers from around the state, is only authorized to look at the period between 2004 and 2007 and the investigative area is limited to six districts because of a lack of manpower.
Ahmad said he will wrap up his inquiry by the end of the year, and he thought it unlikely he would charge any more senior politicians.
“As a layman, you would say that there must be a big man on top, but can I prove it?” he said. “Even if there is a top gun, I won’t get legally tenable evidence.”
While Ahmad’s investigation is aided by the simplicity of the food heist, it is impeded by its sheer size. He estimated that in its heyday, the scam involved 5,000 daily transactions spread across 500 square kilometers, involving thousands of individuals and hundreds of bank accounts.
In December 2007, the then-Home Secretary of Uttar Pradesh, Mahesh Gupta, created the Special Investigative Team. Based in Lucknow, it was given a vast mandate: to investigate the “large-scale scams in different schemes of the public distribution system in different districts.”
The period under investigation, though, was limited to between March 2004 and October 2005.
The team’s head, Assistant Director General of the Criminal Investigation Department Rajeev Rai Bhatnagar, spends one day a week at the job. The rest of his time is spent on other assignments, including the Criminal Investigation Department's (CID) separate investigation.
He said in a June 20 interview in his office, not far from Ahmad’s, that he interprets his mandate only to find and arrest people involved in food theft during that window of time. The brief doesn’t extend to shutting down any current schemes, he said.
'NOT MY CONCERN'
“Is the scam still ongoing? It may be,” said Bhatnagar. “But that is not my concern.” The team has about 300 open investigations and no prosecutions, he said.
A. L. Banerjee, an additional director general of the third investigative body, the Economic Offenses Wing (EOW), works from a government building in Lucknow where vagrants sleep on stairways and piles of garbage buzz with flies. He declined to comment when visited by a Bloomberg reporter.
In filings made to the High Court of Allahabad in 2010, the EOW said that while it was continuing to investigate the scam in seven districts, it didn’t have the manpower to extend the probe to a statewide level. It asked the court to help it source cars, computers, printers, photocopiers, fax machines and accommodation for its officers.
Tracking all three investigations is Vishwanath Chaturvedi, 47. A trade union leader with a law degree, Chaturvedi has filed public-interest lawsuits in various courts exhorting the judiciary to prod the three agencies into working faster and more efficiently, and to push for prosecutions that would put senior politicians in jail.
Chaturvedi filed the first lawsuit asking the government to investigate the stolen food in Sitapur in late 2005, then followed up by persuading the Allahabad High Court to extend the investigation to neighboring districts and to demand regular status reports from all three agencies. He later appealed to the Delhi High Court to monitor the investigation regularly, and has also filed petitions in front of the Supreme Court of India.
Still, he said in an interview that he doesn’t believe these investigations will snag any senior politicians.
“None of these agencies have the manpower, the willpower, or even the political support needed to investigate a theft of this size, this nature and this breadth,” he said, sitting in the living room of his house in New Delhi. Visitors must pass by a police checkpoint on the road and an armed officer at the front door after Chaturvedi received anonymous threats.
He often gets his tips and information from food activists in Uttar Pradesh and his own contacts in the trade unions. He then enters it into court testimony in the CBI’s investigation.
On December 18, 2011, he walked into the offices of the CBI with a man named Rajiv Yadav. Yadav told investigators he could provide the first link between the scam and the man known as Raja Bhaiya -- Uttar Pradesh’s food minister.
Raja Bhaiya, which roughly translates from Hindi as “our older brother, the king,” has cases pending against him for attempted murder, kidnapping, armed robbery and electoral fraud under his formal name, Raghuraj Pratap Singh, according to his declaration to the election commission. He hasn’t yet been charged with any involvement in the food scam and has denied the other allegations in public speeches.
In Pratapgarh, the district Raja Bhaiya represents, signboards line the highway congratulating him for his latest electoral victory, in March. On the signboards, he wears his hair short, with tinted eyeglasses and a white, collared shirt. He doesn’t smile.
This is his second time as food minister. During his previous tenure, from 2004 to 2007, the food scam spread from Sitapur district to all around the state, the CBI’s Ahmad said.
Yadav has turned over evidence about Raja Bhaiya to the CBI and given sworn testimony to the Delhi High Court, according to court documents.
Yadav said in an interview that he had worked for Raja Bhaiya as a public-relations officer, a fact confirmed by a state directory of officials from that period, his pay slips and a state identity card seen by Bloomberg News. He said he also had informal duties: to collect various sums of money from government officials involved in the scam, to record them in a ledger and to hand them to Raja Bhaiya or his wife.
All the details also appear in Yadav’s sworn testimony to the court. A copy of the hand-written ledger is included as part of the affidavit.
Short and mustachioed, Yadav now lives in hiding in New Delhi. He said he grew up near Raja Bhaiya’s house in a town named Kunda and was involved in local politics with him. In 2004, when Raja Bhaiya was appointed minister for food, he brought Yadav, 40, along.
Yadav said that between 2004 and 2007 it was his responsibility to collect about $200,000 a week from senior local officials. They were giving Raja Bhaiya his cut from what Yadav was told was the food scam.
The ledger lists dates, names and amounts. In some cases, it only lists a person’s official job title. In one instance, it lists an entire government bureau, the Weights and Measurements Department.
The cash would arrive in suitcases and thick envelopes. After counting the money, Yadav would pass it to Raja Bhaiya’s wife, Bhanvi Kumari, at their home on the edge of Lucknow. To protect himself against any accusation of skimming cash, he said he kept a listing in the ledger of how much was collected and the date, which Kumari would countersign. She hasn’t been charged with any offense.
Raja Bhaiya’s office declined to make him or his wife available for an interview. Yashvant Singh, a member of the local assembly who helps handle Raja Bhaiya’s press relations, asked Bloomberg News reporters to come to Lucknow on June 29 for an interview with the minister. The reporters waited for six hours in Raja Bhaiya’s office on June 29 and then were asked to leave. Attempts to interview the minister on a second visit to Lucknow on Aug. 9 were unsuccessful.
The ledger is being held by the CBI as evidence, and a copy was given to Bloomberg News. It shows that Raja Bhaiya’s wife received approximately $20 million over a 1 1/2-year period between 2005 and 2007, according to Yadav’s notations.
Yadav said he had other diaries and ledgers, which he hasn’t shown to the CBI or others. They show additional sums of money being transferred -- as much as $18 million over a three- year period, he said. He called the books an insurance policy against being killed.
“I never for one moment felt scared that I would get caught,” said Yadav, wearing a blue-and-white polo shirt during an interview in which he rarely uncrossed his arms. “If I hadn’t come forward, no one would ever have known this was happening.”
He earned Raja Bhaiya’s trust by running with the gang in their home district, and being involved in two murders and three attempted murders, he said, changing the subject when asked for details. He hasn’t been convicted of any crime.
In 2010, as the CBI’s investigation gathered steam, Yadav said he felt guilty for his part in the scam. He contacted Chaturvedi, who guided him to the CBI.
“I feel less guilty now that I have come forward,” said Yadav. “I feel more at peace with myself.”
According to Chaturvedi, Yadav’s defection may have a less noble explanation: he feared for his life after a physical altercation with Raja Bhaiya. He had already seen Raja Bhaiya shoot a man in the hand, Yadav said in the interview, adding that beatings of staff members were routine in Raja Bhaiya’s entourage.
“He was a psychopath,” Yadav said. “He felt really happy seeing people cry.” He denied a falling-out with Raja Bhaiya.
Yadav’s statements couldn’t be independently confirmed. Because the ledger has been turned in to the CBI and the Delhi High Court as part of a sworn affidavit, Yadav would be guilty of perjury if his statements were false. Ahmad, the CBI investigator, said he took the ledger seriously, but hadn’t had enough time to investigate it in its entirety.
“Anybody can write anything in a diary. Yadav is acting out of a vendetta,” Raja Bhaiya’s then-spokesman Gyanendra Singh told Indian news magazine Tehelka, which first reported the existence of Yadav’s ledger in April.
Since the fraud has yet to be fully investigated, the amount of food that was stolen from Uttar Pradesh’s public distribution system may be larger than shown in Yadav’s evidence and the CBI and court investigations. Only six districts have been probed, according to the CBI, out of 71 then in the state. Those investigations focused on a specific band of time -- four years at the most, in the case of the CBI.
Chaturvedi, the activist lawyer, has argued in court that the total theft may have been as much as $18 billion. The courts have not refuted the allegation, citing it in orders and judgments during regular monitoring of the CBI investigation.
In Gonda, the one district for which all three investigative authorities have agreed upon a number, the market value of food diverted was $82 million over a four-year period. Extrapolating over 10 years for the state’s 71 districts at the time, as much $14.5 billion may have been stolen. Uttar Pradesh now has 75 districts.
Back in Satnapur, few of the villagers have heard of the probes. Nor do most realize that they are part of a scam that has run for years, and is still to be completely extinguished.
Instead, they focus their thoughts on the stockpile of food 10 kilometers from their village.
“We dream about robbing it,” said Vaish, the activist, as the men and women around her laughed. “We could just storm the place, and every one of us could get a bag of rice each. Who would stop us?”
September 2, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Tinku (Punjab), September 02, 2012, 3:33 PM.
Pyjama democracy of India is standing at the edge of the precipice!
2: Manpreet Singh (Hyderabad, India), September 04, 2012, 5:18 AM.
Great piece! Appreciate the author's effort for providing the view into the scam. I am pretty sure there are so many other scams which are going on in India but unfortunately there is a dearth of gutsy people in this piece of land.