Madhya Pradesh’s millionaire peons a smokescreen for the rot at the top?

Are raids on Madhya Pradesh's millionaire peons a smokescreen for the rot at the top?
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In his three decades of service, Arun Kumar Singh Baghel, a head constable with the Madhya Pradesh police, would have earned something in the range of Rs 50 lakh. But that’s not how it turned out. On December 28, a raid by an anti-corruption agency at his home in Indore reportedly yielded evidence of unaccounted wealth worth more than Rs 4 crore, including farmland, vehicles and jewellery.

The disclosure hardly came as a surprise, given Singh’s lengthy posting at the transport department’s regional office in Indore. On December 11, Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari said that regional transport offices are the most corrupt organisations in the country and that their loot surpasses that of dacoits in the forests of Chambal.

In Madhya Pradesh, corruption is not confined to the transport department. A glimpse at the records of the anti-corruption agency Lokayukta will reveal the rampancy of graft in the system. The enormity of the problem was exposed when the lowest rung of government employees were found to be flush with money following raids by the agency.

All-pervading problem

In the past five years, the Special Police Establishment of Lokayukta has discovered that at least a dozen peons and patwaris – the lowest ranking employees in the revenue department – have amassed wealth worth crores.

Last October, a raid at a patwari’s house in Raghogarh in Rajgarh district unearthed illegal assets worth Rs 10 crore.

A month before that, illegal assets worth Rs 7 crore were discovered in a raid at the Gwalior home of Kuldeep Yadav, a peon. This included six big houses in Gwalior. Yadav had been appointed as a peon in a cooperative bank in 1983, with his overall salary during this period amounting to Rs 20 lakh.

While the findings were startling, they only marked the continuance of a pattern. In April 2012, Lokayukta police raids at the home of Ujjain Municipal Corporation peon Narendra Deshmukh revealed assets worth Rs 13 crore.

Deshmukh had joined the municipal body in 1980 and his 31 years of service had yielded an official salary of around Rs 15 lakh. So a haul of 18 acres of land, farmhouses, 10 bank accounts and four luxury cars left the authorities astounded.

The rot in the system, of course, spreads to higher levels too. To name a few on a long list, separate raids on an agriculture department director, a health director, a forest officer, and a deputy director general of police revealed unaccounted assets in the ballpark of Rs 30 crore to Rs 50 crore each.

The most notorious case was in February 2010, when an income tax raid on married Indian Administrative Service officers Arvind and Tinoo Joshi unearthed documents that reportedly valued the couple’s assets at Rs 300 crore.

Taking credit

Despite the magnitude and frequency, these disclosures of ill-gotten wealth haven’t really ruffled the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government.

In his initial days as chief minister, Chouhan would argue that the unaccounted assets were amassed during the tenure of the previous Congress-led government in the state.

Lately, however, he has started attributing raids by the Lokayukta, an independent anti-corruption agency, to his government’s zero tolerance policy against corruption.

Last month, state Bharatiya Janata Party president publicly praised the chief minister for “directing the Lokayukta to go hard against corrupt officials”. This claim was denied by the Lokayukta, Justice PP Naolekar, who said that his office did not take orders from anyone.

Selective targeting?

Opposition leaders remain unimpressed by the raids and the state government’s gestures of self-appreciation, while members of civil society have criticised the Lokayukta’s “selective targeting”.

Right to Information activist Ajay Dubey, who has been campaigning for the prosecution of tainted ministers and senior bureaucrats, has called the Lokayukta raids a diversionary tactic. “The raids are meant to create an illusion about the Lokayukta’s fight against corruption so that people don’t talk about graft at high places,” he said.

Former Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said that massive corruption in the state cannot be curbed by targeting clerks, peons or patwaris. He dared the Lokayukta to conduct raids against top bureaucrats and ministers.

Since assuming charge in 2009, the ombudsman has so far given clean chits to 11 ministers and over a dozen bureaucrats, claiming that the complaints against them were not backed by solid evidence. There were no raids and the cases were closed after preliminary enquiries. At the moment, no minister is being investigated by the Lokayukta.

Justice Naolekar had also dismissed complaints against Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and his wife in 2011. The couple was accused of buying four dumpers fraudulently and leasing them out to a cement company in 2007.

The government’s decision in August 2014 to extend the Lokayukta’s term by a year drew sharp criticism. Social activists had staged a demonstration in front of the Lokayukta office to protest the decision. Naolekar’s predecessor Justice Faizanuddin had termed the extension till June 2016 as illegal.