By Malladi Rama Rao
It was billed as a Rs. 96 crore scam in the Food Corporation of India, (FCI). Minister Akhilesh Prasad Singh was furious. “Heads must roll,” he thundered. Out went a diktat to the CBI to probe. That was fourteen years ago in 2004-05, when the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was slowly getting embroiled in scams of all hues. Now, after so many years, the politician has egg on his face. The CBI has redoubled its image as the caged parrot.
Chuckles Siva Prasad, the Punjab cadre IAS officer at the turn of events notwithstanding the harrowing time he had under UPA-1.
Is he any wiser now?
“I did my job (then) – when the storm rocked the Food Corporation of India (FCI) operations from Chandigarh to Hyderabad. I do the same now – doing the job given to me,” he says nonchalantly.
How it all started?
Prasad, presently Punjab Government’s pointsman in Lyuten’s Delhi, as Resident Commissioner, is not very forthcoming.
“We, civil servants, are not head-line hunters”, he remarks.
His quest for justice to clear his name was long, and tiring, indeed.
Well, justice came finally.
Neither the dissent of his boss against hauling him up on coals nor the clean record – “there is no complaint against the integrity of Prasad,” helped the beleaguered man from Andhra Pradesh when the chips were down. In fact, his troubles started from his home state; the local Minister for Food complained to Union Minister of State (MoS) for Food, Akhilesh Prasad Singh about poor quality of PDS (public distribution scheme) rice supplied by the FCI.
Akhilesh Prasad was just waiting for some such complaint to teach a lesson to Siva Prasad, who was working as the Senior Regional Manager (SRM) of FCI in Punjab. The Telugu Prasad incurred his wrath quite a while ago.
The Babu had the audacity to refuse to oblige the Netaji, who represented Motihari (Bihar) constituency on the RJD ticket in the 14th Lok Saba. (Akhilesh Prasad Singh is at present a Congress law maker in the Rajya Sabha).
Siva Prasad was relieved from FCI on August 5, 2005 “without the approval of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, ACC. (The panel decides appointments to several top posts under the Government of India; Prime Minister heads it). He was not suspended; that was no small mercy.
“A question in this case is natural that if there are complaints etc received every year, why did the Govt. take extraordinary interest in this year? The answer to this is that Punjab being the largest single procurement state has over the years acquired the negative reputation of being a ‘money spinner’ state for the farmers, millers, middlemen, FCI staff and even officers. I was given to understand that the then MOS (Food) sought favours from Punjab and elsewhere at all levels, which when refused at least by the senior levels led to the action that was taken. A note from him indicating irregularities at various places and dated 22-7-2005 is on record, which when countered effectively led to the escalation of the whole matter against the charged officer (Siva Prasad) and others. This is corroborated by the speed with which action was taken, in a highly irregular manner bypassing all rules and regulations of disciplinary proceedings and natural justice,” V K Malhotra, who was Prasad’s boss as the FCI Chairman cum Managing Director (CMD) told the vigilance inquiry.
He could not provide a safety net to his officer. No doubt. But the consolation to Malhotra is that his dissent on the whole Govt process was “accepted and acknowledged” by the Punjab & Haryana High Court, while quashing three CBI cases against Siva Prasad.
The case file offers interesting insights into the working of India’s premier investigation agency. Once it was brought into picture, the CBI did what it knows and does best – invented evidence, found conspiracies by the dozen and slapped charges under various sections of Prevention of Corruption Act.
Not for the CBI Siva Prasad’s innovation that saved crores for FCI and kept tabs on the movement of rice bags – right from the procurement stage in Punjab to the fair price shop anywhere in the country. The High Court commended his efforts, though.
“It was because of the image of the petitioner (Siva Prasad) to fight against corruption and evolve a system for removing corruption that the Central Government appointed him as Senior Regional Manager (SRM), Food Corporation of India (for short ‘FCI’), Punjab region, as a large scale corruption was in vogue in the matter of procurement of food grains. The prevailing system, when the petitioner joined FCI, was lacking transparency in acceptance of food grains which resulted in encouraging nefarious elements both the private individuals and public servants, i.e. employees of FCI and State procuring agencies. The petitioner introduced a system which could keep a constant check on such elements,” noted the High Court.
Termed as “empower the bag” system, it provided for a raxin tag at the mouth of the bag, which was machine stitched. It gave the name of rice miller, crop year, code number, net weight, and lot number. So, whatever be the destination of the rice bag across India, it became easy to track down the supplier (the miller, the procuring agency, the accepting officials of FCI) and fix responsibility. Siva Prasad did some such thing in the Punjab Registration Department as well when he was posted there – firstly to check impersonation and secondly to detect evasion of stamp duty.
Yet, the CBI had come up with the allegation that Siva Prasad had colluded with the millers and the FCI officials for procurement of sub-standard rice. The charge did not stand scrutiny of the High Court. Also of the Supreme Court when the Attorney General (AG) took the case to a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice H L Dutta in August 2015.
Since the wheels of justice move slowly in this country, the Punjab IAS officer had to wait for one more year till October 3, 2016 when the Competent Authority (ministry of personnel under Prime Minister Modi) decided to “drop the major penalty proceedings” against him. And the matter has just become the talk of the town as he has begun to move around again with his head held high, to the great relief of his friends and colleagues.
The way CBI went around to “fix” Siva Prasad, however, illustrates the rot in the system. The agency built it case on the premise that the official did not carry out inspection of procurement ops and that he had allowed procurement of poor quality rice – ‘beyond rejection limit (BRL) in FCI jargon and the limits set under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (PFA).
There were witnesses to assert that Siva Prasad had, indeed, carried out inspections and took action against as many as 430 guilty employees notwithstanding shortage of staff. This narrative was accepted by the Central Vigilance Commission’s inquiry but the CBI paid attention to what it wanted to see and hear from the disgruntled – an occupational hazard of any upright officer.
The sleuths of the caged parrot ignored raxin tags that could have exposed the faceless guilty who had dumped substandard rice in the fair price shops of Andhra Pradesh. Instead, samples were collected at random with no representative of Punjab FCI in attendance, and the testing was done at Central Grain Analysis Laboratory (CGAL) of the Agriculture Ministry at Krishi Bhawan in New Delhi. This lab is not an officially designated Public Analysist by Health Ministry. Only Public Analysist is competent to declare food grain as beyond PFA limits. One more hard lesson to the caged parrot in perpetual hurry to please the master.
The message from Siva Prasad saga is loud and clear: it is not enough to be upright. Bureaucrats particularly from the IAS cadre should cultivate the habit of recording the reasons for taking a particular decision. Only a reasoned order can sustain scrutiny by investigating agencies and judiciary alike. And when decisions are questioned once circumstances change.
(*This article appeared in Power Politics, June 2018)