ITANAGAR, Aug 28 (IANS): Bamang Tago, a civil rights leader, did not have the faintest idea that a PIL (public interest litigation) he filed way back in 2004 could eventually unravel one of India's biggest frauds involving over Rs.1,000 crore ($213 million) of government funds allegedly pocketed by a clique of politicians-bureaucrats-contractors in Arunachal Pradesh.
"I knew it was a big food scandal in the public distribution system (PDS), but never realised it would be of this magnitude and that political bigwigs are involved," Tago, chairperson of the Arunachal Citizens' Rights (ACR), told IANS, days after former chief minister Gegong Apang was arrested in connection with the scam.
Tago and another public leader, Domin Loya, filed PIL June 13, 2004, at the Gauhati High Court, claiming that locals of Arunachal Pradesh were not getting any foodgrains under the PDS and accused the government of selling all items available under the PDS in the black market in adjoining Assam.
"Probably this would be one of India's biggest ever scams," Tago said.
Civil rights campaigners claim the scam took place from 1990 onwards. Apang was chief minister when the PIL was filed.
Six years down the line, the claims of a big food scandal levelled by Tago and Loya proved right - Apang was arrested Tuesday by sleuths of the Special Investigation Cell (SIC), a specially constituted state agency probing the scam under the direct supervision of Gauhati High Court.
"Apang's arrest could be just the tip of the iceberg and we firmly believe many more political heavyweights, bureaucrats and contractors would come under the SIC net and eventually the scam could well cross the Rs.1,000-crore figure," Tago said.
It was not a smooth probe though. The SIC was constituted by the state government in May 2005 and the investigation made very little progress until June 2007.
"The Gauhati High Court on June 15, 2007, ordered the SIC to speed up the probe and entrusted the investigating officer to directly report the progress to the court," Tago told IANS.
The probe continued with about 50 people, including Apang, chargesheeted. A number of bureaucrats and contractors were also named in the chargesheet filed by the SIC.
So what was the scam and how did it take place?
The scam was in the form of false and fraudulent transport subsidy bills which were cleared without financial concurrence, besides inflated bills for procuring items.
"Hills Transport Subsidy can only be claimed for foodgrains like rice and wheat, but bills were paid for sugar and other items to the tune of crores," an SIC official said.
During the period 1999 to 2006 (when Apang was chief minister) more than Rs.1,000 crore were spent on PDS, while it was just Rs.24 crore during the period from 2006 to 2010 (till June) despite the population going up to one million from 800,000 in 1999.
"The discrepancies in figures clearly indicate the magnitude of the corruption," Tago said. "More than Rs.1,000 crore were claimed and disbursed without any financial concurrence by the state government."
The SIC probe revealed that the then secretary, civil supplies, opened a savings account at Allahabad Bank, Guwahati, for carrying out financial transactions with contractors even though the secretary does not have such financial powers to do so.
Apang, meanwhile, is trying to disassociate from the scam, saying it was a political conspiracy against him.
"The SIC is directly under the control of the Gauhati High Court and so the question of the state government interfering simply does not arise. Apang's allegations are baseless," senior minister and Arunachal Pradesh government spokesperson Jarbom Gamlin said.