PM-Kisan scam: Defrauding farmers

In a startling expose, the Tamil Nadu Agriculture Department unearths a scam in which Rs.110 crore was siphoned from the PM-Kisan income support scheme by registering lakhs of ineligible beneficiaries.

Published : Sep 30, 2020 06:00 IST

Agricultural activities in full swing near Ambasamudram in Tirunelveli district on June 3. Many farmers who were unable to restart activity relied on the income support from the PM-Kisan scheme.

Agricultural activities in full swing near Ambasamudram in Tirunelveli district on June 3. Many farmers who were unable to restart activity relied on the income support from the PM-Kisan scheme.

When the Tamil Nadu government machinery was busy grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic across the State, a WhatsApp message from a farmer alerted a top officer in the State Directorate of Agriculture to the fact that all was not well with the implementation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship welfare scheme for farmers, the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-Kisan), in the State.

The message, received on August 6, claimed that miscreants and middlemen had been stuffing the scheme’s beneficiary list with ‘ineligible farmers’ with the intent to siphon funds from scheme. Just prior to its receipt, the Directorate of Agriculture in Chennai itself had smelt a rat while carrying out a routine verification of the scheme. It detected an unusual phenomenon: a sudden spurt in the registration of beneficiaries between April and July. The farmer’s message turned out to be correct.

Agricultural Secretary Gagandeep Singh Bedi, who initiated a probe into the scam, told Frontline that during a routine verification, a sharp spike in the registration of beneficiaries in August was noticed.

“The registration jumped from 2 lakh in March 2020 to 6 lakh in July-August. We felt uneasy. I immediately ordered a probe. As we are all engrossed in work related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the spurt in registration was noticed only in August. I asked Collectors and senior officers in Agricultural Departments in respective districts to carry out a thorough check, which led to the exposure of the scam to the tune of Rs.110 crore,” he said.

The State government, though a bit embarrassed initially, given the magnitude of the scam, reacted swiftly to stem the rot. A quick investigation revealed that the scam was largely confined to 13 of the total of 38 districts, mostly in northern and central Tamil Nadu. Armed with the beneficiaries’ details, the probe teams fanned out to various parts of the State and tracked down the culprits and also the ‘ineligible beneficiaries’ who included landless farmers, government employees and additional family members of beneficiaries. The probe further revealed that these scam-tainted 13 districts alone had registered a whopping 5.5 lakh ineligible beneficiaries in total since March, while the other 25 districts accounted for just about 1 lakh beneficiaries.

Under PM-Kisan, the Central government provides income support of Rs.6,000 a year to marginal and small land-holding farmers’ families with less than two acres of cultivable land, which is disbursed in three equal instalments. The sum is credited into the bank accounts directly through the direct benefit transfer (DBT) mode. The government has disbursed Rs.18,253 crore to 9.13 crore farmers under the scheme since March.

Nearly 39 lakh farmers have been included as beneficiaries in Tamil Nadu in the scheme, which was launched in 2018 across the country. In fact, the Tamil Nadu Agriculture Department’s Policy Note for 2020-21 says that small land holders (2 hectares) and marginal land holders (1 hectare) account for 93 per cent of the total land holdings, working on 62 per cent of the total cultivable land in the State. The average size of land holding in the State is 0.75 hectares, compared with the country’s average of 1.08 hectare.

A detailed report of the Tamil Nadu government on the scam, to which Frontline has access, also pointed out that after a routine verification exercise, the government identified a staggering 5.51 lakh ‘ineligible beneficiaries’ out of the total of 6.08 lakh beneficiaries registered in the scheme. It claimed that it had started recovering the money deposited in the bank accounts of the ‘ineligible beneficiaries’. “A sum of about Rs.46 crore until the second week of September has been recovered,” a senior officer in the Agriculture Department said.

The report also claimed that a few senior agricultural officers were suspended while 80 people, a majority of them data operators in private computer centres and data entry centres in the department, besides a few block-level officers in district agricultural offices, were dismissed.

It further said that so far, 81 contractual workers in Villupuram, Kallakurichi and Cuddalore districts, suspected to be directly or indirectly involved, had been terminated from service while six block-level agricultural officers in Vallam in Villupuram and Rishivandiyam and Thyagadurugam in Kallakurichi districts, where a large number of entries had taken place, were placed under suspension. Departmental action was initiated against 34 officers found to be responsible for the enrolment of ‘ineligible beneficiaries’.

The modus operandi

The scamsters made use of the mode of implementation evolved by the Central government to make the entire exercise easier and beneficiary-friendly; it had introduced a self-registration facility for farmers through the ‘Farmers Corner’ option in its official web site in 2019. Farmers were asked to upload relevant documents for registration directly, which would in turn be authenticated by the officers concerned—all online. Officers of the rank of Joint Director and Assistant Director of the Agricultural Department in the respective districts were given exclusive user IDs and passwords for authentication.

When the scheme was first launched a couple of years ago, farmers had to submit relevant documents, such as land records, ration cards, and so on, in person to revenue and agricultural officials for verification. The respective district collectors were to cross-check and verify the eligibility of beneficiaries.

Unfortunately, the self-registration process, though a well-intentioned and proactive move, does not include the option of cross-verifying the eligibility of beneficiaries with State land records and ration card databases. While States like Tamil Nadu have the required databases, many are yet to create them. Since PM-Kisan is a pan-India scheme, the Union Ministry of Agriculture, the implementing authority, has to take the scheme forward with existing facilities. This had led to unscrupulous elements exploiting it in some States.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami admitted that the self-registration facility had led to the scam, although farmers in the State claimed that various factors including discrepancy in enumeration of farmers, data on land holdings, delegation of the authentication power, and so on, were the prime reasons for the scam.

The modus operandi of the scamsters was simple. Computer operators in private computer centres and data entry operators in block-level offices, especially in the 13 districts, formed a syndicate. These fraudsters, with the connivance of some insiders in government offices, stole the officers’ user IDs and passwords to gain access to the portal to give authentication. They lured innocent villagers to part with their Aadhaar and land details under the ruse of getting them the ‘corona relief money’, which they claimed the government was sanctioning for the pandemic period.

Using the stolen passwords they would upload the names of ineligible beneficiaries and authenticate their documents for registration. Thus, lakhs of ineligible names had been stuffed into the beneficiary list. When the money was credited, they would siphon it off fully or partially from the gullible beneficiaries’ bank accounts. “We thought that it was corona compensation money against the losses we suffered during the pandemic,” said an ‘ineligible beneficiary’ in Tiruvannamalai district whose money was reversed to the government. The scam was largely reported in the districts of Chengalpattu, Cuddalore, Dharmapuri, Kallakurichi, Kancheepuram, Krishnagiri, Ranipet, Salem, Vellore and Villupuram.

Bedi said: “We are confident of recovering the entire volume of money that has been fraudulently credited into the accounts of ineligible beneficiaries. We have also suggested certain measures to the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, to plug the existing loopholes in the online self-registration scheme. They are happy and satisfied. When I briefed the Chief Minister about this scam and sought his permission for a detailed probe, he immediately ordered a Crime Branch-Crime Investigation Department (CB-CID) investigation. It is all transparent and nothing is political too.”

The government lodged a complaint with the Director-General of Police (CB-CID) and CB-CID offices in 13 districts. First information reports (FIRs) were filed in these districts and an inquiry was in progress. Eighteen persons, believed to be the brain behind the scam, had been arrested—seven in Kallakuruchi district, two in Tiruvannamalai district, eight in Cuddalore district and one in Dharmapuri district.

A senior Agriculture Department officer said that all ‘ineligible beneficiaries’ were not frauds. “They were misguided by this syndicate that the government was releasing the doles to compensate the coronavirus pandemic losses. The gang stole and misused the login IDs and passwords of senior government officials with the possible connivance of some black sheep in the government offices. We have now changed the passwords of all district officials and deactivated the block-level accounts of the scheme. The Directorate of Agriculture deactivated the district-level PM-Kisan login ID too,” he said.

According to him, a reconciliation process is on to sanitise the list now. The money that had been credited to ineligible beneficiary accounts was being recovered. “We have recovered nearly 60 per cent of the money credited into illegal beneficiaries’ accounts and there will not be any problem for eligible beneficiaries in receiving the next instalment, due in December/January,” he added.

The probe report pointed out that in a communication, dated December 3, 2019, the Government of India had mentioned that the Common Service Centres of respective States might be involved in the process of enrolling more farmers through the Farmers’ Corner option on the PM-Kisan Portal. It asked States to include Aadhaar details along with beneficiaries’ names and cross-verify the same. It further said that subsequent instalments of doles would be released only after this verification.

The State government undertook the exercise of verifying the existing beneficiaries. But since it was a huge and continuous process, the login credentials for the data correction and validation were made available to the block-level Assistant Directors of Agriculture by the Joint Directors of Agriculture. “It was here somewhere the fraudsters had gained access to the passwords and login IDs of officials concerned,” said a senior officer in Villupuram district.

Bedi, besides writing official letters, personally spoke to Chairmen and Managing Directors and CEOs of various banks with regard to the bank accounts of ineligible beneficiaries enrolled after April 1, 2020, and to recover the amount from them. “I asked them to deposit the refund amount in the Government account. Besides, we had created a PM-Kisan Administrative account in all the districts. The State has also asked the Centre to make necessary modifications in the PM-Kisan portal to validate the land records from the TamilNilam portal and also family cards from the State portal for enrolment of new beneficiaries,” he said.

Tamil Nadu is not the only State where the scam has taken place. It has hit other States too, including Assam, where the Chief Minister has ordered a probe.

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