Unwieldy and perennially leaking funds, the Social Welfare department in Assam has long been derided as a vehicle for the ‘welfare’ of a section of corrupt officials. In the last couple of years, CAG reports and queries in the Assembly brought out how this department made bulk purchase of pencils and erasers that was downright fishy, how it procured ladies umbrella for anganwadi workers and toys for children at nearly three times the prevailing market prices. It now turns out that in last 15 years, this department has been feeding nutritious food to 9 lakh ‘ghost’ children. In monetary terms, it translates to Rs 150 crore siphoned out of the system every year, a staggering Rs 2,250 crore in 15 years. And the scam came to light only during the course of a departmental review ordered by Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal. This apart, as many as 390 anganwadi kendras have been found to be non–existent. The CM has been seeking performance reports of Integrated Child Development Schemes (ICDS), as well as monitoring of various schemes undertaken by voluntary organizations in the State. He has been mulling trifurcation of Social Welfare department to focus separately on the welfare of women, children and specially challenged persons, calling upon officials to dovetail the schemes in line with Central schemes. He has now promised a thorough probe to identify and punish officials who have been lining their pockets with the money meant for ‘ghost’ children and anganwadi centres. Let us keep our fingers crossed that he keeps his word, seeing that the promised action against corrupt officials and contractors in departments like Agriculture is yet to materialize.
The problem of ghost beneficiaries has been fouling up the works in department after department in this State. Over 300 fake Gram Panchayat Samabay Samiti (GPSS) and fair–price shops were found out by the Food and Civil Supplies department in July last, when it began digitalising the data of beneficiaries and agencies lifting food under the public distribution system. For those receiving subsidized rice under PDS, the number of bogus beneficiaries was feared to be as high as one–fourth of the total beneficiaries. Then there is the PC Agarwala one–man inquiry committee report, which exposed how bogus ration cards under PDS were issued in the me of 3 lakh ‘ghost’ households from 1991 to 2015, with the scam said to be amounting to well over Rs 1,000 crore. There have been many allegations leveled at the department for Rural Development for bogus job cards under MGNREGA and Indira Awaas Yoja (IAY) houses for non–existent beneficiaries. When so many welfare schemes are directed to people below poverty line, the government has its task cut out to constantly keep the BPL list updated with new additions, while omitting dead persons and keeping out fake beneficiaries. Last year, when the Ministry of Petroleum and tural Gas released its data on fake LPG connections, Assam with 9.9 lakh fake connections came third in the list after Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Across the country, the NDA government has maged to link over 80 percent LPG connections with Aadhar card, thereby weeding out 3.5 crore ghost connections and saving around Rs 21,000 crore in subsidies. Now the Aadhar card is not being distributed in Assam due to the ongoing NRC update exercise, as well as in Meghalaya. But the stringent paperwork in renewing LPG connections in Assam has surely yielded good results. Overall, the Aadhar card is being used as a tool to root out ‘ghost’ beneficiaries from government databases, in the massive effort to set up a tiol digital payments infrastructure. The Election Commission is mulling the mandatory use of Aadhar cards to detect multiple voter ID cards and correct electoral rolls. Despite the absence of Aadhar coverage in Assam, the Sarbanda Sonowal government while probing and plugging leakages in welfare schemes, needs to expedite the cleaning up of beneficiary databases. This in turn will require a mechanism to identify genuine beneficiaries while keeping out political motives, as well as rooting out crimil elements forging documents like income certificates and various identity proofs.