The Enforcement Directorate 372/">(ED) arrested West Bengal Forest Minister Jyotipriya Mallick early on Friday (October 27), after interrogating him for nearly 22 hours, over his alleged involvement in the state’s alleged Public Distribution System (PDS) scam.
Mallick, the first TMC Minister to be arrested by the ED, was the Food and Supplies Minister in the TMC government’s previous term (2016-2021). He was replaced by Rathin Ghosh in the term beginning in 2021 after the government faced backlash over allegations of a scam in Mallick’s tenure.
What is the PDS scam in West Bengal?
The scam relates to the allegedly illegal distribution of rice and wheat, in which Mallick, businessman Bakibur Rahman, and a few others are said to be involved.
According to ED officials, Rahman had close links with Mallick. Rahman would supply rice and wheat in lesser-than-mandated quantities to distributors, who were supposed to sell the grains through fair-price shops – to the poor, at lower prices. But by selling lesser quantities to distributors, the balance could then be sold in the open market later for profit.
On October 14, the ED arrested Rahman from his home in Kaikhali, on the eastern outskirts of Kolkata. ED earlier carried out search operations for three days at around a dozen locations connected with Rahman in the Nadia and North 24 Parganas districts. These included rice and flour mills, a three-star hotel and a bar that he owns. The central agency officials also found a fleet of luxury cars, such as Porsche and BMW, during the raids.
The ‘PDS scam’ comes amid other recent probes by central agencies into various alleged scams involving the TMC. These include cases related to the recruitment of school teachers and municipal employees as well as smuggling of cattle and coal.
In April, on the directions of the Calcutta High Court, CBI registered a case in connection with an alleged scam in recruitment in various municipalities, district primary school councils, etc. According to the CBI, all contracts for the recruitment of Group C and D employees in these bodies were allegedly given to a single company.
Also this year, TMC supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee termed the central agencies’ summoning of party MP and nephew Abhishek Banerjee for questioning in the school jobs scam case as “political vendetta” by the BJP. ED is investigating the alleged irregularities in the appointment of school staff in government schools.
How did the scam happen?
An ED document, which is also believed to have played a role in Mallick’s cross-examination, has some details on the alleged scam.
The mill owners allegedly collected money from the government for selling their grains, but the quantity of rations that they supplied did not match. By interrogating the owners of rice and flour mills, the ED learned that the amount of flour was reduced by as much as 400 grams. Therefore, for the price of 1 kg of flour, the government suppliers would get 600 grams of flour.
According to the ED, both the suppliers and mill owners were aware of this mismatch and suppliers would be paid well for it. They would be encouraged to sign against having received say 1kg of flour, even after receiving 800gm.
Bakibur told ED officials that the profit derived from this mismatch in distribution would be divided in an 80:20 ratio. Ration suppliers would get 20 per cent of the profit and the other 80 per cent would be distributed between mill owners, government officials and the Minister’s office. More than 100 documents with stamps of government offices were found in his flat.
When were irregularities first flagged?
Then West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar criticised the government’s “poor” PDS, as did the Central government. S Jagannathan, Joint Secretary of Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Department of Food and Public Distribution, wrote a letter on April 23 to state Food Secretary Parwez Ahmed Siddiqui, saying: “Distribution of food grains in the state is nil under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) scheme”.
Under PMGKAY, each ration card holder was to be given five kg of foodgrains and one kg pulses free for three months in view of a pandemic and the scheme was later extended. This was in addition to the monthly quota of subsidised foodgrains of 5 kg per person under the National Food Security Act (NFSA).
West Bengal government’s response, and its mounting troubles
Then the state Food and Supplies Minister, Mallick denied these allegations. He claimed that despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi promising 1 kg of masoor dal per family under the PMGKAY scheme, the Central government sent only 607 metric tonnes (MT) instead of 15 thousand MT of dal.
Consumer Affairs Ministry’s Joint Secretary S Jagannathan wrote to the Food Secretary of West Bengal, saying: “The State/UT-wise allocation of food grains under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojona (PM-GKAY) scheme was already conveyed to all state/UTs and FCI (Food Corporation of India) vide letter dated 30.03.2020 and most State/UTs have already started the lifting and distribution of this additional food grains… However, in respect of your state, it is observed that no action has been initiated so far for the distribution of additional food grains (Rice) to NFSA beneficiaries under this special time bound scheme.”
The letter further said that as per the FCI, around 1.02 lakh MT of rice was readily available at all revenue district godowns in West Bengal and more rice was to be delivered. Further, it states that despite about 73,300 MT of rice having already been lifted by the state from the FCI, the distribution of food grains under the PMGKAY scheme was nil.
The letter added, “I would therefore request you that, while utilizing the readily available stocks of rice, a month-wise distribution of free food grains under PMGKAY scheme may be started for all 6.02 crore beneficiaries covered under NFSA without losing any further time. An immediate action would be in the interests of the beneficiaries this time of crisis.”