Calcutta, July 28: Over 450 tonnes of wheat meant for below-poverty-line people in Bengal were today seized from a ship about to sail for Bangladesh in the “biggest” foodgrain haul in the state.
The wheat, which the state had received from the Centre for distribution among the poorest of the poor, had been stored in a Food Corporation of India godown in Budge Budge. But when the time came to take the grain to flour mills, it was loaded into 36 trucks and instead taken to the Kidderpore port.
About half the consignment had already been loaded into the ship — the Al-Khan-Jahan-Ali (II) — when city police’s enforcement branch raided the docks around 9am.
Porters were carrying gunny bags on their backs and offloading them into the 800-tonne vessel. Tens of porters had been hired for the job, which involved ferrying several thousand gunny bags from the trucks to the ship.
The police described it as the biggest foodgrain haul in Bengal — the consignment has been valued at Rs 60 lakh — and the first where grains were seized while being smuggled out of the country.
“The challans we have seized from the truck drivers show the port as their destination. But the challans seem fake,” an officer said.
“We are trying to find out who is responsible for these challans,” said deputy commissioner (enforcement branch) Debabrata Das. “The ship’s master claimed he did not know the consignment was being smuggled.”
However, police sources later said the ship’s master had admitted that a similar consignment of wheat had been smuggled into Bangladesh last month on the same vessel.
Legally, the wheat was to have been delivered at the Ma Tara and RR flour mills in Budge Budge and Shikha Agro in nearby Bishnupur.
After being ground and packed into 750gm pouches, the flour should have been handed back to the food and supplies department for distribution through ration shops.
Today’s seizure could only be the tip of the iceberg, officials said. “None of this can take place without the active support of a section of government officials,” a source said.
Eighteen people, including the ship’s master and several truck drivers, have been arrested.
The police said grain was being stolen from the godown for over a month. “We received a tip-off about this consignment and raided the port,” Das said.
The South 24-Parganas controller of food and supplies, who supervises all godowns in the district, refused comment on today’s seizure but denied the police claim about past thefts.
“Had the police known about it, they should have acted earlier,” said Swarup Mondal. “Had there been pilferage earlier, there would have been a shortage of flour and the (intended) beneficiaries would have suffered.”
Food minister Jyotipriyo Mallick hinted that some officials of his department could be involved. “When the agencies collect wheat from godowns, a food department inspector should supervise the procedure. But no one was present when this consignment was sent to the port.”
The government has set up a six-member probe committee “The report will come in seven days,” Mallick said.
A police officer said Dhaka had recently issued a tender to buy wheat from the market. Three Indian companies had bagged the contract.
“A businessman in Calcutta had promised wheat at lower than the market price to these companies. He may have been smuggling the wheat to Bangladesh on behalf of these companies,” the officer said.
The police raided the businessman’s home tonight but he was not there.