Lucknow, Sept. 5: Every time Chandrabhan Nishad raises his voice, he coughs, and then gasps for breath.
Yesterday, he couldn’t stop coughing as the 63-year-old, his frame wasted by tuberculosis, trembled with anger. “Bewakoof banate hai garibo ko (they fool the poor),” he raged as a team of CBI officers searched a godown in Hargaon, a village in Sitapur district, 82km from Lucknow.
“They say foodgrain is not in supply at ration shops. Yet the godown is stacked with rice and wheat sacks.”
Last month, Nishad, head of a six-member below-poverty-line (BPL) family, was turned away twice from a PDS (public distribution system) outlet.
A team of 25 CBI officers, accompanied by Uttar Pradesh police, yesterday raided over a dozen establishments, including rice and flourmills in Lucknow and Sitapur in connection with an alleged foodgrain scam.
The allegation is corrupt government officials, hand in glove with some politicians, have been diverting foodgrain meant for the poor since 2004. Sources said the alleged diversion had already touched Rs 80,000 crore.
The scam, said to have originated during Mulayam Singh Yadav’s rule, has come back to haunt his son Akhilesh, the new chief minister, who has been trying to battle an image crisis following several riots and crippling power cuts.
Observers said if the previous regime, led by Mayawati, suffered because of a Rs 5,000-crore health scam, the foodgrain scandal would give the toppled BSP the ammo it needed to target the Samajwadi government.
Leader of Opposition in the Assembly S.P. Maurya has already seized on the unfolding scam, saying the “tainted minister who was in charge of the PDS department in 2004 has been given responsibility for the same department again”.
Samajwadi spokesperson Rajendra Chaudhury said the BSP was trying to divert attention from the health scam.
According to the sources, a key minister, embroiled in multiple criminal cases earlier, was under the scanner. Investigators have so far arrested 300 officials and traders, including an additional district magistrate of Lakhimpur Kheri, one of the scam-hit districts that include Lucknow and Kanpur.
Among the establishments searched was a Lucknow rice mill owned by a foodgrain dealer. Another team searched a flourmill in the capital city. The sources said the flourmill owner had made so much money that he recently launched an engineering college. The CBI also searched the owner’s house and that of his manager.
CBI sources today said officials involved in the scam sold the PDS foodgrain to traders, who later smuggled the grains to Bangladesh across the border in Bengal. One trader in Sitapur, they claimed, had made a profit of Rs 2.9 crore in a year by selling PDS rice in Bangladesh.
In 2006, Mulayam had ordered a probe by the Economic Offences Wing. In 2008, the Mayawati government ordered a CBI investigation. The Supreme Court is now monitoring the probe.
Officials revealed the scam had been detected in 31 districts of the heartland state, where health workers say 42.3 per cent of children are underweight and 9.6 per cent die under the age of five from hunger. Around 14.5 per cent of the population are undernourished.
In May this year, the CBI informed the top court that it had registered FIRs against 2,000 accused in the scam.