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Spectre of scam limbo

- Officials, present & past, worried about impact of scandals on govt

Patna, Feb. 16: The state is staring at the prospect of administrative limbo as it grapples with the spurt in scams.

Little in fact is happening in Bihar. As its younger sibling Jharkhand takes strident steps towards attracting investment, the government in Bihar is struggling to draw business, even in the agro sector.

Former bureaucrats say given such a scenario, scams do more harm than meets the eye and punishing the guilty doesn't always help undo the damage. "It leads to administrative paralysis. Officials stop taking decisions on files and usually try to pass the buck," said V.S. Dubey, former chief secretary of Bihar and Jharkhand.

"Also, whenever scams take place, some innocent and good officials, too, face the brunt of police investigation and have to go to jail. Thereafter, officials try to avoid a scenario where any decision can be traced to their desk."

Dubey should know what he is talking about. He was the top finance ministry official in Bihar when major scams like the Rs 1,150-crore fodder scam happened in 1995.

He played a key role in detecting it. Soon, others - the bitumen scam to the tune of Rs 150 crore, jharu (broom) scam in which a ridiculously high amount was paid to clean up the secretariat and half-a-dozen more - surfaced. Also, like the fodder scam, many of these scams had been going on for decades.

"The side effect was that a lot of innocent officials and employees faced the music along with the guilty ones," recalls Dubey. "Before the scams, Bihar used to be a deficit state, having to go to the Centre for more money to pay its employees. After the scams it suddenly became a financially surplus state." This was not just because of steps taken to plug leaks, but also because officials became reluctant to spend.

The steps to bring in financial discipline bore fruit and there were no major scams in Bihar till 2010. The medicine purchase scam surfaced during chief minister Nitish Kumar's second term.

The medicine scam was followed by the infamous topper scam, the SC/ST scholarship scam and now the Bihar Staff Selection Commission (BSSC) scam.

Suddenly, the days of scams seem to have returned. "The magnitude has reduced but there are new areas - particularly the education sector," Dubey said.

It is no more about the loot of the treasury by a select group. It is more about underhand deals and subverting the system to benefit students and candidates.

But the scams that surfaced during Nitish's regime are already taking a toll on governance. The Bihar Medical Services and Infrastructure Corporation Ltd (BMSICL) was created on the pattern of southern states for centralised purchase of medicines for government hospitals on the ground that civil surgeons did not have the infrastructure to make medicine purchase and a centralised deal would ensure quality medicine at lower rates.

A scam was detected in the very first medicine purchase deal. The result has been that the corporation has not made a purchase even two years after the scam's detection. This is because purchase committee members are not coming to the meetings fearing they would be caught in another scam. Also, pharmaceutical companies do not respond to tenders floated by BMSICL.

The power to purchase medicines was restored with civil surgeons. But health department sources indicate that 80 per cent of civil surgeons are reluctant to make purchases. The result has been acute shortage of medicines in government hospitals.

Similarly, after the SC/ST scholarship scam - in which government scholarship was given to fictitious students in fictitious institutes - was detected, the government wound up the scheme on the pretext that it had launched the student-loan scheme.

The topper scam and now the BSSC scam have seriously eroded the institutions that hold exams.

"Suddenly, things have began to look like in the Lalu-Rabri era, where every step taken by the government was viewed with suspicion because scams had eroded the government's credibility," former deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi said.


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