Stain spectre on image well-crafted

Like the fodder scam which hit Lalu, Nitish faces questions over Srijan

By Sankarshan Thakur in Patna
  • Published 27.08.17
Preparations being made for RJD's 'BJP Bhagao' rally on Sunday. A galaxy of Opposition leaders is expected to be in attendance at Gandhi Maidan, among them Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav, Ghulam Nabi Azad and D. Raja. The focus will also be on rebel JDU leader Sharad Yadav. The rally will commence at 10am with Lalu Prasad scheduled to deliver the final speech around 3pm. Picture by Nagendra Kumar Singh

Patna, Aug. 26: Bihar is discovering that its two giants - Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar - have divided up more than just power and glory over a quarter century and more. They've grabbed a competitive share of infamy as well.

If Lalu has the fodder scam indelibly pasted on his CV, the Srijan stain is fast blotting up Nitish's. One was about spinning illicit gold with chaara, the other is simply and quite forthrightly, just chori - deft ledger manipulation of public cash for private profit in a little-known suburb of Bhagalpur called Sabour.

Hundreds of crores worth of welfare funds would get cannoned off to Srijan's accounts. Those monies would be loaned out at high interest rates and multiplied. Well before anyone beyond the racketeer nexus of bureaucrats, bank officials, society cheats and politicians, got a whiff of wrongdoing, the amounts would be bridged back to official coffers - an oiled-up cash carousel. Earlier this month, it coughed and came to halt on a bounced cheque.

Slowly but surely over past weeks, the quantum of alleged chori has leapt over the chaara heist; as newer revelations tumble out, Srijan establishes a firmer lead as Bihar's principal money scandal, edging well past the Rs 950 crore-odd fodder booty.

This, when Nitish has just cited pressing probity concerns to jettison his senior ally, the RJD, and effect a startling somersault back to the BJP. "No corruption taint" has oft been the high-decibel claim of high BJP bosses since 2014; but here comes Srijan, a tale of sustained and serial pilferage off the exchequer.

Nowhere has the Srijan shadow come to fall directly on Nitish yet; but even he cannot deny that rampant violation of norms and financial embezzlement proceeded on his watch, often under his nose, for more than a decade before that bounced Rs 8 crore cheque outed the scandal and forced him to scramble to action. Srijan was like a depth-charge that long floated under the radar but had finally come to explode.

Nitish Kumar, now NDA chief minister of Bihar, has adopted the alliance home-style and erected a single-line stonewall on Srijan-related questions: "We have handed the inquiry to the CBI." But off the record, key associates willingly concede Nitish has begun his sixth innings as chief executive on a poor note. "He broke the alliance with Lalu citing corruption issues," one of them told The Telegraph, "And he begins his innings with the Srijan revelations. Whatever he might say, this has damaged the very reputation Nitishji cites as his USP."

The elaborate Srijan fraud was, of course, seeded towards the end of Rabri Devi's stewardship. But it came to blossom and flourish through the Nitish years beginning 2005. All through this time, barring the short Jitan Ram Manjhi interregnum, Nitish has been chief minister; for a while he also held the finance portfolio himself.

Nitish's aides in the party and bureaucracy have been like a spinning and weaving mill this past fortnight, casting a wide net of explanatory "on background" in-defence-of-the-chief minister sessions to anyone prepared to listen: "It's a lapse, yes, but this isn't about Nitish Kumar, not every file comes up to the chief minister."

But as chief executive of the state, does he own the buck for the millions of bucks purloined from his treasury? And can it be reasonably argued that the Srijan stink burgeoned all these years without anyone in Nitish's "corruption-sensitive" secretariat smelling a rat?

Alarm had been raised, but there was nobody listening; or they heard and pretended not to. In 2008, then Bhagalpur district magistrate Vipin Kumar, who is currently Bihar's resident commissioner in Delhi, had put a stop to illegal drain of money from government bank accounts into Srijan's coffers. But nobody in government thought it fit to push the probe further into how the leaks had continued for nearly five years by then. And in any event, the setback to Srijan and its collaborators was only short-lived; once Vipin Kumar left Bhagalpur, the chori resumed, and would continue uninterrupted for nearly another decade.

In 2013 rang another bell; it was loud enough for the government to have to hear. Thereafter it was muffled. Jayshree Thakur, an ADM rank officer in the land acquisition cell, was discovered to have deposited Rs 7 crore-odd in one of Srijan's accounts. It also came to light that she had brought profit to the Srijan enterprise wherever she had been posted in Bhagalpur's vicinity - Banka, Purnea, Saharsa. Thakur was suspended; no effort was made to uncover the larger conspiracy or its dramatis personae.

Sanjit Kumar, a Bhagalpur-based chartered accountant, filed a suo motu plea for investigation to the Centre and copied it not only to the RBI but also the Bihar government. The RBI asked questions and upon that an official inquiry was instituted. What it revealed remains under wraps to the day. Jayshree Thakur faced no more heat upon her suspension; she was dismissed only after the Srijan outcry rang out in public earlier this month.

Union minister Giriraj Singh and former BJP MP from Bhagalpur Shahnawaz Hussain are widely known to have patronised Srijan and its office-bearers through the time it was pilfering the state. But there are two other involved individuals who have now begun to swivel like needles of suspicion towards wilful dereliction while Nitish Kumar has been in office.

K.P. Ramaiah was the one who, as district magistrate of Bhagalpur, violated the rule books to gift away a huge plot of government land attached to the Sabour block offices to Srijan on a 30-year lease. Who's Ramaiah? One description is that he is now a retired IAS officer of the Bihar cadre. Another, and probably more pertinent, that he was the man who Nitish gave the JDU ticket to contest the 2014 Lok Sabha election from Sasaram; Ramaiah lost, of course, then repaired to the rival company of Jitan Ram Manjhi.

The other is a man called Vipin Sharma, one time vice-president of the BJP's Kisan cell and owner of a fair reputation in political circles for being a generous "provider and fixer". The swashbuckler Vipin is alleged to have liaised smooth passage for Srijan's felonious excesses. From his perch in the BJP hierarchy, and with enough loose change to shower about, Vipin Sharma's job never seemed to tax him. His party quickly expelled him once the chori came to light. Then, conveniently, Vipin went absconding.

Vipin's late benefactress and founder of Srijan, Manorama Devi, must have been rather a fine seamstress in her day. She had all the power portals, from politicians to bureaucrats to influential hucksters like Vipin, neatly sewn up to serve her purposes. It is perhaps only upon her death in February this year that her design began to unravel. Those seams have come apart in such fashion that they have the all-new Nitish dispensation tied in knots.