Uttarakhand flood scam: How govt officials made merry over dead bodies




By Harshmeet Singh

“Nero fiddled while Rome burned” isn’t a thing of history anymore. Some Government officials in Uttarakhand have actually demonstrated the true meaning of the phrase.

If you thought scams worth crores only take place inside closed doors of corporate offices with high level conspiracy meetings, the last couple of days would have come as a major surprise to you. The RTI query filed by Bhupendra Kumar of National Action Forum for Social Justice brought back the memories of one of the most devastating natural disasters to have hit the state of Uttarakhand. Unfortunately, these memories only serve as a reminder of government officials’ affinity towards scams and public money.

In 2013, the flash floods in Uttarakhand claimed over 5,000 lives. The heart wrenching scenes of boulders and water running towards people at a speed of several miles are still fresh in the minds. Soon after the weather cleared, the government machineries and insurance companies got into the act and sent their officials for relief work. As per the reply received by Bhupendra Kumar, these officials stayed in 5-star hotels which charged tariffs in excess of Rs 7,000 per day. If that wasn’t enough, the bills submitted by the officials show half litre milk being purchased at Rs 194! The other delicacies in the menu for the officials included Mutton, cottage cheese and gulab jamuns! These scrumptious meals were served to the officials at a time when thousands of people were stranded without food and water at many places for multiple days.

The other bills that were shamelessly submitted by the officials included diesel bills for scooter and motorcycles! Severe irregularities were also reported in the relief funds given to the people. A number of affected persons were given the relief amount twice.

State’s Chief Minister, Harish Rawat accepted the scam and told PTI, “I have ordered an inquiry into the allegations under the Chief Secretary. I can assure you that not a single guilty officer will be spared. These are serious allegations and if found true most strict action will be taken against the erring officials by the Government,”

Not impressed with Rawat’s statement, Ajat Bhatt, state’s opposition leader remarked, “If the state government has even an iota of morality left in it, it should recommend a CBI probe into the scam and resign owning moral responsibility for the ugly loot of money meant for people struck by an unprecedented tragedy.”

This has further added to the long list of scams under the Congress rule in the past decade or so. Interestingly, many media houses and the BJP have been continuously indicating that the Uttarakhand relief operations are turning into an ideal breeding ground for financial irregularities, but much like the other scams under its Governments, Congress decided to turn a blind eye towards these allegations.

Not the first time!

This isn’t the first instance of officials making merry over dead bodies. In 2004, Bihar was hit by one of the worst floods in its history, which caused close to 900 deaths. An investigation by a leading newspaper revealed that relief funds worth Rs 17 crore were untraceable with no authority having any answers. Gautam Goswami, Patna’s erstwhile district magistrate was suspected to have played a major role in siphoning off the funds. Embarrassingly enough, he was given the title of ‘Young Asian Hero’ by Time magazine for his outstanding contribution in the relief work in Bihar! Goswami died in 2009 due to pancreatic cancer. Among the other people involved in this scam was Sadhu Yadav, Lalu Prasad’s brother-in-law.

Our past experience with the scam gives enough indications about the future course of action. After years of enquiry and tens of charge sheets, a list of accused would come out. And it won’t be before a couple of decades at least that all judicial processes are over. By then, most probably, the main accused would be dead, thus bringing an end to another scam. While there are hardly any precedents to make us think otherwise, it would indeed be a pleasant surprise if, for once, our expectations are defeated and perpetrators are brought to book swiftly!