As political parties make frantic efforts to gain maximum political mileage from the death anniversary of Bhagat Singh on Wednesday, a Rs 1 crore scam carried out in the name of Punjab’s and India’s most beloved martyr has been unearthed. The fraud dates back to 2008, when the young freedom fighter’s birth centenary was being celebrated. A vigilance bureau (VB) inquiry has revealed embezzlement of nearly Rs 1 crore from the sum the central government had sent to the state government that year for running the show. “The Cultural Affairs Minister Hira Singh Gabria turned everything topsy-turvy,” Swaran Singh, chairman of the Punjab Arts Council, told VB officials.
Bogus bills were raised in the name of not only event managers and suppliers but also top Bollywood artistes, the inquiry revealed. The bureau’s reply (secured under the Right to Information Act) to a non-government organisation, Human Empowerment League of Punjab (HELP), has brought the scam to light. In the investigation report, which is now with the bureau chief, the VB indicted many people, including a bureaucrat. A complaint from HELP activist Parvinder Singh Kitna had triggered the investigation.
The event organiser, Punjab Arts Council (PAC), spent Rs 3.05 crore on the function on September 29, 2008, at Khatkar Kalan, the probe revealed. Of this, it is said to have spent Rs 1.49 crore on lighting, stage, seating arrangement, tents, greenrooms, sound system, and power supply; Rs 1.12 crore on signing up singers and musicians; Rs 18.53 lakh on television/video production, stay, and transport; Rs 11.42 lakh on publicity; and Rs 2.52 lakh on hospitality.
The bureau report suggests that to provide benefit to the professionals stage management company based in Chandigarh, two fictitious bidding firms were created and shown to have quoted higher rates for conducting the show. The investigating team, however, failed to trace the addresses.
The PAC engaged firm GM Entertainment to bring Bollywood artistes to the event. The company pretended to have paid the performers (some non-performers too) a much higher price than the actual imbursement, the probe reveals. The vigilance team obtained the statements of all artistes concerned and their promoters and found out that except singer Pammi Bai, no one else was paid the quoted money. Music director Uttam Singh, for instance, was shown to have received Rs 20 lakh, while he was paid just Rs 1 lakh.
Playback singers Udit Narayan, Sadhna Sargam, and Punjabi folk singer Daler Mehndi were supposedly paid Rs 12 lakh, Rs 10, lakh and Rs 5 lakh, respectively, in the books, but the singers told investigators they had been paid only Rs 1 lakh each. Going by the bills, actor Ajay Devgan was paid Rs 6 lakh, while he told the investigating team that he had not even been invited to the function. Mehndi’s manager said the entertainment company had told the singer he need not come to the show, and they had no clue who deposited Rs 1 lakh into the artiste’s account.
The PAC hired another Chandigarh company, Rainbow Entertainment, for making a documentary film on the celebrations for Rs 15 lakh. The record brings out that three firms submitted quotations for the project, and except Rainbow Entertainment, the rest were fake. Even Rainbow Entertainment allegedly submitted false addresses. There was misappropriation in the purchase of cloth, flex banners, signboards, and other items.
The vigilance bureau also questioned PAC chairman Swaran Singh, secretary general Rajpal Singh, and executive officer Sham Sunder Sharma. Swaran Singh, then principal secretary for cultural affairs, said in his reply that a team of experts had prepared the detailed budget estimate.
He said the original project cost was Rs 6 crore but the central government curtailed it. The budget estimates and selection of artistes had been discussed in the cabinet; and since the organising committee had not much time, it had gone to “trustworthy” Karan Brar for assistance, he told the bureau. In this high-tech era, it was “not unusual to call quotations in a single day”. On the participation of artistes, Swaran Singh told the bureau that the state government had made up its mind to turn the event into a political function, knowing well that top performers had been hired and advance paid. “It was government’s fault and not PAC’s if they didn’t perform,” he told the bureau. “The cultural affairs minister got two stages built instead of one and made everything topsy-turvy. I had technical competence but my advice was not sought.”