Every district was required to open a bank account into which those who had received notices were required to deposit the recuperated funds. This is the untold story of India’s Rs 3,000-crore farmer scheme scam.
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On October 29, Himadri Seshadri, an assistant officer with Assam’s Agriculture Directorate, arrived at her workplace and went straight to the PM-Kisan website, the federal government’s main farmer assistance program. PM-Kisan, which was launched in 2019, seeks to pay Rs 6,000 to millions of qualified farmers across India in three payments every year.
To enter the dashboard for the state of Assam, Seshadri entered in the organization’s official username and password. She was locked out, reports Scroll.
“Someone had changed the password. They must have done it at night because the last time I logged in was before leaving the office,” Seshadri explained the next day at her Guwahati office.
The portal is only accessible to individuals with official accounts and passwords. They create one-time passwords that are given to mobile numbers associated with those users and are valid for 24 hours after they are entered. (The OTP window was reduced to a few minutes in January.) Agriculture departments throughout districts are given usernames, commonly known as IDs, that allow them to add beneficiaries to the scheme and track their numbers.
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Seshadri called the National Informatics Centre, or NIC, in Delhi, which offers technical assistance to the federal and state governments. They have received similar reports from other states, she was told. She reset the password using an OTP sent to the state nodal officer’s cellphone.
Seshadri noticed something odd when she logged in with the new password. Only 34 official usernames were active in Assam, according to a report she had obtained from the portal the night before: one in each of the state’s 33 districts and one at the directorate. There were 36 active usernames for Assam at the time.
When she contacted the NIC once more, a technician informed her that the two new usernames for Assam had been generated at the state level, which can only be accomplished at the NIC’s headquarters in Delhi.
Rajasthan owned the cellphone numbers that corresponded to the new state-level usernames. It was a case of hacking, according to the engineer.
Meanwhile, officials were led to a traffic roundabout in Lucknow by IP addresses related to the accounts. Debjit Neog, Assam’s Nodal Officer for PM-Kisan, said, “It is a case of an organised cyber heist.”
Assam Police’s Criminal Investigation Department, or CID, received a complaint from the agriculture director. The directorate also requested that the NIC deactivate the two usernames and investigate whether any new beneficiaries were registered to the platform. They later discovered that none of them were.
This was not a one-off occurrence. By this point, a slew of abnormalities in PM-Kisan had surfaced, involving dozens of unauthorized accounts and thousands of unintended recipients. The state government ordered an investigation into the situation in May 2020, which was led by then-additional chief secretary Jishnu Barua. One of the report’s many damaging discoveries that has yet to be published is that 15 lakh of the 31 lakh people who got the money transfers were not qualified.
The sums of money at stake are enormous. The Union agricultural minister told Parliament in July that 11.08 crore beneficiaries across the country got more than Rs 1.37 lakh crore between February 2019 and July 14, 2021. However, he conceded that 42 lakh beneficiaries, who collected a total of Rs 3,000 crore at the time, were essentially ineligible.
Following the fraud in Assam leads to the discovery that it began with a mad rush to enroll beneficiaries ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. I nvestigation revealed that once the scam was started, it quickly spiraled out of control, with important government officials conspiring with local intermediaries to expand the monetary benefit to everyone who could afford it.
The 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam have little impact on New Delhi’s government formation calculations. However, in 2019, facing considerable opposition in the Brahmaputra Valley over proposed changes to a decades-old citizenship legislation, the BJP’s local branch has been under pressure to demonstrate that the party was popular. The direct cash transfer program for farmers was a godsend. Identification of recipients would be the responsibility of the state government. The Centre would instantly send money into their accounts after their lists were drawn up and authorized by the state.
“It all began with elections and the government’s pressure to add beneficiaries,” said Rejaul Karim, a data entry operator at a common service center in Darrang, central Assam, which had the greatest number of illegitimate recipients. Village-level entrepreneurs, or VLEs, run CSCs, which are IT-enabled delivery centers for government services, including welfare programs. Karim was arrested and imprisoned for his alleged role in December 2019; he was released on bail two months later and spoke with us in October 2021.
In the interim budget presented to Parliament on February 1, Union Finance Minister Piyush Goyal introduced the Rs 75,000-crore PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi initiative. Munindra Sarma, then Barpeta’s Deputy Commissioner, or DC, the district’s top ranking officer, called Haque a few days later. Haque was summoned to Sarma’s home. “We will give you a list. Upload as many names as you can.” Sarma told Haque at the meeting, which was packed with high-ranking district officials.
Others present at the conference felt the heat as well. Krishna Kant Pathak, the then-Barpeta District Agriculture Officer, or DAO, was one of them, and he was eventually suspended for “negligence” in preventing the scam. He claimed, “We were told to collect the data as soon as possible,” he said “We were barely given four to five days.”
Five days was a ridiculously small amount of time to complete such a massive assignment. Agriculture authorities enlisted the help of panchayat personnel in their authority to identify beneficiaries in towns and villages. Each ward is represented by a ward member, and each panchayat is divided into wards. These ward representatives were entrusted with collecting names and papers from potential beneficiaries by going door to door.
CSCs were in charge of entering this information into the portal. Haque and his friend, Harshajit Patgiri, set up a Whatsapp group in Barpeta to collaborate with a network of 92 village-level businesses who manned CSCs. Senior district officials such as the Deputy Commissioner and the District Agriculture Officer were among the group’s more than 100 members.
District officers, such as the District Agriculture Officer and the Circle Officer, who is in control of local tax issues, swapped usernames and passwords for adding beneficiaries to the portal, according to Haque.
Senior officials were also members of another Whatsapp group where they were put under extreme duress to deliver outcomes. Neog, who was a member of this committee, noted that the state’s Deputy Commissioners were recruited to it, and that it was overseen by the state’s highest-ranking administrator, the Chief Secretary in Guwahati.
Shahidul Islam, the owner of a CSC in Mandiya block, was given one week to enter 10,000 names gathered by panchayat workers. “The Circle Officer himself used to come and sit next to us, saying ‘karo karo'” – keep going, keep going, he recalled. Islam had ten data entry operators, but they could only complete 6,200 entries.
According to Barua’s report, Barpeta alone had 38 active user usernames throughout the first part of the data transfer.
Many people took advantage of the ability to make their own lists because identity proof documents were not scrutinized properly and bank accounts provided as unique IDs for each recipient.
After a state assembly election in May 2021, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance retook power in Assam. It authorized a new round of beneficiary verification. The one conducted in 2020 was determined to be insufficient, according to agriculture department authorities.
It was also necessary to distinguish those who were absolutely untraceable. The department sought the State Level Bankers Committee for assistance with these untraceable beneficiaries’ KYC details (information about a customer’s identity and address). The banks, according to Neog, were of little assistance and only issued documentation to “a handful” of people.
In the meantime, the government mailed notices to those who had been ruled ineligible after physical verification, which district authorities had gone door-to-door for.
The recuperation procedure was straightforward. Every district was required to open a bank account into which those who had received notices were required to deposit the funds. This money was subsequently sent to the agriculture directorate’s headquarters in Guwahati, where it was put into an Indian government bank account.
The government used public notifications to find those who were untraceable. The state administration released untraceable beneficiary lists on district websites, posted notifications in block and gram panchayat offices, and placed adverts in media in September 2021. They had 21 days to appear before the authorities, but few did. Untraceable beneficiaries who failed to show up at their local farm offices despite public reminders were labeled “ineligible.”
On October 24, 2021, the directorate’s data showed that 15,09,843 farmers across the state had been judged ineligible, while 10,07,491 farmers had been deemed suitable. However, cash were only recovered in little amounts – in late October, an official at Barpeta’s agriculture office brought out a register to reveal only 320 receipts from the district, totaling just Rs 2,90,000.
As the verification process reached completion in late April, nearly a year after Assam’s new government ordered it, the number of eligible claimants had risen to 14.93 lakh.
The scheme’s eligibility criteria have been enlarged as a result of recent modifications by both the federal government and the state. Farmers temporarily allocated land by the government and horticulture farmers, among others, have been included in the scheme in Assam.
Only Rs 1.5 crore of the Rs 500 crore that Assam is expecting to recover on behalf of the Centre has come in thus far. “Around 90% of those who returned money are government employees. The remaining 10% are rich businessmen ,” Neog explained. After the verification procedure is completed, the total amount to be reclaimed might fluctuate.
However, few people expect to obtain a large sum of money back. Many of the ineligible beneficiaries, according to Neog, would be poor villagers who would struggle to come up with even Rs 2,000. “What will you take back from people who don’t have anything?”