SIMHASTHA 2016 has turned out to be the biggest ever government-sponsored materialistic fraud in the garb of spirituality in India, or, perhaps, in the world. Compared to the enormity of the alleged corruption in the spend on the month-long Mahakumbh that concluded on May 22 in Ujjain this year, the Commonwealth Games (CWG) scam that had rocked the nation six years ago would appear a cop’s bribe extorted from a two-wheeler driver for not wearing a helmet!
By the government’s own admission, it splurged over Rs. 5,000 crore of the taxpayers’ money on the mega event. This is the biggest amount any government in India—State or Central—has ever spent on a religious event, with a view to convert it into a government spectacle for brazen image-building of the head.
The magnitude of the sheer swindle becomes apparent when one compares this amount with the budget for Simhastha 2004. The then BJP’s Chief Minister, Uma Bharti, a firebrand sadhvi, had allocated just Rs. 256 crore for the Mahakumbh.
Madhya Pradesh’s Home Minister and Simhastha in-charge, Bhupendra Singh, had said in February this year that the budget might exceed Rs. 5,000 crore. He then admitted that the State government had already spent over Rs. 3,500 crore on preparation of the mega event. Since then, the government has not informed about the total expenditure incurred but, given the extravaganza that marked the Simhastha, the amount must have exceeded by atleast several hundred crores.
The Congress has alleged that more than 60 per cent of this money—roughly Rs. 3,000 crore—has been shamelessly pocketed by a nexus comprising of BJP politicians, RSS men, bureaucrats, contractors, businessmen and middlemen. The preparations for the religious congregation had begun since 2010 and potential beneficiaries had been carefully picked up for deployment so that the nexus remained a close-knit group.
Such a huge rip-off in the name of celebrating Hindu spirituality was expected to jolt the nation. However, forget the nation, even people in Madhya Pradesh seem resigned to condone the massive fraud played by the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government on their faith. It is not that the State’s people have become inured to the Chouhan government’s corruption. In fact, a pathetic absence of people’s outrage over the Mahakumbh scam is largely attributable to deliberate denial of in-depth information about the inflated purchases for the grand religious congregation to them by the State’s media—be it print, electronic or any other source of
THE so-called mainstream media has grossly underplayed, if not completely covered up, the Simhastha scam. Reasons for their insouciance to the massive loot are not far to seek.
The State government provided Rs. 600 crore for publicity and advertisements for the mega event. A substantial chunk of that money went to newspapers, magazines,
TV channels, websites, etc., in the form of packages. The quantum of packages depended on size and clouts of the publications. A senior IAS officer, who is close confidante of the Chief Minister, oversaw and executed the deals between media and the government.
In return, the government managed to buy good publicity for its works despite a plethora of incidents of poor arrangements, thefts, group clashes among sadhus and political flip-flop related to BJP president Amit Shah’s holy bath with Dalits. Even the deaths of seven devotees due to uprooting of tents in a storm and consequent mismanagement during the Simhastha were played down. A large section of the media showered fulsome praise on the Chief Minister for his ‘promptness’ in reaching out to the victims of the tragedy. Good publicity to the Chief Minister and to the Simhastha cost the State exchequer a whopping amount. In the bargain, mediamen also reportedly extracted a handsome reward in terms of free accommodation and travel. Some of them allegedly received cash too.
Two months have elapsed since the scam-marred Simhastha concluded but the State media has not bothered to carry stories of corruption which are, by the way, not hard to dig out. Senior reporters of two Bhopal-based newspapers admit, off the record, that their respective managements have told them to give only positive stories about the Simhastha.
Nevertheless, the media was expected to carry at least factual reporting of the Assembly proceedings concerning the allegations of Simhastha corruption. To their relief, the main opposition party, the Congress, spared mediamen the dilemma of having to do so.
ON the eve of the monsoon session, which began on July 18, the Congress had announced to take up the scam with a bang. As many as 87 questions were submitted by the opposition MLAs on the issue. Next day, however, the acting leader of opposition, Bala Bachchan, sought Speaker Sitasharan Sharma’s permission to suspend the house for a day on the pretext of Guru Purnima. The Speaker was only too glad to oblige the Congress leader, though it was not a holiday. While all offices functioned, the State Assembly session was called off. On this day, a large number questions related to the Simhastha were slotted to be raised.
A large number of Congress MLAs, who had come prepared to grill the government on Simhastha, were shocked over their leader’s meek surrender to the government. Loud whispers of match-fixing between the leader of opposition and the government to avoid discussion on the scam resonated across political corridors in Bhopal and beyond.
Three days later, senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh tweeted his disappointment over the Congress inaction. He also sent with his tweet a link of the media report that alleged fixing between Bala Bachchan and the government.
While the former Chief Minister’s admonition failed to jolt the Congress MLAs into action in the Assembly, the government lapped it up to berate Digvijay Singh for ‘insulting’ the sanctity of the State Assembly. The uproar in the house over the tweets ensured that no questions were asked about the Simhastha.
The State Assembly’s monsoon session ended without the Congress being able to force the government to explain why it paid several hundred crores in excess to contractors for highly inflated contracts. Neither the media nor the opposition has shown the willpower or inclination to take the State government to account for multi-billion rupee swindle in the name of organising the “biggest Hindu festival on the planet’.
COMPARISON between the Simhastha and CWG scams is inescapable. CWG, organised in New Delhi in 2010, had spawned a maze of corrupt deals, most of them involving inflated contracts. CWG’s chief organiser and Congress politician Suresh Kalmadi was accused of handing out a Rs 141-crore contract to Swiss Timing for its timing equipment—the deal was inflated by Rs 95 crore. The disgraced politician was jailed after a Central Bureau of Investigation filed a chargesheet against him a year later.
Now, compare the magnitude of inflated contracts that the Madhya Pradesh government is accused of with the one that had Kalmadi sent to jail:
- The Madhya Pradesh government spent Rs. 180 crore in advertisements in the USA and other countries’ media to ostensibly woo Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), but not a single NRI turned up for the Mahakumbh in Ujjain.
- Rs. 60 crore paid for health kits whose real worth was Rs. 5 crore.
- Water coolers, which were available in the market at Rs. 3,500 per piece, were hired by the Ujjain Municipal Corporation at the rate of Rs. 6,500 per piece for a month. A total of Rs. 30 lakh was spent on hiring 528 coolers for saints’ various ashrams and mutts.
- A total of 90,341 toilets were shown to have been built at the rate of Rs. 13,000 per toilet without any physical verification. In reality, only 40,000 toilets were built. Tender for the contract had notified its value at Rs. 36 crore but the cost escalated for payment to Rs. 117 crore. Worse, the contract was given to a firm which had been blacklisted in Simhastha 2004.
- Massive corruption allegedly took place in solid waste disposal, for which a Rs. 40-crore contact was awarded to a dubious firm.
- A bridge on river Shipra, whose cost was estimated initially at Rs. 5 crore, was shown to cost the government Rs. 15 crore.
- Rs. 10 crore were allegedly gobbled up in the name of levelling farms
to prepare ground for the Simhastha fair.
- Rs. 93 crore were paid for construction of a 450-bed hospital for which contract was originally awarded for Rs. 66 crore.
- Rs. 600 crore were spent on publicity, not only in India but all over the world.
- At Ninora village, adjoining Ujjain, an international conference was organised at the cost of Rs. 127 crore. Rs. 4 crore was spent on building a hut where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was supposed to stay, but he did not go there.
- A pitcher, which is available in market for Rs. 150, was purchased at the rate of Rs. 750 per unit. The government spent Rs. 7 crore on purchasing pitchers and that too from an auto spare parts shop!
- Breakfast plates were purchased at the rate of Rs. 1,625 per plate.
- Rs. 6 crore were spent on constructing a hotel, but Rs. 6.6 crore were spent on repairs of another hotel with the same number of rooms.
THESE are only 13 of the allegations in a long chargesheet against the Shivraj government which the Congress had prepared ahead of the monsoon session. State Congress chief Arun Yadav claimed that his party’s MLAs would not let the house function unless the government came clean on the allegations. He demanded a probe into the allegations by a High Court judge. Yadav also boasted that the Congress will expose the role of corrupt officers who allegedly pocketed huge money under the patronage of their political masters in the government. The hit list of the opposition included Ujjain collector Kavindra Kiyavat, who is considered very close to the Chief Minister. Besides, Simhastha mela chief officer Avinash Lavania, the son-in-law of cabinet minister Narottam Mishra, and Ujjain Municipal Corporation deputy commission Virendra Singh Chouhan, nephew of the Chief Minister have been accused of inflated purchases. A total of a dozen officers and half-a-dozen companies are charged with sharing loot through rigging prizes of various items bought in bulk for the fair.
The Congress charge sheet against the accused with detailed documents of inflated purchase is in circulation in social media. But the mainstream media is silent.