All year round, trucks move along the Srinagar-Jammu highway, bringing supplies of subsidised foodgrain from Punjab, which is sold at government ration shops in Kashmir. But before it reaches ration shops, the foodgrain is stored in privately-owned depots rented by the Food Corporation of India.

In August 2017, the corporation’s vigilance department filed a complaint with the Central Bureau of Investigation alleging that, at one depot in Baramulla in North Kashmir, 26,047 quintals of rice and wheat valued at over Rs 14 crore had been siphoned off. According to the corporation’s officials, speaking off the record, this had happened between 2015 and 2016. The vigilance department’s report, however, does not mention dates.

The complaint says the depot submitted false receipts showing the arrival of 130 trucks carrying grain from Punjab. The transport contractors in Punjab, the complaint alleges, had “misappropriated the stocks” in collusion with the food corporation staff and government officials in Kashmir as well as the owner of the depot in Baramulla.

The stocks had been despatched from Bhogpur and Kartarpur in Punjab. But before they could reach Lower Munda check post at Qazigund, where the trucks enter the Kashmir Valley before heading to depots in various towns, the stocks had been diverted, the complaint alleges. There were no entry records to show the trucks had passed through the check post.

The CBI filed a first information report on September 26, 2017, and started investigating the matter. But the Punjab-based transporters petitioned the Jammu and Kashmir High Court saying the CBI did not have jurisdiction in the state. On October 13, the court stopped the CBI from taking any action until the petition was disposed of.

On September 27, the CBI registered a similar case of misappropriation of rice stocks against another depot run by the Food Corporation of India in Kupwara, North Kashmir. The FIR notes that during a “surprise check” on July 12, 2015, conducted by a joint team of the CBI and the food corporation, along with “independent witnesses” from the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd and the Central Public Works Department, at least 853 sacks of rice worth Rs 11,98,465 and 12 bags of wheat were found missing from the depot. “Fake/bogus entries” for 20-30 trucks of rice, valued at more than Rs 1.26 crore, were uncovered at the Kupwara depot in February and March 2017.

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The FIR also alleges that from 2015 to 2017, food corporation officials, staff running the depot, “unknown officials” of the state’s consumer affairs and public distribution department and “other private persons” had “entered into a criminal conspiracy” to misappropriate stocks of foodgrain.

A food corporation official, who did not want to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media, said these cases were “only a fraction of the embezzlement going on”.

Missing trucks
The diversion of trucks starting from Punjab and headed to the depot in Baramulla was flagged in early 2016 by whistleblowers within the Food Corporation of India. The corporation’s branch in Kashmir then sent an inspection team to look into the allegations.

The team found that the licence plate numbers of trucks shown to have delivered the grain to the Baramulla depot were missing from the entry records at Lower Munda toll post. They concluded the numbers were fake.

They also matched the licence plate numbers of at least nine trucks shown to have supplied grain at the depot against vehicle registration records in Punjab. They found the numbers were assigned to tractors and motorcycles.

When cross-checked the numbers with the registration records in Punjab, available on a government website, it found that at least four of them belonged to motorcycles and tractors. The other five were simply listed as being “heavy motor vehicles”.

Fudged records
Apart from the missing trucks, the inspection team found that, except for a record of receipt and dispatch of foodgrain in first three months of 2016, complete records were not maintained at the depot. The food corporation audits all its depots every three months. At the end of each audit, the official said, the auditors “duly sign registers”. “So every actual register should have those signatures,” he said. “But the register shown to us had no signature of any official team.”

Even in the records for January-March 2016, the team found “huge variation” in the average weight of rice bags, which had been delivered on different dates but were from the same stock. In many instances, the recorded weight per bag exceeded the average weight of 50 kg. “It seems that the stocks are being issued without proper weightment and records are prepared only to match the receipt weights,” the inspection team said in its report in March 2016.

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In those three months, according to the food corporation official, the total weight of the bags apparently received at Baramulla was 466 metric tonnes more than the weight of the bags despatched from Punjab. This amounted to a misappropriation of about 9,300 bags of subsidised rice worth around Rs 1.15 crore, the official said. “It proved that data given was forged and not factual,” he said.

In April 2016, an audit by the food corporation found rice worth Rs 2 crore missing from the depot. The same month, the corporation’s area manager detected the first five of the 130 missing trucks, carrying grain worth Rs 51 lakh.

In January 2017, the food corporation’s regional office in Jammu ordered the recovery of the losses from the depot’s owner. In case of non-compliance, the order said, “the losses shall be recovered from his monthly rental bills”.

Fixing responsibility
The FIR filed by the CBI based on the food corporation’s complaint names six individuals – the depot’s owner Nirbhay Trehan and private employees Majid Ahmad Wani and Danish Nissar Kar, and three food corporation officials, Kirti Kumar, Firdaus Wani and Hilal Ahmad Dar. Kumar was the depot’s manager.

In its March 2016 report, the corporation’s inspection team accuses Kumar of giving “a free hand” to the owner to run the depot and abandoning his duties to the extent that a private employee was signing papers in his stead. Kumar has since been suspended.

The FIR also names two Punjab-based transport companies – Walia Goods and Transport and Gagan Traders – and unknown officials of the food corporation and Jammu and Kashmir’s food and civil supplies department.

All the accused have been charged under the Ranbir Penal Code for criminal conspiracy, cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property, criminal breach of trust by a public servant, banker merchant or agent, and forgery.

The Baramulla depot is run by Kash Ind Agro Infra Services, whose managing partner Nirbhay Trehan also figured in a case involving irregularities in wheat stocks transported into Jammu town. That case is also being investigated by the CBI.

Trehan did not respond to phone calls or text messages. was unable to locate Danish Kar and Firdaus Wani, and most of the other accused declined to comment.

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A food corporation official who spoke to also raised questions about the bureaucrats in the state’s Directorate of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs. He asked why they had not requisitioned more rice if the supply had fallen short because the trucks went missing. “Where is the deficit shown if stocks haven’t reached the FCI godown?” he asked.

Attempting cover-up?
The case of the two food corporation officials named in the FIR has run into controversy. In its complaint to the CBI, the corporation had named both Dar and Wani as its officials who were part of the racket. It had also served them a show cause notice. In response, they jointly wrote to the corporation’s general manager, Lokendra Singh, in June 2017, saying they were part of a special team sent by the regional office in Jammu to audit the depot. “We did our duties with utmost sincerity and honesty,” they said in the letter. “It was on that basis the losses suffered by our organisation were unearthed.”

Dar and Wani were suspended in January 2017, apparently without an enquiry. They were reinstated when the employees union protested but were moved out to Kargil in what fellow food corporation officials alleged was “reprisal for unearthing the scam”. The area manager who conducted the initial inspection and filed the reports about the irregularities was also sent a show cause notice in January 2017.

These officials claimed that senior officers of the food corporation were now trying to cover up the alleged misappropriation for fear the case could scorch those at the top. Instead of taking “strict action” against the owner of the depot, they pointed out, the corporation has only “punished the whistleblowers”. They also pointed to irregularities in the suspension and reinstatement of the area manager as well.

One of the accused in the case, who did not want to be identified, alleged that apart from the misappropriation of stocks, sizeable amounts of cash regularly exchanged hands at the depots. “It is like a cartel,” he said. “When the runners are caught, the bosses don’t come to their rescue.” #KhabarLive