With anti-graft bodies rendered powerless in J&K the story of corruption is getting bigger in the state, marred by long political conflict

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|| RIYAZ KHAN

                  With each passing day the storyof corruption is getting bigger and bold in Jammu and Kashmir as analysis of the graftcases revealing that at least 90 percent of people accused of corruptionhave been acquitted by the courtssince 2001. Not a single high profile person including politicians, ministers or bureaucrats were convicted inhigh-profile graft cases.As per the official records the anticorruptioncourts which exclusivelydeal with the cases of corruptionand graft had completed trial against1,042 persons and acquitted 935,while 105 persons were convicted.Information accessed revealed in thepast five years just 44 convictionshave taken place in the courts of special judge anti-corruption in Kashmir and Jammu. But not a single high profilecases involving politicians, ministersof the day or bureaucrats wereamong the convicted. “Not even 10percent of the corruption cases registeredin a particular year reach to the conviction stage,” said a senior prosecutingofficer. “The faulty investigationand political interference are thetwo major reasons that the corruptionhas assumed alarming proportions.”In 2005, Transparency International,a non-Governmental world body,declared J&K the 2nd most corruptstate after Bihar, two years after J&Khad constituted the SAC and given ita “free hand” to go after the corrupt.One of the first few cases that werebeing probed by the body were illegalcontracts awarded by the thenChief Minister Farooq Abdullah andhis trusted lieutants Abdul RahimRather to their relatives. The casewas given a silent burial. In Jammuand Kashmir marred by long politicalconflict the corruption has got deeprooted to such an extent that investigationagencies like State AccountabilityCommission (SAC) has nowgot reduced to a “toothless donkey” inthe words of former High Court Justiceand member of the Commission,Bashir Ahmad Kirmani. The recordsof two other probe agencies SVO andthe Crime Branch aren’t encouragingtoo.

              “There is a systematic design to shieldthe corrupt,” an official remarked.The official then drew the attentiontowards the reports of the probingagencies brought to public ever sixmonths. Most of the graft-cases involvingformer ministers and bureaucratshave conspicuously gone missingfrom their latest reports.J&K Police have registered 3,66,332criminal cases, including 948 graftcases, since 2001, reveals a reportcompiled by New Delhi-based CommonwealthHuman Rights Initiative(CHRI) from the data obtained fromthe Crime in India reports publishedby National Crime Records Bureau(NCRB). “Corruption cases make0.26 per cent of the total criminalcases in J&K,” said Venkatesh Nayak,program coordinator of the CHRI.The report reveals that in 518 casesthe courts completed the trial but the proportion of convictions in casessent up for trial was only 31.85 percent. “The story of corrupt is only gettingbigger in Kashmir. Show me oneexample where a bureaucrat or a politicianhas been brought to the book,”vocal Independent legislator SheikhRasheed said. His fears were rootedin unwillingness of the Governmentto go after mighty in J&K’s corruptworld and the go-slow approach of theprobing agencies to take graft cases -some of them pending even after decadesof “probe” – to conclusion.The information of the past six yearsaccessed by The Tribune reveals thatnearly 50 convictions have taken placein the courts of special judge, anticorruption,in Kashmir and Jammu.But not a single person was convictedin high-profile cases involving politicians,ministers or bureaucrats. “Noteven 10 per cent of the corruptioncases registered in a particular yearreach to the conviction stage,” said asenior prosecuting officer. “The faultyinvestigation and political interferenceare the two major reasons thatcorruption has assumed alarmingproportions.”Political analyst Rekha Choudharysays corruption in J&K was not limitedto government and administrationonly but it was equally rampantin social and political life.According to her Kashmir conflictwas one of the main reasons for corruptiontaking demon’s shape.

In 2010, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), showed the conviction rate in the cases of allegations of corruption that have the distinction of becoming fullfledged cases was the worst, 20 percent, the lowest in any state.

                “Ours is not a normal state and there is no normal governance system. Any issue can turn controversial and destabilize the government and that is the reason the drive against corruption hasn’t been effective at all,” Choudhary, who teaches at Jammu University, told Kashmir Onlooker. Besides, Choudhary opines that coalition politics that emerged in J&K after 2002 was contributing to “deterioration” in the system. She says political (mainstream) class, irrespective of the ideology they belong to, know each other very well. “They serve each others’ interests when in power. It is a politics of give and take that has brought the system where it stands today,” She says. That could explain helplessness of PDP-BJP Government and Omar Abdullah as former head of the State to go after the big fishes. Omar government had earned the tag of the “corrupt cabinet” owing to number of his Ministers involved in various graft cases. A senior official said at least 11 ministers from both National Conference and Congress faced corruption charges. The fate of the case registered by the Vigilance Organization against Rather for purchasing 8-room villa in world’s costliest Island, the Palm islands in Dubai, against his known sources of income, remains unknown. Prior to that, the SAC allowed a case against Rather for according undue favors to his businessman son Hilal Rather by awarding Rs two crore contract to him for preparing smart cards for Secretariat employees, in violation of formalities. He also faced charges of earning Rs 12 crore commission in respect of computerization of 5 lakh employees’ data base commonly known as Computerized Personal Information System (CPIS), But the cases were never taken to conclusion. Another senior National Conference leader and then Minister for Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution, Choudhary Muhammad Ramzan was dragged to the Court for constructing residential building in posh Humhama, in violation of the master plan and encroaching upon state land. His colleague, Muhammad Akbar Lone whose tenure as the Speaker Assembly saw state legislature recording new lows in its history faces charges of making illegal appointments during his tenure.

             The Congress too has its share in J&K corruption. When former education minister and party leader Peerzada Muhammad Sayeed’s name surfaced for using his influence to manage his foster son’s successful conduct of 12th class examination, many recalled the 2005-multi-crore rural electrification scam in which he stands booked as then Minister for Rural Development along with the then Director, Rural Development, Asgar Ali, now a PDP leader. That time, the Court stayed the proceedings and years later, an unfazed Congress elevated Sayeed to the position of J&K party President. But Sayeed again embarrassed the party and was removed from the post after independent MLA Shoaib Lone, in 2008, accused him of taking bribe of Rs 40000 from him to grant a transfer of his sister, an employee in education department. Sayeed’s party colleague and former Housing and Urban Development Minister Tara Chand “swindled huge money” in local bodies Department in massive recruitment racket in 2011. The department made over 1,500 illegal appointments, almost doubling the number of employees, with “devastating consequences”, as per the probe, on the state economy. As the NC-Congress coalition went on, names of more ministers surfaced in the corruption world. Vocal Congress leader and then PHE Minister Taj Mohi- ud-Din’s name figured in “multicrore scam” in Rajouri for purchase of substandard pipes above the market price and issuing contracts without proper tendering. The case went to the SAC only to get shelved. In 2013 former Congress leader Abdul Gani Vakil wrote a letter to Party President Sonia Gandhi over corruption practiced by party ministers in Kashmir. But it too went unnoticed. Vakil made the charges after Taj and Sham Lal Sharma publicly engaged against each other over allegations of corruption in their respective ministries. Out of power, Taj now faces charges of grabbing 20 kanals forest land in Sedhav forest area of Shopian for which he was served a notice by the Forest Department in July this year.

            “He (Taj) has built a structure and developed an orchard on this forest land,” said a senior forest official. However, the demarcation was never taken up as Taj was a Cabinet Minister, said the official. Sharma, who had taken the fight against Taj in open, faces charges of his involvement in fake drugs scandal that rocked Kashmir in 2013. Congress’ share in corruption doesn’t end her. The infamous JAKFED scam worth over Rs 1000 crore hit party some years ago when the name of its party Minister Manohar Lal Sharma surfaced for bending to rules to occupy the posts of Chairman of JAKFED, State Cooperative Bank, J&K State Cooperative and Rural Development Bank (SCARD Bank), in violation of Rule 25 of Cooperative Societies Act. “The case is pending despite open evidence against him (Sharma)” said an official. Some corruption cases, yet to be decided, date back more than a decade. The then Health Minister Suman Bhagat, her son who was her PRO, the then MoS Health AG Sofi and the then principal AMT school Srinagar were charged for misusing official position to select 931 candidates in the nominated category against the sanctioned strength of 45 candidates in Ancillary Medical Training (AMT) School Srinagar. Though the scam was “established” the proceedings to book the culprits never went ahead. Before Congress’ Abdul Majid Wani rose to the level of cabinet Minister in previous government, a local court in Jammu issued non-bailable arrest warrant against him in timber scam worth crores of rupees. An official privy to the developments said a case (FIR No 77/1993) was registered against Wani, his father, Ghulam Ahmed Wani, and brother, Abdul Karim Wani for presiding over mass felling of trees in Marmat forest range of Jammu. Besides, former Congress Minister, Raman Bhalla faces charges of encroaching upon state land in Jammu while heading Revenue Department during National Conference- Congress rule.

               The ruling Peoples Democratic Party too has got its share of corruption. The Party President Mehbooba Mufti’s Political Advisor Mansoor Hussain was part of multi crores scam in Islamabad where crores of rupees had been withdrawn against nonexistent works. Mansoor, the former MLA was then working as Assistant Executive Engineer. In 2014, the PDP leader (now MLC) Yasir Reshi faced charges of encroaching upon over 400 kanals land in Marhama wetland in South Kashmir. The encroachment was allegedly facilitated by then Deputy Speaker JK Assembly and PDP leader Sartaj Madni. While the Chief Secretary headed committee had given clean chit to the PDP leaders, the case was handed over to the CBI for probe. In 2010, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), showed the conviction rate in the cases of allegations of corruption that have the distinction of becoming full-fledged cases was the worst, 20 percent, the lowest in any state. Despite well established cases against the Ministers why has successive regimes failed to act? Noted senior lawyer Zaffar Shah offers the explanation for politicians, Ministers and bureaucrats being let off despite their involvement in the cases of corruption. “All law enforcing agencies are under the control of the government. So whenever any official or minister is found involved in any corruption case, the government is likely to influence the outcome of investigation,” said Shah. He said even if the investigation agencies were “absolutely independent”, there won’t be results unless the men in charge were ready to take cajoles with the government.

               “We need the investigating agencies outside the control of government with upright officials in charge to get the results. But the system won’t let that happen,” says Shah. While the corrupt politicians continue to remain far off from the clutches of the law, the corrupt in the bureaucratic class too have grown immune to any kind of action. “There are corruption cases against 40 incumbent and former bureaucrats (both KAS and IAS officials) officials in the SVO. In many cases the crime has been established but the follow up action is awaited,” said the official. Senior IAS officer Baseer Ahmad Khan was booked along with seven other bureaucrats including then Divisional Commissioner Mehboob Iqbal, then Joint Director Tourism Sarmad Hafeez among other in 2009 for misusing official position for illegal transfer of land under Roshni Scheme. The SVO had also booked former Divisional Commissioner Basharat Dhar and former Deputy Commissioner Pulwama, Mehraj Kakroo over bungling in Roshni Act. Though Khan (then District Commissioner) was arrested by SVO, four years later, he was immediately bailed out. Today he is administrative head of a government department while Iqbal is head of JK Cricket Body and Hafeez is administrative head of a district. Dhar who went on to head GAD, was first rehabilitated by previous government as MD Power Development Corporation, after retirement from services, he is now heading State electricity Regulatory Commission. Kakroo retried as MD Power Development Corporation. “All those officials who had abused Roshni Scheme to confer undue benefits upon illegal occupants have remained unpunished as Vigilance Organization has failed to present challan in any of the FIRs registered in the scam during past two years,” said the official.

               The Roshni – under it the illegal occupants were conferred ownership rights over the state land – has proved to be biggest scam in J&K’s history as against the targeted revenue generation of Rs 25000 crores initially the collections even after more than a decade have not gone beyond Rs 3000 crores. Other bureaucrats facing charges of corruption include former Secretary to government Khazar Muhammad Wani, the then Principal Secretary Health and Medical Education, Sonali Kumar, her husband Arun Kumar, the then Director CAPD Ejaz Iqbal (IAS), former Commissioner Secretary Forest, Daleep Thussu and Farooq Renzu (retired) who faced charges of granting building permission illegally as then SMC Commissioner. Kumar, who was one of the main contender for the post of Chief Secretary, was booked by the SVO for misusing his official position by granting favors to a firm during his tenure as the Principal Secretary Science and Technology department. In 2007, GN Qasba, the then Additional Registrar Cooperative was indicted by the SAC in a case of fraudulent withdrawal of Rs 50 lakh from the department and the commission had recommended his dismissal from service. Qasba approached the High Court and got the SAC recommendations stayed.

            Today, Qasba has emerged as one of the influential bureaucrats and enjoyed a long stint as head of powerful, Srinagar Municipal Corporation. During his tenure corruption was rampant in the body. Similarly a corruption case against former Deputy Director Estates Sheikh Fayaz Ahmad, son of former Chief Secretary, Sheikh Ghulam Rasool is awaiting follow up action since 2007 after SAC recommended severe punishment to him. Prestigious academic institutions too have been hit by corruption time and again. Former vice chancellor, SKUAST-Jammu, Dr Nagendra Sharma allegedly made 400 backdoor appointments in the varsity during his tenure, the issue which rocked the state and give rise to the demands for Sharma’s arrest. Today, the fate of the case remains unknown. “Long drawn and sluggish investigation lasting for more than 20 years has allowed many tainted officials go scot free,” said a senior official who was involved in probing Roshni scam. He said over 220 cases including senior officials, middle rung employees and juniors, were being probed by the SVO. To a question why conviction rate was abysmally low and the ministers and bureaucrats were let off, the official cited a 1986 case in which two officials of custodian department, Muhammad Aslam Qureshi and Asgar Ali were booked for preparing fictitious records by misusing their positions (FIR No 9/1986). “More than 29 years have passed but the case is still lingering on despite all evidences against the accused,” the official remarked sarcastically. “How do you expect justice in case involving Ministers and bureaucrats?”