Here's the real MMS scandal

A mobile phone can help government improve governance. It can also help people keep a watch on officials!

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | May 21, 2012



Thirty-four-year-old Ram Naresh Kureel of Bachrowli village in Asoha block in Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh was always a troublesome whistleblower unearthing some official misdemeanour or other. Quite obviously he was disliked by the panchayat and block officials. But one SMS changed that dislike into absolutely pure and unadulterated hate.

Around 18 months back Kureel received an SMS asking him to call a particular number. As a self-professed do-gooder, with political ambitions of course, Kureel usually received countless such SMSes and it slipped his mind. After a fortnight, Kureel received two MMSes on his phone. Curious, as he wouldn’t normally receive MMSes, Kureel opened the first one and saw grainy footage of a district official shooing away a shrivelled old woman who was demanding her old-age pension. She was told by the official that “she wasn’t eligible for it”. The other MMS, equally grainy, showed a man with black hair, no wrinkles and definitely not a day over 40, collecting his ‘old-age pension’ from the same district official.

Digging deeper, Kureel realised that the MMSes had come from the same number from which he had received an SMS earlier. He had stumbled upon a big scam. But at that time it seemed that a visit to the district magistrate would solve the problem. It didn’t. The visit only saddled Kureel with pointless paperwork, bureaucratic skulduggery and apathy. Kureel then took up the matter with the member of parliament from Unnao, Annu Tandon. Her team filed an RTI query to find out what exactly was happening in Bachrowli. What came out tumbling was shocking.

Out of the 900-odd residents of the village, 235 were ‘officially’ getting old-age pension of '300 a month under the centrally sponsored national old age pension scheme (NOAP). That makes a startling 26% of the village to be over 65 years of age. Armed with this information, Kureel and Tandon’s team did an old-style investigation. They went to the schools where these so-called old-age pensioners had studied and got copies of their mark sheets and school transfer certificates that had their age. For example, take Kashi Prasad, S/O Beni Prasad, Serial Number 68 in the old age pensioners’ list of Bachrowli. The list mentions his age as 62, while according to his school transfer certificate his age is 44. They found that over 220 of these 235 ‘official’ old-age pensioners were in the age group of 30-50.

Kureel’s investigation piqued the interest of Tandon and she dug deeper and found several villages gripped by the same menace. “We found that on an average a village has population of 900 to 1,500 people. We also found that almost 25 to 30% of the villagers claimed to be of 65 years and above,” she says. “Just a back-of-the-envelope calculation will show you how big the scam was.”

There are 954 villages, gram panchayats and gram sabhas in Unnao. Taking an average of 250 claimed beneficiaries in a village, with each beneficiary getting '300 per month – '3,600 a year – and computing it by the average of fake beneficiaries found in Kureel’s investigation, around 200 at the lower level, the amount of money siphoned off in the entire of Unnao for a year works out to a stupendous '68.68 crore. “That is a huge sum of money by any stretch of imagination to be losing out every year,” she says. “I immediately wrote to prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh.”

The prime minister acted swiftly writing to the ministry of rural development, which is responsible for NOAP. The ministry sent a senior investigator, PS Srivastava, to probe into the scam. He is currently finalising his report for submission to the ministry and the prime minister’s office.

Swaminathan is a National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) Fellow. He is also a Senior Fellow in Observer Research Foundation (ORF). A dyed-in-wool digital native, he is one of the few surviving members of the original tribe of Internet crazies who used floppy diskettes, DOS prompts and WordStar

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