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Explained | What is the Chhattisgarh PDS scam that led to a Supreme Court listing controversy?

The alleged scam relates to irregularities in the State’s Public Distribution System when Raman Singh’s BJP government was in power

November 26, 2022 02:21 pm | Updated 02:21 pm IST

Image for representation only

Image for representation only | Photo Credit: MANJUNATH KIRAN

The story so far: On November 21, Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud agreed to hear the Nagrik Apurti Nigam (NAN) scam case in the Supreme Court, after a high-octane exchange last week between the Chhattisgarh Government and the Enforcement Directorate over the case’s listing in front of a fresh Bench with Justices M.R. Shah and Hima Kohli. Justice Chandrachud will hear the case along with Justices Ajay Rastogi and S. Ravindra Bhat, also associate judges on an earlier bench headed by his predecessor Justice U.U. Lalit.

What is the NAN scam?

The Nagrik Apurti Nigam is Chhattisgarh’s nodal agency for procuring and distributing food grains under the Public Distribution System (PDS).

In 2015, when former Chief Minister and BJP leader Raman Singh was in power, the Opposition allegedthat the government was distributing sub-standard quality grains under the PDS and that officials had received kickbacks from rice millers to allow this.

The State’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) launched a probe into the matter. While conducting raids on the NAN’s office, the agency found unaccounted-for cash worth over ₹3 crore. It also tested food samples distributed through fair-price shops for their quality, finding many samples of salt and rice unfit for human consumption. It booked 27 persons in the case— including two IAS officers, now the main accused—Anil Tuteja and Alok Shukla (the Chairman and the Managing Director of NAN, respectively) alleging that they had allowed the distribution of sub-standard foodstuffs. The ACB also found documents and devices showing transactions to beneficiaries. The ED also later started a money laundering probe in the case.

The ACB filed its chargesheet in 2015, and charges were pressed against the officers in 2018. This was also the year whenChief Minister Bhupesh Bhagel’s Congress government took charge, constituting a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the matter again. Notably, Mr. Bhagel’s administration also appointed the two accused IAS officers to government posts— Mr. Tuteja is now Joint Secretary for Commerce and Industries while Mr. Shukla is, though the Principal Secretary in charge of Education and other departments. In 2020, the Chhattisgarh High Court granted anticipatory bail to the two officers.

In 2015, Sudeip Srivastava, a lawyer from Raipur, also moved the High Court seeking further investigation of the case. The trial, however, has not been completed, and over 70witnesses in have turned hostile, according to Mr. Srivastava.

Why did the ED want the case to be transferred to the CBI?

Late last year, the Enforcement Directorate moved the Supreme Court seeking a retrial out of Chhattisgarh and the transfer of the case to the CBI. The ED, in its petition, alleged that the judiciary and the current Chhattisgarh government was weakening the investigation and helping the accused in the case and asked the Court to allow proof of the same. i

The ED alleged that its evidence revealed “the nature of the misuse of power” in Chhattisgarh, saying that evidence was tampered with, witnesses were sought to be influenced, and there could be a “potential conspiracy” involving a “constitutional functionary”.

The agency called the NAN scam a “well-lubricated system of illegal collection of money by the State officials for procuring lakhs of quintals of poor quality rice from rice millers”. It said that the main accused had close ties with the current Chief Minister Mr. Bhagel, and the SIT formed by the State government made “at least seven unsuccessful attempts” to stall the previous trial. It claimed that the SIT report was shown to and approved by the two accused and they were given confidential information about the ACB’s probe.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehra, representing the ED, also submitted in court that Mr. Bhagel met with the Chhattisgarh High Court Judge who granted anticipatory bail to Mr. Tuteja and Mr. Shukla. The ED also urged the apex court to not let the anti-corruption court trial conclude and let the CBI investigate first.

What has the current Chhattisgarh government said?

The Chhattisgarh government has called the ED’s allegations “baseless” and said that the alleged scam took place during the BJP regime. Responding to SG Mehta’s claim, Chief Minister Bhagel said last month in a tweet: “I would like to clarify that I have never met any judge and requested them to do any favours for any accused [persons].”

He claimed that allegations were levelled against him in a bid to malign his political image and that his administration would respond appropriately.

What was the listing controversy in the Supreme Court?

Recently retired Chief Justice of India U.U. Lalit, along with Justices Ajay Rastogi and S. Ravindra Bhat, was hearing the ED’s plea but dropped the case from the Court roster on October 20, citing paucity of time before the end of his term on November 8.Justice Lalitasked for the case to be listed in front of an “appropriate” bench on November 14.

On November 14, the case came up before a new Bench with Justices Shah and Hima Kohli, which posted it for hearing on November 21. However, senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for the Chhatisgarh government, objected, saying the convention required the case to be listed before either of the two associate judges on Justice Lalit’s Bench.

On November 18, Mr. Sibal made an oral mention to Chief Justice Chandrachud, again pointing out convention should be followed since the case was heard by a different Bench. Justice Chandrachud responded that he could have constituted a Bench of himself and Justices Rastogi and Bhat but that would mean breaking up two separate Benches, presently headed by the two Justices. Solicitor General Mehta, meanwhile, argued that there was a growing trend of maligning the judicial institution in the face of adverse orders, especially in politically sensitive cases. He said he could “neither choose nor avoid a Bench”. On Monday, however, Justice Chandrachud agreed to constitute a bench headed by himself, comprising Justices Rastogi and Bhat.

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