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Above: Congress activists protesting against the Vyapam scam in New Delhi/Photo: UNI

Three years after the Supreme Court entrusted the CBI with the task of getting to the bottom of Vyapam scam, the investigating agency still seems to be groping in the dark

~By Rakesh Dixit in Bhopal

As a scam, it is gigantic in scale. Over 40 people died in what is known as the Vyapam scam, in which the dramatis personae include politicians, businessmen, senior bureaucrats and lesser government officials, over 2,000 of whom have been arrested while another 1,000 remain at large.

A year-and-a-half after the Supreme Court withdrew from monitoring the probe into the Vyapam scam, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) seems to be soft pedalling the matter. The apex court had ordered a CBI probe into the biggest job-cum- admission racket in India in July 2015 under its supervision following nationwide outrage.

The scam had surfaced two years earlier in Indore, with the arrests of a dozen impersonators all set to appear as proxy for the Pre-Medical Test—2013 candidates. The test was conducted by the Professional Examination Board (PEB), better known by the abbreviation of the PEB’s Hindi name, Vyavasayik Pariksha Mandal or Vyapam.

Following the arrests, it turned out that apart from the PMT, all the recruitment tests that the Vyapam conducted for the state government departments were rigged, and politicians, middlemen, bureaucrats and the education mafia were all involved.

The Supreme Court, through an order dated July 9, 2015, in the writ petition Digvijaya Singh vs State of MP & others transferred the investigation of criminal cases related to the Vyapam scam to the CBI. It also clubbed the cases related to the deaths of persons who were allegedly linked with the scam for a fair and impartial inquiry.

On July 13, a CBI team, comprising over 60 sleuths, descended in Bhopal with great panache. Its operation was under close media glare amid a raging row. It took less than two months for the bureau’s officers to realise the vast complexity of the scam. Their focus shifted from investigation to seeking adequate staff.

MANPOWER CRISIS

In August 2015, the CBI told the Supreme Court that it was faced with a severe manpower crisis and a work overload of over 1,000 pending cases. But a three-judge bench led by then Chief Justice of India HL Dattu was not impressed with the bureau’s plea. “Whether it is simple, complicated, complex, super-complex … we don’t know, but you will take over. You cannot say that some cases the STF will continue to do, some others the SIT will do and some the CBI will do,” Chief Justice Dattu told the then Solicitor-General, Ranjit Kumar, who had appeared for the CBI.

Two months later, the CBI again cribbed about lack of manpower before the apex court. “The colossal task of investigating 107 cases pertaining to alleged corruption and nearly 50 cases pertaining to the suspected deaths related to Vyapam scam having more than 2,000 accused cannot be met with the existing manpower and infrastructure of the CBI,” said the agency, in its status report, submitted before the Supreme Court.

The CBI sought the sanction of 496 posts, including 108 constables, 36 head constables, 18 assistant sub-inspectors, 36 inspectors, 63 inspectors, 18 DSPs, nine ASPs, nine SPs and three DIGs.

This entailed a recurring expenditure of Rs 24 crore and non-recurring expenditure of Rs 55 crore. CBI spokesperson Devpreet Singh had then said that the agency’s demand for setting up a special zone for the Vyapam scam had been notified. This, she added, would enable the investigating officers to avail of housing facility in Bhopal and other places in Madhya Pradesh.

For the special zone, the CBI was sanctioned a staff of 70 personnel, including a deputy inspector general, five superintendents of police, and 60 investigating officers.

The zone was named AC HQ-II Zone of the CBI and orders were issued to provide support infrastructure, such as a building, vehicles and computers.

In the initial months, the investigating agency showed great alacrity in probing the cases related to the scam and keeping the apex court posted about the probe’s progress. Three months after taking over the probe, the CBI raided 40 premises in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. However, nothing substantial was found. Officers from central excise and customs, income tax and nationalised banks had to be included in the raid team to meet the staff crunch. That, however, turned out to be the only notable CBI field operation in pursuit of the accused in the scam so far.

CLEAN CHIT TO CM

One important case in which the CBI has worked hard is related to the allegation of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s complicity in the scam. The investigating agency has not only given a clean chit to the chief minister but has also told the Supreme Court of its intention to take action against senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh and whistleblower Prashant Pandey for “making false allegations and creating false documents”. However, the apex court is yet to take a call on the CBI’s affidavit in this connection.

The CBI put up its finding in the case in December 2016 before the apex court. During hearing, the court told the investigating agency that it would not monitor the scam further as investigations into most of the 170 cases associated with it had been completed. It gave a deadline of September 2017 to the CBI to complete the probe into the remaining cases.

After that, however, the CBI went into snail mode. Investigations virtually came to a standstill even as the investigating officers continued to seek and get transfers out of Bhopal.

In March this year alone, the CBI pulled out 20 officers in a single day from its “Special Vyapam scam zone” in Bhopal despite pendency of around 50 cases. All these officers have been transferred to the CBI’s anti-corruption branch in Delhi. The CBI had created the Vyapam zone in 2016 and posted more than 100 officers, including a DIG, ASPs, DSPs and inspectors. With the 20 recent transfers, more than 70 percent of the staff has been shifted out in the last six months. Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) Tarun Gauba, who is heading the special Vyapam zone, is posted in Chandigarh and supervising the progress of the Vyapam cases from there.

Only 19 CBI officers are left in Bhopal for the probe. None of them has shifted his family, indicating perhaps that they cannot wait to get back. They say that since eventually they have to return to their parent office after completion of the probe, there is no point in shifting to Bhopal.

Of the six superintendents of police (SP)-level officers, only one is left in Bhopal. Officials of the federal agency, however, say that investigation in 40 of the 50 pending cases is at an advanced stage. “In more than 100 cases, people have been chargesheeted and trials are on. Some officials will be transferred as a matter of routine. There’s no reason to shut down the zone,” a CBI officer reportedly said.

While admitting that 70 percent of the Vyapam team investigators have moved out of Bhopal, the CBI officer, however, said the officers were relieved only after they submitted the final reports in the cases they were probing.

Initially, a 40-member team was formed by the CBI director. It wasn’t long before some officers began asking to be sent back to their parent posting. A section of officers believes it will take two decades to get to the bottom of India’s biggest recruitment scam.

DISINTERESTED OFFICERS

Even when the Vyapam zone was opened, very few officers showed interest in taking up the central agency’s offer to join it, say sources. The agency had to eventually handpick officers from various branches and send them to Bhopal. Investigators were roped in from northern and southern states. The CBI has not made much headway in the scam. It has failed to track down almost half of the 2,000 suspects in nearly three years.

When the CBI took over the Vyapam scam, opposition and scam whistleblowers had expected swift action from the investigating agency. They are sorely disappointed now.

“The agency has spent more than Rs 150 crore on 400 officials in the last two years, but in vain,” says former MLA Paras Sakhlecha, a whistleblower in the scam. “Nearly 126 key accused have got bail while around 1,000 are still on the run,” he added.

WHISTLEBLOWERS DEJECTED

Another whistleblower, Ashish Chaturvedi, says the CBI has disappointed by not interrogating the high and mighty accused in the case. Yet another whistleblower, Ajay Dubey, feels the CBI has failed to remove the perception that it doesn’t work independently.

The Vyapam scam was expected to become one of the most potent weapons in the Congress’s hand to corner the Chouhan government in the 2018 assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh. But it has turned out to be a fading memory with the CBI failing to pursue the probe with the desired vigour.

“The Congress had demanded a CBI inquiry into the Vyapam scam with a lot of hope, but it ended up giving a clean chit to many of those who were responsible for the scam. I think the CBI should close this branch,” the Congress’s state spokesman, KK Mishra, told India Legal.

The Congress’s newly nominated state chief and former Union Minister Kamal Nath, however, is still optimistic that the Vyapam scam will embarrass the Chouhan government during the campaigning for the coming assembly elections. “We have not given up the fight on Vyapam. We will take it to its logical conclusion,” he told mediapersons on May 5 in Bhopal.

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