Chandigarh: Haryana Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Singh Chautala said the “liquor scam”, which the opposition and some sections in the state government are debating upon, isn’t a scam at all.
Talking to ThePrint Friday, Chautala, who also holds the excise portfolio, said neither had the government caused a loss to the state exchequer nor were any favours granted to private individuals.
“So, to call it a scam is blowing up the matter out of proportion,” said Chautala, who heads the JJP, an ally of the ruling coalition in the state.
The alleged scam came to light in early May when large quantities of seized liquor was stolen from two godowns in Sonepat when all liquor vends were closed in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown. While one godown was being used by the excise department to store seized liquor, the other was being used by the police department for the same purpose.
Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij on 6 May ordered the formation of a Special Enquiry Team (SET), to be headed by senior IAS officer T.C. Gupta, to probe into the ‘scam’. And the findings of the SET have triggered cracks in the ruling BJP-JJP collision.
The SET, which submitted its report to Vij on 31 July, has indicted state excise and taxation commissioner Shekhar Vidyarthi.
While Chautala told ThePrint that he “won’t allow action against Vidyarthi”, both Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar and Vij have said action should be taken against the guilty based on the SET’s findings.
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Vij forwarded the SET report to the chief minister in the first week of August and also recommended a vigilance probe into the scam, besides appropriate action against the officers named in the report, including Vidyarthi.
The SET, among other things, has recommended action against Vidyarthi on two counts — Vidyarthi did not give instructions to shut down vends during lockdown and he also attempted to hamper the SET’s functioning by not allowing the team to visit a distillery that was under its scanner.
How is Vidyarthi to be blamed, asks Chautala
Speaking to ThePrint, the deputy CM said: “On 26 March, I issued orders to all district excise officers to shut down vends.
“The next day, by 11 am, we had received written compliance of the orders. So how is Vidyarthi to be blamed? Secondly, SET members were not authorised to enter distilleries under the Excise Act, and, hence, refused (to visit the said distillery). If they had to do it, they could have invoked the Epidemic Act and inspected any place. There has been no dereliction of duty and that is why I am standing by him,” he told The Print.
Meanwhile, the chief minister has sent the SET report to chief secretary Keshni Anand Arora, who is now expected to forward it to the excise and home departments, among others, for their comments.
Arora told ThePrint: “The report was received Tuesday (this week) and we are examining it.”
Chautala said: “Once our comments are sought on the report, we will make our intentions clear on the file.”
ThePrint reached Vij and home secretary Vijay Vardhan via phone calls and text messages, but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.
Opposition attacks ruling coalition over the ‘scam’
With ruling alliance partners Khattar, Vij and Chautala expressing opposing views on the alleged scam publicly, the opposition is having a field day.
Leader of Opposition in the Haryana assembly Bhupinder Singh Hooda said the “left hand of the government does not know what the right is doing”.
“If this is how this state is going to be run with no coordination between the two coalition partners, we will see the government collapse,” the senior Congress leader told reporters on 11 August.
In a joint statement issued on 9 August, senior Haryana leader Randeep Surjewala and state Congress chief Kumari Selja said: “… Initially we were made to believe that an SIT has been constituted. It was later changed into an SET. The difference between a special investigative team and the special enquiry team is that an SET does not have many powers to carry out a thorough probe.
“Another vigilance investigation is being ordered in pursuance to this SET inquiry. That means there shall be investigation on investigation, but with no result. The ultimate objective is to protect the well-connected people sitting in the government and the culprits, and to cover up the nexus between the liquor mafia, politicians and top government officials.”
The ‘scam’ and the SET report
Initial investigations into the alleged scam revealed that the owner, Bhupinder Dahiya, of the two warehouses from where liquor bottles were stolen was already facing several cases of liquor smuggling and yet his warehouses were used by the police and the excise department to store seized liquor.
It also came to light that though the godowns were supposed to be sealed last year, it wasn’t done, and liquor seized this year was also stored there.
In it’s 2,000-page report, accessed by ThePrint, the SET stated that illegal liquor was smuggled across the state during lockdown.
“This is mainly because of the systemic flaws in the functioning of Excise Department at least since 2011-12 and also non-implementation of its own instructions, lack of monitoring and, in some instances, possible collusion or negligence on the part of some excise as well as police officials,” read the report.
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