The audit by the Punjab finance department into the machines meant for in-situ (mixing paddy straw into the soil as enriching nutrients) management of paddy stubble that went missing has found that all the machines have bills and were handed over to the farmers on subsidy following adequate procedures, a department official claimed on the condition of anonymity.
At least 11,000 machines were found missing out of 90,000 machines given to farmers during the past four years from 2018 to 2021, and the financial loss was pegged at ₹140 crore. In August last year, the state government decided to hand over the matter to the finance department to look into the financial aspect and track the subsidy disbursal, while the agriculture department was to physically verify the machines given to beneficiaries.
Earlier in April, the enforcement directorate took note of the missing machines and reportedly asked the state agriculture department to be ready a report. The machines were given on subsidy of ₹1,145 crore released by the Centre during the given period, which led to ED’s scrutiny.
“The audit involved cross-checking of bills issued by the machines sellers and matching it with the disbursal of subsidy released. No gap has been found, however, physical cross-checking of every machine is difficult for the finance department,” said the above-quoted finance department official, who was in the audit team. A finance department team was stationed at the agriculture department headquarters in Mohali for the past three months to conduct the audit.
At least 90,000 machines, including super straw-management system, happy-seeders, super-seeders, paddy-straw choppers, reversible ploughs, zero-till drills, balers, rakes and shrub master, smart-seeders and spatial-seed drills, crop-reapers and self-propelled reaper-cum-binders were supplied to farmers in Punjab on subsidy between 2018 and 2021 to mix paddy stubble into the soil (in-situ management).
After ED flagged the matter, the state agriculture department decided to hand over the matter to the vigilance bureau, however, apprehending a backlash from the farmers, a strong pressure group in the state, it was decided to hand over the matter to FD for an audit.
The matter had first come to the fore in 2019 when it was found that the supply of machines to at least three dozen custom-hiring centres remained only on paper. An individual farmer was offered a subsidy of 50%, while custom-hiring centres, including village-level agricultural societies, were offered a subsidy of 80% per machine.
The then Congress-led state government kept the matter under wraps initially. However, in 2021, three months before going to the state polls, Charanjit Singh Channi, who had by then taken over as CM, along with his agriculture minister Kaka Randeep Singh, smelled a scam and wrote to the Prime Minister for a high-level probe.
An officer in the state agriculture department said that the matter seems to be in the cold basket, for the reason that farmers sold off the machines as the technology is fast changing particularly happy-seeder machines being replaced with super seeders. “We have taken stringent steps from the last season. Each machine has a number engraved, and that number is registered in the name of a farmer who has bought and it will not be easy to sell it,” said an agriculture department officer on the condition of anonymity.