The arrest of West Bengal Minister Jyoti Priya Mallick by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on October 27 over an alleged public distribution system (PDS) scam has sparked a political row and raised questions on what the irregularities are.
The ED, in a prosecution complaint filed before a court in Kolkata, mentions cash transactions worth crores of rupees into the accounts of family members of the arrested Minister, three fake companies and a “maroon colour diary” with details of financial transactions with the Minister. “It is worth mentioning that as per the election affidavit of Sh. Jyoti Priya Mallick for WB Assembly Elections, 2016, filed on 04.04.2016, he declared that cash in hand for spouse was ₹45,000. However, within span of one year, a total cash of ₹6 crore was deposited in her bank account,” the ED complaint said.
The document seeking remand of Mr. Mallick was filed before a special court dealing with cases under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002.
After the court pronounced that the Minister would remain in custody till November 6, Mr. Mallick fell unconscious in the court and had to be admitted to a hospital. According to the court, the period of hospitalisation will be excluded from the remand period.
Seeking the custody of Mr. Mallick, the ED said that he was Minister in-charge of the State’s Food and Supplies Department, West Bengal, when the irregularities took place and the proceeds of the crime were received. Mr. Mallick, who is the presently the Forest Minister, held the Food and Supplies portfolio from 2011 to 2021.
In the documents produced before the court, the ED has referred to three fake companies – Sharda Arts Private Limited, Sharda Films Private Limited and Shree Hanuman Realcom Private Limited.
The investigating agency said that on October 26, during searches at various premises of the Minister and his associates, a maroon diary was found with date-wise details of receipt of cash in huge amounts. “The diary contains the name of Sh. Jyoti Priya Mallick, popularly known as Baluda, and the names of his above-mentioned three companies through which cash was received and laundered,” the ED document said.
Mr. Mallick is the second sitting Minister after Partha Chatterjee to be arrested by the ED. So far four MLAs of the ruling party, including two Ministers, have been arrested by the Central agencies.
For the West Bengal government, which is already battling allegations of corruption in recruitment in schools and municipal bodies, the alleged PDS scam poses a new challenge.
A day after the arrest of the Minister, the Trinamool Congress leadership brought out protest rallies in different parts of the State. State’s Food and Supplies Minister Rathin Ghosh held a protest rally in support of the former Minister.
The first FIR in the case was lodged in February 2020 at the Kotwali police station in State’s Nadia district. The FIR was registered against Pradip Kumar Dey for selling subsidised wheat flour without a valid licence. Another FIR was registered at the Dhubulia police station against Ajgar Mondal for transporting wheat flour meant for PDS. After investigation by the West Bengal Police, subsequent inquiries were held under PMLA 2022 and cases were registered by the ED.
Last week, the ED arrested Kolkata-based businessman Khalibur Rahaman for his alleged role in the PDS scam. The ED, in the prosecution complaint, has also alleged financial transaction between Mr. Rahaman and the arrested Minister.
Right to Food activist Anuradha Talwar said there was a suspicion in certain circles that wheat flour and food grains meant for PDS were being diverted, sometimes after fortification. “The other issues regarding the PDS system in West Bengal is that the State-level Food Commission is non-functional. Also, the State-level monitoring and vigilance committees have dropped the representatives of NGOs from the commission,” Ms. Talwar said.