The Rs 5700 crore National Rural Health Mission scam took an interesting turn with the arrest of senior Indian Administrative Service officer Pradeep Shukla in Lucknow early Thursday morning.
Shukla, who held the office of UP NRHM director in addition to being the state's principal secretary (health), was intercepted by CBI sleuths at the Lucknow airport, just as he was about to fly to Delhi. He has been taken for "interrogation" to the local CBI office in Lucknow.
His arrest seemed to have become imminent once the CBI had arrested former Lucknow chief medical officer Dr A K Shukla on Monday. The arrested CMO was understood to have divulged major leads, clearly suggesting the neck-deep involvement of the senior IAS officer in the day-to-day working of the NRHM programme in the state.
"We have taken him into custody and formal arrest will follow over the next few hours," disclosed a senior CBI official, who claimed, "Shukla was responsible for clearing payments to number of fictitious firms that were created to supply various goods required under the NRHM programme."
According to him, "not only were the goods heavily over-priced but a lot of the supplies were also made only on paper while the booty was shared between top people in the government including ministers and bureaucrats, and the so-called suppliers."
While CBI had already arrested a couple of such fictitious suppliers together with a few district chief medical officers and former family welfare minister Babu Singh Kushwaha, who was widely known for his proximity to then chief minister Mayawati, Pradeep Shukla managed to evade arrest because of his strong political links.
Well known as a brilliant bureaucrat, Shukla always received much prominence in every political regime where he was given key appointments. He was also topper of the 1981 IAS batch. His wife Aradhana Shukla is also an IAS officer in Lucknow.
Shukla's father-in-law Dharni Dhar was an illustrious officer of the Indian Revenue Service and had retired as chief commissioner of income tax and uncle-in-law was no less a political figure than one-time top notch Congress leader Vidya Charan Shukla.
Even as he has been pleading that he had no role to play in the multi-billion scam under which Rs 5700 crore were alleged to have been simply gulped down by 'sarkari' sharks, CBI claims to have sufficient evidence to nail him down.
"Let me make it loud and clear that the state government has nothing to do with the scam, because the scheme is completely funded by the Centre whose machinery keeps regular tab on every instalment of money that is released by them," Mayawati had claimed at a public rally.
She had gone to the extent of asking, "When central government teams have been undertaking periodical reviews of the implementation of the programme, than why was the CBI selective in targeting only state government officials while central government officials were not even questioned?"
That was soon after the CBI carried out simultaneous searches and raids across 12 districts including Lucknow , Kanpur, Varanasi, Meerut, Jhansi, Shravasti, Gorakhpur and Balrampur at the residences of chief medical officers of the health and family welfare department, who were entrusted with the implementation of the NRHM in the state. One team was sent as far as Patna to search the native home of a senior UP health official there.
The CBI confirmed that the NRHM directorate in UP had received thousands of crores as funds between 2005-2011 for running schemes like Mission Flexipool, Immunisation, Reproductive Child Health, National Blindness Control Programme. Funds were also earmarked for improvement of health infrastructure through upgrade of hospitals, community health centres and primary health centres.
The funds under the scheme were forwarded to the respective health societies of all the districts of the state to be utilised at the level of district CMOs.
According to a CBI source, "investigations have so far revealed that drugs and medical equipment purchased under the programme were not only sub-standard were also heavily over-priced, which made it obvious that a whole lot of money went into kickbacks."
Allegations of gross irregularities and manipulation in award of contracts to various private parties were also being probed by CBI sleuths, who have also discovered how some persons acted as middle-men between contractors and influential bureaucrats and ministers to supply medicines and equipment under the programme.
Some of these touts were also known for their proximity to Pradeep Shukla as well as to former ministers Anant Kumar Misra, Babu Singh Kushwaha, who successively held the portfolio of family welfare.