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The Great Indian Museum Scam

The Great Indian Museum Scam

Author: Subrata Nagchoudhury
Publication: The India Express
Date: February 11, 2008
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/sunday/story/271256.html

Rs 18 cr was siphoned off from Kolkata's Indian Museum between 2004-06, finds probe.

A well-networked cartel at the Indian Museum in Kolkata, one of the biggest repositories of the country's cultural and historical heritage, has been siphoning off crores of rupees under the pretext of preserving priceless artifacts, a probe has found.

A recent investigation by a central government team has detected a scam that involved misappropriation of funds to the tune of Rs18 crore between 2004 and 2006. The magnitude of the scam could be even bigger, say investigators.

The fund was meant for gallery renovations for the Indian Museum, National Library, Rabindra Bharati University Library and Guru Saday Museum in West Bengal and for improvement of the state museums of Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Assam Sankardev Kalakshetra Museum, Guwahati.

Highly-placed sources said West Bengal Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, played a key role in pursuing the initial leads about the malpractices. A thorough probe by officials of the Central Government later revealed that at least Rs18 crore had been siphoned off.

"This may just be the tip of the iceberg," said an official of the team, expressing serious concern about the existence of priceless antiques supposed to be lying in the stores. Only a small fraction of the Indian Museum's collection is displayed in the galleries, while the rest are kept in stores and have not been verfied for years.

In September 2007, prior to the investigation by the central team, the CBI had even conducted a raid on the museum. A CBI official confirmed that documents were seized but refused to elaborate about the progress in the case.

When contacted, S K Basu, the former director of the museum during whose tenure the money was allegedly siphoned off, said: "I do not remember if there was any malpractice. I retired in May 2006 and I won't be able to tell you anything."

Asked if anyone from the investigating agency had been in touch with him, Basu refused to comment. Investigators said Basu retired without settling huge advances taken from the museum fund.

The present acting director of the museum, Professor Chitta Panda, said: "The case had been handed over to the CBI." Asked if there had been any follow-up action, Panda, said he would not be able to comment.

A detailed report on the scam was sent to the Union Ministry of Culture, which administers the Museum and provides funds. But no action has been taken yet. When contacted, CAG Principal Director Govind Bhattacharya said he was not authorised to disclose the findings of the investigation before it was placed in Parliament.

The Racket

o The Meghalaya Museum sent a proposal for stuffing 350 animals. The Indian Museum authorities sanctioned stuffing of 28 animals at a cost of Rs 2 lakh. Instead of sending a cheque, the money was reportedly sent in cash from Kolkata and paid to a person who claimed to be a zoology professor in Guwahati University. There is no record of either the stuffed animals or the person to whom the money was paid.

o Webel electronics, a West Bengal Government undertaking, offered walkie-talkie sets for Rs 14,000 each. But the museum authorities bought 30 sets from a private firm that charged Rs 42,000 apiece.

o Despite having three vehicles, cars were reportedly hired on the pretext of providing services to the members in the board of trustees and other museum employees. Over Rs 25 lakh was spent between 2005-06 on hiring vehicles. Another Rs 15 lakh was shown as fuel expenditure for the museum's own vehicles.

The Cartel

o Of the 16 agencies enlisted by the museum authorities for renovation of galleries, nine did not have the required financial solvency to qualify. Several bagged the contracts on fake IT returns.

o The directors, partners of several of these agencies through which Rs18 crore was spent were related to each other. The partners of some agencies were the directors in others, the directors in some were partners in others.

o Museum authorities advertised the tender notice in Echo of India, a little-known Kolkata tabloid.

o The estimates for jobs and the payments were identical in many cases.

o The estimates for most jobs was approved by a private consultant who did not have an engineering background. The normal practice is to obtain approval of the Central Public Works Department.

o There was no measurement for work, no basic records of material and no verification of the actual work done. No official from the Indian Museum, Kolkata visited the state museums in the Northeast for verification of work for which payments were reportedly made.

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