Misuse of Armed Forces Flag Day Fund, money for which is annually collected from civilians for the benefit of widows of soldiers, of disabled soldiers, sailors, airmen, ex-servicemen and their dependents, as confirmed by the audit report, has apparently resulted in profiteering for vested interest. Lack of transparency in the use of these public funds, donated by government employees and ex-servicemen on 7th December, besides voluntary donations throughout the year, has exasperated activists who are denied information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
The Army Flag Fund has two kinds of offices: one, District Sainik Welfare Office spread over all districts that comes under the State Sainik Welfare Office, and Maharashtra Ex Servicemen Corp Ltd (MESCO), which was established in 2002 to provide large scale employment to the ex-servicemen in their home state. MESCO is headquartered in Pune.
It is also pertinent to mention here that that the usage of Armed Forces Flag Day Fund is divided into two categories: Benevolent Fund, for giving grants for ex-servicemen for their children’s education, marriages and so on, and the Special Fund, used for the upkeep of estates of various Departments of Zilla Sainik Welfare (ZSW), like hostels for children of ex-servicemen and guesthouses. The proposer of the fund disbursement is the ZSW officer. The audit report in question is for the Pune’s ZSW and MESCO.
As per the audit report, the District Sainik Welfare office (which disburses the funds) has been charged with indulging in irregular expenditure like purchase of vehicles, liquor served at an official function, an Air Force rally and so on. And where works are outsourced by MESCO there are issues like non-recovery of penalties from contractors, full payments to contractors without completion of work, not following tender procedure while giving out contracts, construction and civil works without administrative approval or without a demand raised by the zilla sainik welfare officer, which is mandatory.
In order to procure information of the alleged financial irregularities of both the entities, Sangramsinh Gaikwad has filed 22 applications under RTI over the past two years. The information sought was regarding various constructions. MESCO’s Public Information Officer (PIO) replied that the information comprises 42,000 odd pages, copies of tender notices and misuse of Army Flag Funds and hence Gaikwad should come for inspection of files and ask for copies of specific pages.
However, says Gaikwad, “When we went there and were ready to pay the money accordingly, verbally the PIO denied the copies stating that the Director has ordered so. We again wrote a letter to PIO asking him to give in writing that the Director has ordered not to supply information under RTI. Since he did not reply, we filed First Appeal. The Appellate Authority gave vague reasons for denial of information after which we have filed Second Appeal with Pune Division’s Information Commissioner and the matter has been pending there since the last six months.”
The director who is allegedly stalling information is MESCO’s managing director, Colonel Suhas Jatkar (Retd), who also hold the dual post as Director of State Sainik Welfare office and Managing Director of MESCO. Official complaints have been made against him to the Maharashtra Chief Minister as well as the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), due to matters arising out of his conflict of interest as he holds both the offices. This, despite a notification way back in 2003 that there should be two separate heads for both these outfits.
Alleges Gaikwad, “While the establishment of MESCO was to primarily recruit and provide security jobs for ex-servicemen, when Col Jatkar became Director of the State Sainik Welfare office, he gave a loan from Flag Day Fund to MESCO to start an industrial park for giving it to ex-servicemen to start their outfits but there was no such provision for this. The park was ready but it did not get a favourable response. So this Rs20 lakh diversion was unauthorised as there is no provision to give such loans to a state owned corporation but the loans could be given to any ESM Organisation for specific activity. This loan has neither been returned nor the Flag Day Fund been paid interest on it. And since then, there have been many more irregularities, mostly in construction, because of which I am using RTI.”
“Allegations of siphoning of funds from ZSWs for contracts for construction through MESCO, which mostly are sub-contracted to private entities, are beyond the rules of use of Flag Day fund. There is no reason why Public Works Department (PWD) could not be used as a contractor and thus save money. Also, there are allegations that constructions are done without the respective Zilla Sainik Officer, proposing them. These irregularities have been reflected in the audit report,” he added.
In the meanwhile, Commander Ravindra Pathak (retd), who has been writing fervently to various authorities, has recently shot off a complaint to the Prime Minister’s Office, against Col Jatkar, stating that the AG report has raised many observations with regard to misuse of funds. The PMO, through the Kendriya Saink Board, has asked the Chief Secretary to investigate but to date there has been no action.
What is The Armed Forces Flag Day?
The Armed Forces Flag Day or the Flag Day of India is a day dedicated towards collection of funds from people of India for the welfare of the Indian Armed Forces personnel. It has been observed annually in India on 7th December since 1949. Over the years, it has become a tradition to commemorate this day as an honour to the soldiers, airmen and sailors of India.
Flag Day gains more significance as it considers that it is the responsibility of the civilian population of India to take care of the families and dependents of the armed forces personnel who fight for the country. Like the Kendriya Sainik Board at the Centre, the Rajya/Zila Sainik Boards are responsible for policy formulation and implementation of resettlement and welfare schemes for Ex-Servicemen, widows and their dependents residing in their respective States / UTs / Districts. To assist the Central Government in this regard, there are 32 Rajya Sainik Boards and 392 Zila Sainik Boards in the country.
The Armed Forces Flag Day addresses and collects funds for three important aspects of defence services – Rehabilitation of battle casualties, Welfare of those in service and their families, and resettlement and welfare of ex-servicemen and their families.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005, and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book, “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte”, with Vinita Kamte, and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”