RTI Investigation (part 3): How ministers milk PSUs for ads and sponsorships

Find out which ministers in the Modi and Manmohan Cabinet wrote missives using their letterheads asking PSUs to fund cricket associations, magazines and more.

BySandeep Pai
RTI Investigation (part 3): How ministers milk PSUs for ads and sponsorships
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In part one of the series, Newslaundry detailed how Parliamentarians write to Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) seeking funds for organisations, events or publications with which they are directly or indirectly associated.However, documents accessed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act reveal it’s not just ordinary Members of Parliament (MPs) who have used their office to seek personal favours.

Top ministers in the current government -- like Jual Oram, Nitin Gadkari, -- and the previous government -- like Jyotiraditya Scindia, Dinsha Patel, Harish Rawat, Sushil Kumar Shinde -- have also written numerous letters seeking funds and sponsorships. These ministers sent missives using their letterheads, asking, without the slightest hesitation, for funds from PSUs. Some of the ministers directed PSUs under them to fund organisations, amounting to a direct conflict of interest and misuse of office.

On July 30, 2014, Oram wrote letters using his letterhead as minister for Tribal Affairs to PSUs like Mahanadi Coal Fields Limited and National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC).

In the letters, he sought funds for the Golden Jubilee celebration of Rashtradeep, an Odiya weekly. Mohan Bhagwat was the chief speaker at the event. Oram describes Rashtradeep as a weekly with a “nationalist outlook”.

“At a time when secessionists, fissiparous and anti-national forces are raising their ugly head, this newspaper…has been fighting against such forces,” he writes in the letter. He proceeds to write, “This year Rashtradeep is celebrating its Golden Jubilee ceremony. The year-long celebration will come to an end on 10 August, 2014. In this concluding programme Sarsanghchalak of RSS, Dr. Mohan Rao Bhagabat has [sic] consented to grace as chief–speaker.”

“They are also going to come out with a special issue on this occasion...So, I earnestly request you to book and send an advertisement while extending your helping hand to this noble cause,” his letter adds.

Incidentally, it was at this golden jubilee function where remarks made by RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat on the cultural identity of Indians being “Hindutva” created a media storm.

We asked Oram if he thought seeking funds for an organisation that appears close to his party ideology amounts to a conflict of interest. Our email went unanswered. Our calls and text message yielded no response.

On October 22, 2014, Gadkari wrote to the Chairman of Rural Electrification Corporation (REC) asking the PSU to support a Nagpur-based magazine called, Green Hope.

The monthly magazine is run by Girish Gandhi, who had sought support for the magazine’s special issue on sustainable theme. A Times of India report notes that Gadkari and Gandhi’s friendship is known in Maharastra’s political circles.

There’s also a picture of Gadkari photographed with Gandhi on the latter’s 65th birthday party held in Nagpur on TOI’s website.We asked Gadkari if he thought using his public office to seek funds from PSUs for a magazine that’s run by someone close to him amounts to conflict of interest. Our emails, text messages and calls went unanswered.

During the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) tenure too, ministers wrote to PSUs and to each other for release of funds and advertisements.

Document accessed under the RTI Act reveal more than 100 letters written by numerous UPA ministers for funds. In some cases, there is a clear conflict of interest and inklings of paid news items too.

Scindia, in his capacity as power minister, got the Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd (PGCIL) – PSU under the power ministry -- to give funds to Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association (MPCA). PGCIL’s response to our RTI query notes that it paid Rs 20 lakh to Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association (MPCA) between 2013 and 2014 on Scindia’s reference.

Since Scindia has been President of MPCA since 2004 and is currently its Chairman, his asking for advertisements from a PSU under him as Power Minister amounts to a direct conflict of interest.Our emails, text message and calls to Scindia yielded no response.

Scindia, though, was not the only power minister who wrote to PGCIL seeking favours. The PSU’s response shows that it disbursed money on 10 different occasions to publications and organisations (for events) such as Sanvaad Sindi, Sarokar, and Parliament Street on Sushilkumar Shinde’s reference.

PGCIL’s response shows that it spent more than Rs 6 lakh of public money following Shinde’s requests when he was the Power Minister in 2011.

When we contacted Shinde for his response he said he did not remember writing letters seeking funds from PSUs. “I can’t remember it. I don’t think the information is right and I don’t want to comment further," he said.

On July 3, 2013, Rawat, then Minister for Water Resources wrote to NTPC chief, requesting the release of an advertisement for a weekly, Amar Sahara. He stated that Amar Sahara should be given advertisements as the weekly had given significant coverage to the Congress Party and NTPC. He also wrote to several PSUs like GAIL Ltd, PGCIL for the release of advertisements to magazines like Amar Today, Indian Dream.

Documents reveal he managed to get advertisements worth Rs 30,000 from each of the PSUs he wrote to.Our email to Rawat went unanswered. When we tried to reach Rawat in his Delhi Office, his personal assistant told us that he would get back to us but didn't.

Suresh as Minister of State for Labour & Employment wrote two letters – one on May 22, 2013 and another on August 27, 2013 – seeking funds for two boat race competitions organised by two separate organisations. In his second letter, addressed to his ministerial colleague, Scindia, who was then the Minister of State for Power, he asks for Rs 10 lakh worth of sponsorship for the Payipad boat race. He also adds that NTPC’s sponsorship will help in “enhancing the mutual goodwill of the local community and NTPC”. Documents show that Suresh was the patron for the associations that were organising the race. Our emails, text messages and phone calls to Suresh went unanswered.

Between May 2011 and October 2012, K C Venugopal, the then Minister of State for Power, directed the NTPC chief to release advertisements worth Rs 35,000 to Janayugom Publications, Trivandrum; Rs 50,000 to Kerala cartoon academy; consider requests for release of advertisements to Samkaleen Chouthi Duniya and to Padmarajan Smaranika. Documents in our possession show that even after Venugopal became Minister of State for Civil Aviation, his office was working at procuring advertisements to be released to the daily, Madhyaman.

When we contacted Venugopal for his comments he said, “When I was a minister, I was forwarding letters to the PSUs. Even when I was the power minister and PSUs like NTPC were under me, and I was forwarding the letters, the PSUs had to decide whether they want to give funds or not. They have the authority to do it.”

Dinsha Patel, the then Minister of Mines, asked Power Minister Scindia to issue directives to all the public sectors under his ministry for release of advertisements to Build India magazine.

On July 24, 2013, Patel wrote that the magazine is going to bring out a special issue on the “achievements of the UPA government and future roadmap of all round growth and development”. The power ministry forwarded his request for necessary action. Incidentally, NALCO Ltd, a PSU that was under Patel, released Rs 75,000 to Build India in May 2013.We emailed Patel asking him if he though it was unfair use of public office on ministers’ part to write to PSUs/ministries to divert their funds for organisatons/publications, which they may not have been interested in sponsoring otherwise. We did not receive a response.

When we contacted Patel on his office phone, his aid, Vinay Patel, said, "Send me the e-mail and we will respond." Despite resending the email, we have not yet heard from Patel or his office.

Dinsha Patel, the then Minister of Mines, asked Power Minister Scindia to issue directives to all the public sectors under his ministry for release of advertisements to Build India magazine.

On July 24, 2013, Patel wrote that the magazine is going to bring out a special issue on the “achievements of the UPA government and future roadmap of all round growth and development”. The power ministry forwarded his request for necessary action. Incidentally, NALCO Ltd, a PSU that was under Patel, released Rs 75,000 to Build India in May 2013.

We emailed Patel asking him if he though it was unfair use of public office on ministers’ part to write to PSUs/ministries to divert their funds for organisatons/publications, which they may not have been interested in sponsoring otherwise. We did not receive a response. When we contacted Patel on his office phone, his aid, Vinay Patel, said, "Send me the e-mail and we will respond." Despite resending the email, we have not yet heard from Patel or his office.

Jena, on January 29, 2014, while serving as Ministers of state (I/C), Statistics and Programme Implementation, sought funds from NTPC for "Angul Tuskers", a cricket league organised by the Orissa Cricket Association. He also wanted NTPC to provide advertisements for its promotion.

When we reached out to Jena for his comments, he said, “I have not written any letters. Somebody might have done some mischief. Even if I have to write, I will write to the Minister only or to the PSU's under my ministry and not NTPC."

In some cases, officials in ministers’ offices sought advertisements and funds at the behest of their ministers. For instance, on September 18, 2012, Additional Personal Secretary to then Minister of State for Defence MM Pallam Raju wrote to Chairman of BEML (a defence PSU) requesting it to sponsor a two-day “mega musical concert for national integration” in Visakhapatnam.In his letter the PS said, “... Hon’ble

Raksha Rajya Mantri has desired that the above request may please be considered and he be apprised of the position.” BEML obliged the minister and became a co-sponsor for the event by paying Rs 25,000 to the organisers, Andhra Cultural and Welfare Society.

Our mail, and phone calls to MM Pallam Raju yielded no response.

Additional reporting: Manisha Pande and Arunabh Saikia

The first of the five-part RTI investigation series reveals how MPs used PSUs as cash-vending machines. Part two of the series detailed how a Congress MP used his official capacity to get ads for his media conglomerate. Part four of the series reports on allegations against a BJP MP and PSU chief for embezzling funds in the name of CSR.

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