Tamil Nadu Health Minister Dr C Vijayabaskar shot into the national limelight after Income Tax officials raided his residences across the state in April. Evidence found at his properties resulted in the cancellation of the RK Nagar bye-polls.
Back then, members of the AIADMK had alleged that I-T sleuths descended upon his residence at the behest of the Centre, which was the backing former Chief Minister O Panneerselvamâ€™s faction. However, when TNM contacted highly placed sources in the I-T department, they said that the raids link back to investigations they have been conducting from 2016.
How the scam was discovered
On July 8 last year, raids were conducted at the godown, offices and residences of a pan masala and gutka manufacturer in Tamil Nadu, who was facing charges of evading tax to the tune of Rs 250 crore. The manufacture, storage and sale of the carcinogenic chewable forms of tobacco, including gutka and pan masala was banned by the state government in 2013.
Seized during the raid was a diary containing names of those who were believed to have been paid off by the gutka manufacturersâ€“ and one among them was the state's health minister.
Now, two months after this revelation, documents accessed by The Hindu and Times Now show that an amount of Rs 40 crore was paid to the Minister and several officials as quid pro quo for facilitating the sale of banned gutka in Chennai. The letter written by the Principal Director of Income Tax to the Chief Secretary and Director General of Police reportedly sought further investigation into the matter. The communication was made 11 months back but there has allegedly been no action taken in the matter.
According to the Hindu, â€śMadhava Rao, one of the main partners of the gutka manufacturer that sells the MDM brand, corroborated the payment of money to them. This was allegedly done over a period of one year.â€ť
Not only the Health Minister, even former Chennai Police Commissioner S George has allegedly received money during Christmas. The Joint Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner of Police have meanwhile allegedly received money for Diwali. The money varied from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 60 lakh on different occasions. Other than this, several officials across departments right from Health and Food Safety to local Councillors have all allegedly been on the pay roll of gutka manufacturers.
According to ToI, around 30,000 traders sell these products in Chennai district alone. There are only 25 officers to monitor them and this includes officials who are allegedly paid a monthly bribe of Rs 35 lakhs by each company. Around 119 tonnes have reportedly been seized since 2013 in Chennai, but the quantity circulating in the market is predicted to be ten times that amount.
Political fallout of the scam
These startling allegations have proven to be fodder for the opposition in Assembly to take on the AIADMK government. They staged a walkout on Thursday demanding that action be taken against the Health Minister. The DMK was not ready to accept Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami's 'inconclusive answer'.
The Chief Minister informed the Assembly that the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption is conducting a probe into the allegations. It will be based on a communique sent by the Chennai City Police Commissioner to the Home Secretary on the sale of banned gutka by anti-socials, in connivance with a minister and some police officials.
"Based on a letter written by Chennai Commissioner to the Principal Secretary on the illegal production/sale/distribution of banned tobacco products an order was given to the Director of Department of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption on 27 January 2017 and a probe has been initiated," claimed Palaniswami in Assembly.
But the Opposition is not the only party, dissatisfied with this reply. The Centre and activists across the state have their eyes now trained on a government that has faced multiple charges of corruption, in a matter of six months.
The Ministry of Home Affairs has reportedly called for a report on the gutka scam, while activists scoff at the notion of the DVAC handling the case. A petition sent by the Arappor Iyyakkam, an organisation against corruption to the Chief Secretary says, â€śMadhava Rao has given a confession to income tax that he has paid bribes of Rs 56 lakh to Health Minister Vijayabaskar, Rs 60 lakhs to then Chennai Commissioner and current DGP Mr Rajendran.'
Their contention now is: â€śHow can the DVAC which functions under the DGP investigate the DGP itself?â€ť
The group has requested that an unbiased CBI probe be initiated in the case. The man in question, Vijayabaskar, however, maintains that he is being targeted for doing a lot of good work. He further claimed to not even know tobacco manufacturer Madhava Rao, whose confession has brought shame to a government that is increasingly being seen as corrupt.