Wednesday, June 15, 2011
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Junior Red Cross Fund in Punjab is a favourite playground for corrupt officials who are shamelessly pocketing the charity money

Next time you decide to donate your hard earned money for a noble cause, be very careful. The funds may land up in the coffers of just a few officials instead of reaching the affected people. Investigations into the Junior Red Cross Fund in the state of Punjab have revealed similar instances of misuse. The analysis of various account books and other documents obtained under the RTI Act by Resurgence India, a group instrumental in exposing corruption in various public dealings including the Punjab State Red Cross Fund, shows that the Junior Red Cross Fund meant for supporting poor students, mid day meal schemes and victims of disasters is a sham.

Huge amounts of money are regularly diverted for personal expenditures of government officers and purchase of items including lucky draw tickets, carpets, curtains, furniture, crockery and postal stamps. Payments of electricity bills, telephone bills, water bills, lawyers' fee for defending court cases and repair of buildings are also met through donation money.

Interest collected on funds is not indicated, loans are advanced without any keeping of account books and auditing is inept. In several other instances the funds collected lie unutilised even as many a needy students drop out from schools and colleges due to lack of financial support (Punjab had the highest rate of school dropouts in the region in 2002-05 at 23-25 per cent for primary classes and 44-48 per cent for higher classes). Needless to say, all this goes on without any scrutiny by the concerned authorities and complete disobeying of the Red Cross Society Rules for State/UT/District branches under which the Junior Red Cross fund is functional.

Interest collected on funds is not indicated, loans are advanced without any keeping of account books and auditing is inept. Many a times the funds lie unutilised even as many a needy students drop out from schools and colleges due to lack of financial support.

A stooge of the government?

The Indian Red Cross Society is a voluntary humanitarian organisation but it was established in India through a parliamentary legislation by the Britishers. During the first world war in 1914, India had no organisation for relief services to the affected soldiers, except a branch of the St. John Ambulance Association. A Bill to constitute the Indian Red Cross Society, independent of the British Red Cross, was passed in 1920 and became Act XV of 1920.

Currently, the President of India heads the Indian Red Cross Society while the Union Health Minister is the chairman. Such intimate relation with the government and administrative machinery is also replicated at state level with the Governor of Punjab heading the Punjab State Red Cross Society. The coziness is exploited well since the Society uses government machinery to push schemes for compulsive collection of money and in bargain government officials siphon off the funds meant for charitable purposes.

The coziness between government and the Red Cross Society is exploited well as the latter uses government machinery to push schemes for compulsive collection of money and in bargain government officials siphon off the funds meant for charitable purposes.

The Punjab State Red Cross Branch gets collections made from the students of government schools and colleges, including government-aided, in the name of Junior Red Cross Fund, Red Cross Camp Fees, Red Cross Flag Day, Junior Red Cross Magazine Fund, Lucky Draw, Scholarship Fund, Jersey & Shoes Fund et al. Owing to the huge strength of students, the annual collections are to the tune of Rs 145 lakh approximately.

Junior Red Cross Societies have been established across India to involve children and adolescents in humanitarian work. The Indian Red Cross Society Act XV of 1920, however, does not mention the procedure of esablishment and functioning of a Junior Red Cross Society. The Indian Red Cross Society Rules for State/UT/District Branches is the only reference document but it also fails to detail the procedure for collection of funds. An annual fee varying from 60 paisa to Rs 12 is collected from school and college students of Punjab in the name of Junior Red Cross Fund. However, this prescribed collection rate is not followed universally. While Government College of Education, Jalandhar, charged Rs 50 from each student in financial year 2005-06, Devki Devi Jain Memorial College for Women, Ludhiana, collected Rs 15 from each student in 2008.

Investigations by Resurgence India group, based on analysis of 12,370 pages obtained under the RTI Act, revealed that money worth Rs 14.5 million is collected every year as Junior Red Cross Fund but only a minuscule is actually used for the authorised Red Cross activities while a major chunk is misappropriated by the district education officers and colleges.Though the purpose of establishing the Junior Red Cross Societies in schools and colleges is noble, compulsory fund collection, use of government machinery and lack of transparency in distribution of funds negates any underlying generosity.

Daring misdeeds

The Junior Red Cross Fund mandates expenditure on provision of aid to poor students, sick children, victims of disasters, first-aid classes, first-aid boxes, Junior Red Cross training camps and mid-day meal for children besides other welfare activities for children. The funds for the meant purposes are collected with impeccable regularity, but that is not the case when it comes to activities. Most of the district education officers and colleges do not undertake any Red Cross activity at all while many others confine the activities to participation in the Red Cross camps organised by the State Red Cross branch. It was found that out of the 137 government-aided private colleges, 65 did not undertake any Junior Red Cross activity since April 2006 while 19 colleges did not implement the scheme at all. Similarly, out of the 53 government colleges, nine did not undertake any Junior Red Cross activity since April 2006. The utilisation of funds at the school level could not be investigated except for four primary schools as the requisite information was not provided. None of these four primary schools undertook any Junior Red Cross activity in last 10 years.

Due to non-utilisation, the funds are not only piling up but also being misappropriated by the officials. The accumulated funds with the District Education Officers and colleges alone are to the tune of Rs 222 lakh to which need to be added the funds lying with 20,042 government and government-aided schools in Punjab.The first breach of trust occurs at this level. The interest accruing on the huge balance of Junior Red Cross Funds is not mentioned in the account books. The government-aided private colleges alone appear to be siphoning-off around Rs 6 lakh every year by concealing the interest income.

The interest accruing on the huge balance of Junior Red Cross Funds is not mentioned in the account books. The government-aided private colleges alone appear to be siphoning-off around Rs 6 lakh every year by concealing the interest income.

Also while the Red Cross funds are supposed to be sacrosanct - to be utilised only for humanitarian and relief purposes - there are hundreds of instances of loans being taken from the Junior Red Cross Fund for incurring the routine government expenditure flouting the rules with impunity. Notably, most of the offices booked the loan amount in the cash book as expenditure. In majority of the cases, no separate record of such loans has been maintained thereby making it impractical to ascertain the outstanding loan amount. No interest was paid in respect of any of these loans.

To hide their misdeeds, most of the district education officers have ill-maintained cash books even though their assistants are paid Rs 300 per month for the work related to the Junior Red Cross. The bills of expenditure were not available in most of the cases. Even the cash books of some of the districts were not available for all these years. Such facts clearly indict the district and state Red Cross branches of being grossly negligent in their supervisory role.

Such a poor maintenance of account books speaks volumes about the supervisory role played by the district education officers. In addition, there are significant differences in the amounts claimed by the district education officers to have been sent to the Punjab State Red Cross Branch as branch’s share and the ones claimed by the branch to have been received by it. Just a case in reference is that of Gurdaspur District Education Officer (Senior Secondary). The officer claims to have remitted Rs 18,21,221 from 1997 to 2009 but the amount claimed to have been received by the State Red Cross Branch from Gurdaspur stands at Rs 11,29,838 leaving a difference of Rs 6,91,383. Unfortunately, this is just one of the several instances. The total unaccounted amount related to remittances is Rs 19,31,373.

No checks and balances

Punjab State Red Cross Branch is the nodal office for all the Red Cross activities in Punjab and is hence duty bound to monitor and supervise the functioning of Junior Red Cross in the state. However, its only concern has been to receive its share of the collections. The branch officials have  never bothered to assess the efficiency of the Junior Red Cross Scheme thereby leaving the funds at the mercy of the district education officers and principals of schools and colleges.

The Indian Red Cross Society Rules for State/UT/District Branches call for regular auditing of accounts by a practising chartered accountant. The finance committees of these branches are meant to consider the report of the auditors and scrutinise the annual accounts. However, no such rule is being followed. According to the information provided by some of the district education officers and colleges, the government auditors did not point out any irregularities while others claimed that no audit of the Junior Red Cross Fund was ever conducted.

The whole investigation done by Resurgence India questions the utility of archaic set up called the Indian Red Cross Society in our times when self has become much more important than the society. The administrative support from the government may have been essential in 1920 when the country lacked any structured humanitarian organisation but to make the Red Cross in India match up to its international standing, the bureaucratic interference has to be done away with. There can be no two ways about it.

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