On October 29, Himadri Seshadri, assisting officer at Assam’s Agriculture Directorate, reached her office and opened up the website of PM-Kisan, the central government’s flagship welfare scheme for farmers. Launched in 2019, PM-Kisan aims to pay Rs 6,000 in three instalments every year to millions of eligible farmers across India.

Seshadri typed in the organisation’s official username and password to access the dashboard for the state of Assam. She found herself locked out.

“Someone had changed the password. They must have done it at night because the last time I logged in was before leaving the office,” Seshadri told us when we met her at her Guwahati office the next day.

Only those with official usernames and passwords can log in to the portal. By entering these in, they generate one-time passwords that are sent to mobile numbers linked to those usernames, and are valid for 24 hours. (This January, the OTP window was changed to a few minutes.) The usernames, also referred to as IDs, are assigned to agriculture departments across districts, and allows them to add beneficiaries to the scheme, and monitor their numbers.

Seshadri dialed the tech support at the National Informatics Centre, or NIC, in Delhi, which provides technology-related support to central and state governments. She was told that they had received similar complaints from other states as well. She reset the password using an OTP that came to the mobile phone of the state nodal officer.

When she logged in using the new password, Seshadri realised something strange. A report she had pulled out of the portal for Assam the previous evening had showed only 34 official usernames as active: one in each of Assam’s 33 districts and one at the directorate. Now, the number of active usernames for Assam was 36.

When she called the NIC again, a technician told her that the two new usernames were created at the state-level for Assam, which could only have been done at the NIC’s head office in Delhi.

But the mobile numbers corresponding to the new state-level usernames belonged to Rajasthan. The engineer said it was a case of hacking.

Meanwhile, IP addresses linked to the usernames led officials to a traffic roundabout in Lucknow. “It is a case of an organised cyber heist,” Debjit Neog, Assam’s Nodal Officer for PM-Kisan, told us.

The agriculture director made a complaint to Assam Police’s Criminal Investigation Department, or CID. The directorate also asked the NIC to block the two usernames and to find out if any new beneficiaries had been added to the portal. None were, they learnt later on.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. By this time, a barrage of irregularities had already come to light in PM-Kisan, involving scores of unauthorised usernames and thousands of unintended beneficiaries. In May 2020, the state government had ordered a probe into the matter, which was carried out by then additional chief secretary Jishnu Barua. Among the report’s many damning findings that have not been reported so far was that, of the 31 lakh individuals who had received the cash transfer, 15 lakh were not eligible for it.

The sums of money involved are staggering. Between February 2019 and July 14, 2021, 11.08 crore beneficiaries across the country received more than Rs 1.37 lakh crore, the Union agriculture minister told Parliament in July. But he admitted that 42 lakh beneficiaries who together received Rs 3,000 crore in that time had actually been ineligible.

Our interviews with dozens of government officials and others involved with the PM-Kisan scheme in Assam revealed that in the state, these beneficiaries included non-farmers, single farmers receiving funds in multiple accounts, government servants, minors, deceased persons and people who can’t be found anywhere.

So far, these anomalies have been reported as isolated, though widespread, incidents. But Scroll.in’s investigation suggests that they occurred in a systematic way.

Since July, the Centre has been urging the states to bring back the Rs 3,000 crore from the fake beneficiaries even as millions of deserving farmers remain excluded from the scheme. According to the Union agriculture minister’s statement in Parliament, Assam must recover the highest amount, of Rs 500 crore paid to 8.3 lakh ineligible beneficiaries. It is followed by Punjab (Rs 357.9 crore), Maharashtra (Rs 340.6 crore) and Tamil Nadu (Rs 258.6 crore).

Tracking the scam in Assam reveals that it began with a rush to add beneficiaries at a breakneck speed ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. But once initiated, our investigation shows, the scam spiralled out of control as key government officials colluded with local middlemen to extend the cash benefit to anyone who could pay for it.

This story is part of Common Ground, our in-depth and investigative reporting project. Sign up here to get a fresh story in your inbox every Wednesday.

Assam’s 14 Lok Sabha seats have little influence on the arithmetic of government formation in New Delhi. But, in 2019, faced with widespread anger in the Brahmaputra Valley over proposed amendments to a decades-old citizenship law, the local unit of the BJP was under pressure to prove that the party enjoyed popular support. The direct cash transfer scheme to the farmers came as a blessing. The state government would be responsible for identifying recipients. Once their lists were drawn up and approved by the state, the Centre would transfer money into their accounts directly.

“The welfare schemes helped us,” said Ranjeet Dass, the then state president of the party. The BJP-led coalition government in the state, then in its third year, controlled the welfare machinery. “We contacted every beneficiary at their residence,” he said.

But some officials sensed that the timing of the scheme would lead to problems. “From the word go, I had an intuition that lafda hoga,” that scandal will follow, said Neog, the former nodal officer who now works as a senior consultant with the department.

An agricultural field in Karbi Anglong district. The PM-Kisan scheme aimed to transfer Rs 6,000 to millions of farmers across India. But it was widely misused to benefit millions of ineligible people. Photo: Sadiq Naqvi

One official who worked closely with the scheme described it as “an election-oriented scheme.” The official added, “Modi ji’s message was: jisko lena hai le lo. Humko vote de do,” – whoever wants to take the money, take it and vote for us.

“It all began with elections and the government’s pressure to add beneficiaries,” said Rejaul Karim, a data entry operator at a common service centre, or CSC, in Darrang, a central Assam district that registered among the highest number of ineligible beneficiaries. CSCs are IT-enabled delivery points for government services, including welfare programmes, operated by workers known as village-level entrepreneurs, or VLEs. In December 2019, Karim was arrested and jailed for his alleged role – he was released on bail two months later, and spoke to us in October 2021.

Razaul Haque, who manages a network of around 800 CSCs in Barpeta district, recounted how senior officials pressured local intermediaries like him.

Union Finance Minister Piyush Goyal announced the Rs 75,000-crore PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme in the interim budget placed in Parliament on February 1. Just days later, Haque received a call from Munindra Sarma, then Barpeta’s Deputy Commissioner, or DC, the district’s highest ranking bureaucrat. Sarma summoned Haque to his residence. “We will give you a list. Upload as many names as you can,” Haque recalled Sarma telling him at the gathering, which was packed with important officials of the district.

Others who were present at the meeting also felt the heat. Among them was Krishna Kant Pathak, the then District Agriculture Officer, or DAO, of Barpeta who was later suspended for his “negligence” in preventing the scam. “We were told to collect the data as soon as possible,” he said “We were barely given four to five days.”

When Scroll.in phoned Sarma, he said he hadn’t been closely involved in the scheme, and that it had been handled by Barpeta’s agriculture office.

Five days was a dramatically short period in which to accomplish such a sprawling task. To identify beneficiaries in towns and villages, agriculture officers roped in panchayat workers in their jurisdiction. Each panchayat is divided into wards, and each ward is represented by a ward member. These ward members were tasked with going door to door to collect names and documents of prospective beneficiaries.

CSCs were tasked with feeding this data into the portal. In Barpeta, Haque and his associate, Harshajit Patgiri, created a Whatsapp group to coordinate with a network of 92 village level entrepreneurs who manned CSCs. The group had more than 100 members, including senior district officials such as the Deputy Commissioner and the District Agriculture Officer.

Haque said that on this group, district officers such as the District Agriculture Officer and the Circle Officer, who is in charge of local revenue matters, shared usernames and passwords that were meant to be used to add beneficiaries on the portal.

Senior officials were also part of another Whatsapp group where they were placed under immense pressure to deliver results. Neog, who was part of this group, recalled that the Deputy Commissioners of the state were added to it, and that it was monitored by the Chief Secretary in Guwahati, the state’s highest ranking bureaucrat.

He would haul up any Deputy Commissioner if their district was falling behind in adding beneficiaries on any given day. “The ones making a large number of entries would get a thumbs-up emoji,” Neog said. “Barpeta got it after 50,000 entries were done in one day, Morigaon after 38,000 entries.” Morigaon’s DAO was later suspended because more than 50% of the district’s beneficiaries were found ineligible. Ninety three percent of those beneficiaries were untraceable.

With pressure from the top, the district officials made the rounds of CSCs at the oddest hours. “DC used to take me in his car and drive around at night, checking in on the progress of CSC operators,” Pathak, the District Agricultural Officer, said.

Shahidul Islam, who runs a CSC in Mandiya block, was given a week to enter 10,000 names that had been gathered through panchayat workers. He recounted, “The Circle Officer himself used to come and sit next to us, saying ‘karo karo’” – go on, go on. Islam recruited as many as ten data entry operators, but could make just 6,200 entries.

A Common Service Centre in Barpeta. With Lok Sabha elections looming, the operators of these centres in Assam came under immense pressure to add large numbers of beneficiaries to the PM-Kisan portal. Photo: Sadiq Naqvi

In the mad rush of the process, many village level entrepreneurs would make mistakes while entering the given username and password and end up being blocked by the portal. “After that, every block was given an ID,” Haque said. This would ensure that if someone was blocked from using a particular username, they could use another from a larger pool of usernames to keep feeding names into the portal.

According to Barua’s report, at the peak of the first phase of the data upload, Barpeta alone had 38 active user usernames.

The PM Kisan portal allowed uploading of beneficiaries in at least three ways. An authorised operator could add one farmer record at a time or as many as 100,000 by way of an XML file. A farmer could also opt for self-registration on the portal. All applications or lists of applications had to be approved with the signature of a Lot Mandal, a local revenue official. But according to Barua’s report, in Barpeta, Lot Mandals only verified 1,18,321 forms out of 7,82,508 forms.

It was mandatory to add bank account details and one proof of identity. Other information – father’s name, address, mobile number, date of birth, age, farm size and other details of the applicant’s landholdings – were optional categories according to the operational guidelines shared with the states. Many data entry operators left those fields blank.

Applicants across India did not have to mention Aadhaar numbers ahead of the transfer of the first payment under PM-Kisan. This was made mandatory from the second instalment in May 2019. However, since Aadhaar inclusion is low in Assam, this was kept optional in the state even in subsequent phases.

In this scenario, the alternate proofs of identity provided names and addresses of beneficiaries – however, they couldn’t be relied on to single out every individual, since names often applied to more than one person in a village, and addresses rarely got down to house numbers. Thus, “the bank account served as the unique ID,” said Neog.

According to a letter sent from the Centre to Assam on February 15, 2019, the onus was on the state to verify beneficiaries before their records were uploaded. Afterwards, a first round of validation on the portal was to be done by the NIC to eliminate duplicate, incorrect or incomplete records. Based on the NIC’s inputs, the states then made corrections. A second round of validation was done by PFMS, a software application designed to track government expenditure, including direct payments as part of welfare schemes. The PFMS only checked bank account details of entries, and rejected those that had discrepancies – such as invalid account numbers, or account numbers that did not match the corresponding IFSC code.

Going over money transfer data later, Kanak Roy, a computer operator at the district agriculture office in Barpeta, noticed that in around 4,000 cases, “the beneficiary’s and the account holder’s names were different. Money went to relatives in a different district or state,” Roy said.

Since identify proof documents were not being scrutinised carefully, and bank accounts served as unique IDs for each beneficiary, many took the opportunity to draw up their own lists.

A former BJP MLA from Barak Valley recounted that MLAs would hand over lists of people they wanted to favour “to the officials and tell them ‘pass kar dijiye’”, please approve it. Two officials who were then posted in districts confirmed this. Officials at the panchayat and the local agriculture office, too, added random names – either on their own, or by sending them to CSCs. Haque alleged that they did this in exchange for bribes. “They took money and added names,” he said.

This was a short-circuiting of the actual intended process: once panchayat workers had made their lists, Agricultural Extension Assistants and Agricultural Development Officers were to compile them and send them to the District Agricultural Officer. The lists would then have to be approved by a district coordination committee, before being sent to the village-level entrepreneurs, who were to make the entries in the portal.

That VLEs should have direct access to the portal was not part of the official written guidelines for PM-Kisan, but Haque explained that they were recruited for the work on verbal directions from the Deputy Commissioner. Sarma, the DC, did not respond to queries from Scroll.in about whether he had issued such instructions.

In a WhatsApp conversation from February 2019, reviewed by us, Patgiri informed the District Agricultural Officer that “maximum” Agricultural Extension Assistants had been “taking money from farmers” and “forcing” the VLEs to “enter” their names. The DAO responded on the group by asking the AEAs to be careful. “Otherwise the matter will be sent to higher authority,” he wrote. In the same message, he instructed the VLEs to enter into the portal only names from the lists sent by the district agriculture office.

But pressure from the top to add more names continued to intensify.

“If our ID was not working, we were asked to use IDs of other blocks,” Haque said. In some cases that later came to light, usernames from Karbi Anglong and Kamrup districts had added beneficiaries meant for Barpeta, Neog said. Barua’s report also mentions that entries were “uploaded from other districts in great numbers”, and cites Barpeta as one district where this was observed.

Worse, in Barpeta, usernames and passwords leaked beyond the 100-odd members of the Whatsapp group: after this, the process of adding beneficiaries became impossible to control.

The political opposition in Assam was getting alarmed by the ground reports.

“In the case of Assam, any and everybody, even those who gave forged papers, were given money under PM-Kisan,” said Debabrata Saikia, a Congress MLA and leader of the opposition in the Assam Assembly. “It was definitely to influence people in favour of the BJP. It was done by violating the guidelines.” Saikia has been demanding a CBI inquiry ever since.

Several officials we interviewed complained that it was not possible to properly verify the beneficiaries given the short window for adding them, explicit instructions to add as many as possible, and the sketchy details entered in the portal.

In Mandia, in Barpeta, Samiruddin, the husband of a panchayat president, told us that in many instances, four people in a family of five, including minors, were enrolled – despite the fact that only one person in a family was entitled to enrol. Instances were also known of single persons applying twice through different bank accounts.

Scroll.in encountered one family in Barpeta that had gamed the scheme in this way. Around February or March 2019, a local panchayat worker came to Mohammad Kalam’s residence in the town of Howli in Barpeta, asking for land papers and identity proof, so that Kalam could be enrolled as a beneficiary. Kalam, a small jute trader, saw an opportunity. He told us that he submitted identification documents, land papers and bank account details, and got his wife and two of his brothers to also apply. (He shared his story with us on the condition that we refer to him by a pseudonym.)

On February 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the scheme from a dais in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. He pressed a button on a tablet to digitally transfer the first instalment of Rs 2,000 to each of the selected farmers across the country. Across Assam, the first instalment of PM-Kisan was then wired to 11 lakh accounts.

Kalam got the first instalment in one account, and his brothers in one each as well. (His wife’s account did not receive an instalment, though he is not sure why.) “Once the PM launched the scheme, the money started flowing into people’s accounts,” Haque said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the PM-Kisan scheme on February 24, 2019, from Gorakhpur, in Uttar Pradesh. In Assam, the first instalment, of Rs 2,000, was wired to 11 lakh accounts. Photo: MIB India/Twitter

If the first phase of the scheme’s execution saw significant duplicity, what followed was sheer chaos. “People got drunk over this free dole,” Haque said.

From March onwards, with the general election five weeks away, the Election Commission’s model code of conduct kicked in, during which all official usernames and passwords were supposed to be deactivated, and the CSCs were relieved of the work of entering data into the portal.

In Barpeta, after the code of conduct kicked in, the DAO visited the district NIC office himself, and handed over a letter intended for the Delhi head office, formally surrendering access to the portal until after the elections. Satish Chandra Dev Sarma, a senior official with the NIC at Barpeta, confirmed that the DAO had come in with that request. He said he was not aware if the district username was subsequently deactivated by the Delhi NIC.

What is certain, however, is that some of the original members of the official WhatsApp group had had access to the district-level username and password, which they used to make other, unauthorised usernames and passwords. They now freely began to trade access to the portal – that is, these usernames and passwords, along with time-bound OTPs – for a fee. This was confirmed to Scroll.in by Shahidul Islam, who was part of a network of CSC operators, some of whom were buying unauthorised access to the portal.

This wasn’t happening in Barpeta alone. In other districts, too, unauthorised usernames, passwords and OTPs were being sold in the local black markets. While the agriculture officers that Scroll.in spoke to put the blame on CSC operators who were enrolled into the process, many operators alleged that the officers were equally guilty of the malpractice.

These usernames were sold down a chain that included CSC operators, data entry professionals, internet café owners, and ordinary persons who could work a computer. “A painful situation followed. People were adding entries from internet cafes, homes, fields,” said Islam.

Several CSC operators told us that the usernames and passwords were sold in a cascading order of price: for instance, they explained, an agriculture officer might sell them to a single buyer for Rs 50,000 who would sell them to three people for Rs 20,000 each. The sale continued downstream. At every level, buyers would add beneficiaries for a fee, and their clients were assured of cash transfers under PM-Kisan. The usernames and passwords weren’t useful on their own, but had to be sold along with OTPs, which remained active for 24 hours after they was generated.

Neog, the nodal officer, admitted that officials were aware that unauthorised additions were being made while the model code of conduct was in force but “didn’t take any action because the numbers weren’t so huge then”.

In May 2019, the BJP returned to power at the centre. The party won nine of 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam. Ironically, some of the Lok Sabha constituencies where large numbers of ineligible beneficiaries received the funds saw the NDA candidates lose the election. The Congress candidate won in Barpeta and the All India United Democratic Front won in Dhubri.

Over the second quarter of the scheme, between April and July, the central government released the next installment of PM-Kisan across India. In Assam, as many as 26 lakh bank accounts, up from 11 lakh in the first phase, received it.

The sale and purchase of unauthorised IDs continued.

In August, Shahjahan Ahmed, a college student, bought a block-level username and password made for Mandia for Rs 14,500 from a man who had bought it from someone else. (The college student shared his story with us on the condition that we refer to him by a pseudonym.) Ahmed paid the money through a digital wallet and received the credentials on WhatsApp. He explained that that username could be used on multiple devices for 24 hours. Once the purchase was made, Ahmed spread the word in the village; aspiring beneficiaries sent in their details along with a fee, between 100 and 500 rupees, for each entry. “Only account numbers and IFSC codes mattered on the portal. The names could be XYZ or ABCD. Address could be anything,” he said. To maximise their profit, buyers like Ahmed often recruited others for data entry. Ahmed explained that he made 300 entries in 24 hours, and earned a profit of Rs 40,000.

Ahmed said most of the people he added as beneficiaries were farmers. Many of them sought him out because they wanted funds in more than one account. “People opened multiple bank accounts in those days through the network of village-level banking correspondents,” he said. Ahmed himself received the second instalment in three bank accounts.

Ahead of the transfer of the second instalment in August, Kalam, the jute trader who had managed to enrol himself as a PM-Kisan beneficiary, heard from a friend about an unauthorised operator who was offering to add names to the portal. “He asked me to WhatsApp him my details,” Kalam said. This time Kalam submitted the details of his second bank account. All together, he has received two PM-Kisan instalments in one bank account and three instalments in the other. He said he was one among many ineligible recipients of the cash. “People who have salaried jobs openly applied under this scheme.”

The business was booming. “In all of Assam,” Ahmed said, “everyone only worked on PM-Kisan. I would sell the OTP to five people; they would sell to five people each. Word was spreading that if you paid 200 rupees, 2,000 rupees would come to your account.”

In many instances, banking correspondents used documents that locals had submitted at customer service points to open accounts – the correspondents would make additional accounts in their names, without the customers’ knowledge. Then they entered those bank account numbers into the portal using usernames bought in the “market”. When the money came in, they withdrew it quietly using ATM cards meant for the farmers that the banks would dispatch to the customer service points.

In Darrang district, Rejaul Karim, the data entry operator, said he knew a banking correspondent who made around one thousand accounts in the names of clueless villagers and entered them in the PM-Kisan portal using a block-level username he made after buying a DAO’s username and password. “Some of the accounts got one instalment, some got two. Then their payments stopped,” he said.

A data entry operator in Darrang district recounted that a banking correspondent made around 1,000 accounts in villagers' names, which he used to siphon off money from the scheme. Photo: Sadiq Naqvi

The payments were stopped by the agriculture directorate in Guwahati. At first, they didn’t fuss over the additional beneficiaries. But when the numbers showed a particularly steep rise in July, they could no longer ignore the irregularities. “When we saw 30,000 beneficiaries were added in one day in Morigaon, that’s when we got alarmed,” Neog said.

The directorate first pressed a “Stop Payment” button on the portal in July 2019. In August, Neog said, a team from the state agriculture department was dispatched to Delhi to discuss the issue. There, they learnt that around 10 lakh names of beneficiaries had either been entered through unauthorised usernames or had failed the validation process. They were deleted from the portal, Neog recounted.

The directorate subsequently pressed the “Stop Payment” button for every new set of farmers that turned out to be ineligible or suspicious till those entries were verified. “After that, we did that many more times,” Neog said.

But the scam was now unstoppable.

The usernames continued to multiply. Assam has 33 districts and 219 blocks. Altogether, after the block-level IDs were created, the total number of usernames should have been 253, including the one for the directorate in Guwahati. But, Neog recalled that at one point, the number grew to 835.

The directorate in Guwahati had started deactivating the usernames as early as June 2019. But this process was not free from flaws: the system allowed a user whose username was deactivated to activate it again. “It was rectified later,” said Kailash Talukdar, a consultant at the directorate.

Subsequently, their office also began to deactivate block-level usernames, to leave only the district-level ones in operation. But Vinod Seshan, who took over as Assam’s Agriculture Director in May 2021, recalled that even at that time, around 60 usernames were still active. “We brought them down to 34,” he said. They also put up a more stringent process of approval, monitored by a district-level committee headed by the Deputy Commissioner.

On May 18, 2020, under pressure from the Opposition and some student groups, the then Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal announced an inquiry into the irregularities, headed by Barua, who is now the chief secretary of Assam. The districts were also asked to carry out a detailed verification exercise.

Barua found that 1,559,286 of the 3,120,160 beneficiaries who had been validated were, in fact, ineligible. The report further noted that out of these, 72% could not be traced at the addresses mentioned in their identity proof documents, 16.7% were non-farm beneficiaries (those who do not own land, deceased persons or minors) and 8.17% were “multiple entries” – that is, cases where more than one member of the family had been listed, or single individuals had been listed more than once.

For Barpeta, Barua’s report noted that by July, the number of beneficiaries added was 7,82,508 – which is 515% higher than the 1,27,093 farm families in the district as per the 2010-’11 agricultural census. The report notes that out of these, 79.5% were found ineligible after a verification was ordered.

The standard operating procedure of the scheme mandated that the district nodal officer for the scheme had to digitally sign to approve the data uploaded by each block username, and that the state nodal officer had to sign approval of the data sent by the districts. “However, the situation on the ground was different as the acceptance of the data on the portal required neither the DNO nor the SNO’s authentication,” the report noted.

In Barpeta, which had 5,44,290 untraced beneficiaries, the most of all districts, only 15% of the entries had corresponding physical forms, which were mandatory for entries to be made. In the whole of Assam, that percentage stood at 69.37.

Barua wrote that the DAOs may have been aware that this process of verification was not being followed but chosen not to file FIRs against those who were misusing the system. In some cases, he noted, the decision not to file FIRs “may have been due to these officials taking recourse to malpractices, intentionally or under pressure”.

The report held 11 District Agricultural Officers, including Pathak, liable for the mess. The sharing of usernames and OTPs in a WhatsApp group was termed “a serious breach of confidentiality and security”.

Besides Barpeta, FIRs have been filed in Darrang, Dhubri, Morigaon and Bongaigaon. The FIR in Darrang charged the data-entry operator Rejaul Karim with entering 8,458 beneficiaries through four unauthorised usernames. The initial investigation led to several arrests, including Karim’s, court documents show. Karim told us that his mobile number was used to set up unauthorised usernames by a local CSC operator who subsequently forced him into sharing the OTPs. (The CSC operator could only have made an unauthorised username after buying access to a district username, either from the district agriculture office or someone else.)

In Barpeta, an additional FIR was filed on July 27, 2020, naming CSC managers Haque and Patgiri. It said the duo had “complete access to OTPs and passwords” and notes that according to Barua’s report, they “embezzled huge public money”. The FIR, citing the report, also stated that Patgiri made five unauthorised usernames. The inquiry report has recommended a cyber cell investigation against the two.

Patgiri and Haque denied the charges and pointed to the role of the government officers. “They were selling IDs,” Haque said.

In Barpeta, ex-DAO Pathak, whose suspension has since been revoked (he recently retired from the post), said he did not remember how OTPs that came to his phone ended up with unauthorised persons. He claimed that once the code of conduct was in place, he signed off on the process. “I did not open my computer until after the elections,” he said.

He said that when he logged into the portal again in May 2019, he found that the number of entries had shot up – even though the state government had claimed that the process of adding beneficiaries had been halted in the period when the code of conduct was in force. In August, Pathak filed an FIR naming three usernames that had made unauthorised entries on the portal. The FIR did not mention how many entries were made or who was responsible. At the district NIC, the officer in-charge, Satish Chandra Dev Sharma, told us the three usernames mentioned in the Pathak’s FIR were created using the username granted to the district office. “Only a district user could create new IDs,” he said.

Pathak argued he was being punished to steer the blame away from those who called the shots. “I am being victimised,” he said.

While Barua’s report did not delve into the question of the sale and purchase of usernames and OTPs, it noted, citing the NIC, that there could not be fake IDs but “IDs created with connivance of local officials.”

In Dhubri, for example, a probe into the details of the username “Dhub601409”, which added thousands of unauthorised entries, revealed that it was mapped to a mobile number registered under the name of Ashok Kumar Shribastab. The report notes the “uncanny similarity” between that and the ADO’s name: Ashok Kumar Srivastava.

When Scroll.in spoke to Srivastava on the phone, he denied that the mobile number belonged to him and that he had ever received any such OTP. He said illegal additions by some CSC operators were widespread in the district. “They seem to have used my name.” He said his office in Dhubri had itself filed complaints with the police after they learnt of the unauthorised additions.

Assam’s agriculture minister, Atul Bora, blamed the design of the scheme for its misuse, pointing out that beneficiaries could be added online with little or no verification. “The system was like that,” he said. “People engaged in the theft of passwords. They were outsiders. But myself and our officers, they pointed out the anomalies. Immediately, we took drastic steps. We suspended some officers. We have filed FIRs. Our government formed a committee of enquiry. We have done everything on our part.”

He denied that the scam was set off by the rush to add beneficiaries ahead of the election. “It is not true,” he said. “Some officials may put it like that. A few of them are guilty, of course. No doubt about that. But not all.”

The political opposition in Assam isn’t alone in arguing that the scam needs a higher-level investigation. The official who worked closely with the scheme said, “A CBI inquiry should have been ordered. But it won’t happen because of the political implications.” The Gauhati High Court is currently hearing a PIL, filed by an NGO named Amguri Naba Nirman Samity, demanding a CBI investigation into the scam.

In May 2021, after a state assembly election, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came back to power in Assam. It ordered a new round of verification of beneficiaries. The one carried out in 2020 was found to be inadequate, officials of the agriculture department said.

Part of this involved identifying those who were simply untraceable. The department approached the State Level Bankers Committee seeking their help with KYC details – information relating to a customers’ identity and address – of these untraceable beneficiaries. Neog said the banks were not of much help, and only provided documents for “a handful” of people.

In parallel, the government sent notices to recover funds from those who had been found ineligible through physical verification, for which district officials had gone door-to-door.

The recovery process was simple. Every district was asked to open a bank account where people who had been served notices had to deposit the money. This money was then sent to the Guwahati headquarters of the agriculture directorate, which then deposited it into a bank account held by the government of India.

For those who were untraceable, the government resorted to public notices. In September 2021, the state government published the lists of untraceable beneficiaries on district websites, put up notices in block and gram panchayat offices, and published advertisements in newspapers. The government gave them 21 days to show up; not many did. The large numbers of untraceable beneficiaries who didn’t turn up at their local agriculture offices despite public notices were marked “ineligible”.

According to the data available with the directorate on October 24, 2021, 15,09,843 farmers across the state who had been added as beneficiaries had been deemed ineligible and 10,07,491 farmers had been deemed eligible. Recovery of funds, however, had been minimal – in late October, an official at Barpeta’s agriculture office pulled out a register to show only 320 receipts from the district, adding up to a mere Rs 2,90,000.

As of late April, as that verification process neared completion, almost a year after being ordered by Assam’s new government, the number of eligible beneficiaries had gone up to 14.93 lakh

Still, the state is struggling to reach more eligible farmers.

Ten instalments of the scheme have been released nationwide so far. Only about 12 lakh farm families in Assam received the last one. “There must be around 60 lakh farm families in Assam,” Neog said, roughly doubling the 2010-’11 census figure of 27 lakh. Bora, the agricultural minister, explained that it was because a large number of eligible farmers had been deprived of PM-Kisan payments that the government had invited fresh applications in September 2021.

This isn’t Assam’s problem alone. Across India, PM-Kisan is facing two problems at the same time: of ineligible beneficiaries getting funds not meant for them and the funds not reaching enough eligible farmers. Over the first year of its rollout, the scheme reached only 7.6 crore farmers against its stated target of 14.5 crore.

Recent reforms to the scheme, by both the Centre and the state, have expanded the categories of eligible beneficiaries. In Assam, the scheme has been extended to farmers temporarily allotted land by the government and horticulture farmers, among others.

Of the Rs 500 crore that Assam is expected to recover on behalf of the Centre, only Rs 1.5 crore has come in so far. “Around 90% of those who returned money are government employees. The remaining 10% are rich businessmen,” said Neog. The total amount to be recovered may change after the verification process is complete.

But not many have high hopes of getting back a sizable amount. Neog suspects that many of the ineligible beneficiaries would be poor villagers who would struggle to scrape together even Rs 2,000. “What will you take back from people who don’t have anything?”