The 52-year-old Dr Vijay Singla was among the 10 medical professionals from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) who won the recently-concluded Punjab Assembly polls. AAP, which romped home to victory with a three-fourth majority promising to improve Punjab’s ailing health infrastructure, trusted the political greenhorn Dr Vijay Singla — a dental surgeon — to take care of the Health Department.
However, just over two months after taking over as the Minister, Dr Singla was sacked and arrested by the state police on corruption charges. And interestingly, Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann is the one who initiated the action against him.
Besides the crucial Health and Family Welfare Department, AAP’s Mansa MLA Dr Singla was also given the charge of Medical Education and Research.
Ironically, Dr Singla, who took oath as Cabinet Minister on March 19 and was allocated the portfolios on March 21, had, on March 23, declared that he would adopt a “zero-tolerance policy” towards corruption. Exact two months after, he is out from the Cabinet and in police custody on corruption charges.
Chief Minister Mann on Tuesday announced his extraordinary decision to sack his Health Minister from his Cabinet on charges of corruption for seeking “one percent cut in tenders allotment and purchase of goods related to the department”. Subsequently, Punjab Police’s Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) arrested Singla.
Singla was in the evening produced before the Mohali court, and was sent to three-day police remand till May 27. The police brought Singla to the Mohali court in a clandestine manner from the underground parking, while making every effort to keep the media away.
However, Singla, responding to the media query in the melee, alleged that this was all a “conspiracy” to “defame me, the party, and the Mann government”.
Preempting criticism by the Opposition, Mann said: “The Opposition parties will say that AAP’s Minister was found involved in corruption within two months of forming the government. But I want to tell them that I have taken an action and the Opposition did not even know about it.”
“Their chief ministers have been saying that they knew their ministers were engaged in the mafia. Then why don’t they take any action against them? I have not only sacked my Minister but also directed the police to take action against him. We will bring a change in the country,” he said.
Singla is a dental surgeon by profession and was elected MLA from Mansa in the February 20 Punjab assembly polls — which AAP won with a thumping majority of 92 out of 117 seats. Singla defeated top Punjabi rapper and Congress candidate Shubhdeep Singh alias Sidhu Moose Wala by a margin of 99,200 votes.
HOW IT STARTED?
A government officer approached the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) about 10 days back to complain against Dr Singla. Taking serious note of the allegations, Chief Minister got a discreet thorough investigation conducted questioning several employees. A sting operation was conducted and incriminating pieces of evidence were created.
“A case was brought to my notice that a Minister in my Cabinet was seeking one percent commission for each tender and purchase-related to his department. Only I knew about this case, neither the media nor the Opposition had an idea about it. Had I wanted to, I would have covered it up. And had I done so, I would have not only failed my conscience but also the lakhs of people who trusted me. I am taking strong action against him. I am sacking him from my Cabinet and directing the Police to take action against him. He has confessed to this crime,” said Mann, in a video message.
It has been learnt that before proceeding against his “Minister”, Mann called Dr Singla at his residence, “played the audio recording” of his conversation wherein he was demanding one percent “shukrana” (code word for commission) on all tenders and projects of the Health Department. “Singla confessed to the financial misconduct,” said Mann in the video message.
Mann added, “AAP has a zero-tolerance policy towards corruption. This (removing a sitting Cabinet Minister) is happening for the second time in the country. In 2015, Arvind Kejriwal had sacked one of his Ministers on corruption charges.”
Mann, in his video message, said: “As you all know, we are an honest government. We will not tolerate corruption of even Re one. Whenever I used to go to people in villages, towns and cities, I saw hope in their eyes. I saw that they had a hope that there would be someone who would pull them out of corruption. When I was to be announced the chief ministerial face, AAP’s revolutionary chief Arvind Kejriwal had said that he would not tolerate bribery and corruption. I had promised him that we will run this government the same way. I assured him that we will not spare anyone involved in corruption.”
Adding, he said: “I want to tell everyone that I would not tolerate corruption of even Re one. So, straighten yourself. We had taken an oath at martyr Bhagat Singh’s Khatkar Kalan village, we had promised that we would run a corruption-free government. This is a historic decision by AAP.”
SINGLA, HIS OSD NAMED IN FIR
In the FIR registered by Superintending Engineer Rajinder Singh, working on deputation in Punjab Health System Corporation (PHSC), alleged that Health Minister’s OSD Pradeep Kumar called him a month ago in Punjab Bhavan’s room number 203. When the complainant reached, Singla and his OSD were present in the room. “Before leaving, Singla told me that whatever Pradeep Kumar will talk, consider it as I am saying. He said that he was in a hurry, and left. After this, Pradeep told me that the allotment of work of Rs 41 crores has been issued from my side. Apart from this, payment of Rs 17 crores has also been made to the contractors in March. In this way, two percent commission of the total amount of Rs 58 crores turns out to be Rs 1.16 crore which should be given to him,” read the FIR.
The complainant maintained that he could not do that, and he should be sent back to his parent department. “After this, Pradeep Kumar repeatedly called me on WhatsApp on May 8, May 10, May 12, May 13, and May 23. And he repeatedly asked for a bribe. I was threatened that if I didn't give them their commission, they would spoil my career...I requested them not to do that as I was due to retire on November 30, 2022. And asked them to send back to my parent department and appoint someone who is ready to give them their share as per their demand,” it added. Rajinder Singh, in the FIR, alleged that the Minister's OSD demanded Rs 10 lakh from him on May 20. Saying that he has only Rs five lakh available, the complainant agreed to pay the amount “to avoid mental harassment”.
“On May 23, I was called to the Secretariat. There, I met the Minister and Pradeep....I have the recording of the conversation,” it added.
MINISTER SOUGHT COMMISSION IN THE NAME OF ‘SHUKRANA’
Dr Singla has been seeking commission for all the tenders and projects in the name of “shukrana”. As per information, the Minister has sought “shukrana” from a Bathinda-based contractor, to be given to his nephew. It has been learnt that the police has started preparing to question Singla along with his relatives and close friends. The police is also in the process of preparing a list of projects in Singla’s tenure.
SEARCH FOR NEXT HEALTH MIN
Mann had 10 ministers in his Cabinet. With Dr Singla’s expulsion, he is left with only nine ministers, against the total 18 Cabinet berths, including the Chief Minister. With this, the search for the next health minister has started. It has been learnt that the Chief Minister has also held a meeting with his council of Ministers to discuss the replacement, considering that the government has already announced plans to launch 75 mohalla clinics in the state on August 15 to mark the 75th anniversary of Independence Day. In such a situation, the tendering work is in full mode. It is believed that either one of the Ministers can be given additional responsibility; or the Chief Minister himself may keep the Ministry for the time being.