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Amid the questions over press freedom in India, nearly 6,000 copies of a local language newspaper 'Pratibadi Kalam', dispatched for three districts in Tripura, were allegedly destroyed and burnt by a group of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters at Rajarbag bus stand on Saturday, November 7.
This incident of vandalising the newspaper comes after it published an article on the alleged multi-crore agriculture scam by the Biplab Kumar Deb-led BJP government.
According to the editor of Pratibadi Kalam, Anal Roy Chowdhury, the attack was due to the publication's series of reportage on a ₹150 crore scam which mentioned prominent names, including the state's Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare Department Director, Deba Prasad Sarkar, and the Agriculture Minister, Pranajit Singha Roy.
In the complaint with Superintendent of Police (Gomati), the editor stated that a group of about 30 people, led by a Raju Majumdar, forcibly offloaded all the newspaper bundles en route to Gomati and South Tripura district at Rajarbag bus stand from a Sabroom bound passenger bus.
The group burnt down the newspapers on Agartala – Sabroom national highway and abused the newspaper management for writing against the scam. They also allegedly threatened the newspapers' management of dire consequence unless they stopped writing on the issue.
Speaking exclusively to The Logical Indian, the publication's Assignment Editor, Birat Roy Choudhury said that the incident in which around 6,000 copies of the newspaper were snatched from the vehicle and destroyed took place after the daily exposed a multi-crore scam involving the agriculture department.
Sharing the details of the scam, Choudhury said, an audit report presented by the Principal Accountant General of Tripura pointed out financial irregularities in the agriculture department's books over the last six years.
"The state procures fertilizers and seeds worth crores every year, the responsibility for which lies with the heads of four districts. The irregularities were found in the procurements which follow DFPRT( Delegation of Financial Powers Rules, Tripura) procedures. A company named Brahmaputra Valley Fertilizer Corporation Ltd. had been dealing in cash with the department," Choudhury said.
He further added that even though the state had eight districts, only four district offices procured fertilizers and seeds.
In the financial year 2016-17, the west district procured urea worth six crores whereas no order was placed from the north district office. Similarly, in the financial year 2018-19, urea worth ₹1.5 crores was procured from the west whereas no purchase was made from the north.
Several suppliers sold materials to the Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare Department without challan, lot number, batch number, manufacturing date, expiry date, etc. The department officials received the supply orders with complete authorisation of the director Debaprasad Sarkar.
"There has been no official registry of these supply orders in the head office of the agriculture department. The irregularities continued without due regard for the conditions mentioned in the supply orders," the Editor told The Logical Indian.
Choudhury also stated that a thorough inspection by the audit department and a few honest officers helped in tracing these financial irregularities.
"The irregularities were not limited to seeds and fertilizers, but also extends to the travel allowances. The Principal Accountant General concluded the audit report after 25 days, after taking into account files from February 2014 to July 2020.
The modus operandi was found after the said audit report mentioned procurement of seeds and fertilizers from companies like states' Aarohi Krishi Udyog, Pan Seed Pvt Ltd, Kolkata, Balaji Enterprise(state), Tripura Agrochemicals(state), National Seed Corporation Ltd that did not adhere to norms," he added.
Speaking about the future course of action, Choudhury said, that the audit committee will present its audit report to the government within three weeks. If after the investigation, the matter is found to be true it would come down heavily on the ministers who have been involved in the scam.
The Logical Indian reached out to the Superintendent of Police, Gomati, Lucky Chauhan on Monday, November 9, to enquire about the action taken on the miscreants involved in the destruction of the newspapers.
The officer informed that seven persons were arrested regarding the incident, however, all of them were let out on bail in a period of 24 hours.
The Logical Indian also tried reaching out to the office of the Agriculture Minister, the Director of Agriculture and the Chief Minister's Office. However, no response was received.
Tripura veteran journalist Jayanta Bhattacharya demanded strict action on the people responsible for the attack. She said that the Assembly of Journalist served a notice of 24 hours to the police to arrest the culprits, failing which, a sit-in demonstration in front of the police headquarters.
Various local media and a cross-section of journalists threatened to launch a massive movement if the attacks on media in the state were not brought to check, according to The Sentinel.
Pratibadi Kalam, in 2017, was banned by the then-District Magistrate of West Tripura. The publication's Assignment Editor pointed out that the ban was a vindictive action by the state against the paper's fearless reporting. It returned to publication on 28 November, 2019.
This is not the first time when media persons or journalists being attacked or threatened in the state.
Earlier on September 11, 2020, the Chief Minister of Tripura, Biplab Kumar Deb, openly warned "overexcited newspapers" over the reportage on the state's COVID-19 mismanagement.
"History shall not forgive them, and people of Tripura will not forgive them. I will not forgive them. History stands witness to the fact that I Biplab Deb, do what I say," the CM had said.
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