Elected public representatives and government officials in West Bengal who accept "cut money" from beneficiaries of welfare schemes will now be charged under a tough law that provides for life imprisonment in the event of conviction, CMO sources said Tuesday.
The state assembly, meanwhile, witnessed noisy protests over the issue for the second day running, with the opposition demanding a statement by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and setting up an inquiry commission to go into the matter.
The "errant" public representatives and government functionaries will be charged under section 409 of the IPC which relates to criminal breach of trust by a public servant, or by banker, merchant or agent, officials in the chief minister's office said speaking on condition of anonymity.
A person convicted under the law is liable to be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, besides fine.
The decision was taken by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, they said.
It followed a massive public uproar in different parts of the state where several ruling TMC leaders were mobbed by people demanding "refund" of the cut money taken by them to facilitate the beneficiaries get the benefits of various welfare schemes run by the government.
Banerjee had, while addressing a meeting of TMC councillors on June 18, ordered them to return the 'cut money or commission they had taken from the beneficiaries.
"I do not want to keep thieves in my party. If I take action, they will join some other party. Some leaders are claiming 25 per cent commission for providing housing grants to the poor. This should stop immediately. Return the money if you have taken it," a furious Banerjee, whose TMC yielded substantial ground to the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls, told the gathering.
The opposition CPI(M) and Congress Tuesday continued their protests in the assembly over the issue and also staged a walkout.
Leader of the Opposition Abdul Mannan claimed that the issue of 'cut money' and protests against it has created a law and order situation across the state.
"The issue needs to be probed by an inquiry commission which the state government should immediately form. We also demand a statement from the chief minister on the floor of the house," he said.
According to TMC sources, Banerjee is likely to make a statement in the house "very soon".
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Partha Chatterjee, meanwhile, accused the opposition of trying to confuse the people over the issue.
"The opposition is trying to create confusion by misinterpreting the chief minister's statement during a recent meeting. The opposition is trying to fish in troubled waters," Chatterjee said.
The chief minister, whose unusual directive is being seen by many as one that could impact her party's prospects in the civic polls next year and the assembly elections in 2021, is learnt to have told police to encourage those aggrieved to lodge formal complaints against "errant" leaders and public servants and to not harass the common people.
"Once the complaints are lodged, the civil administration can inquire as these are mainly related to schemes run by panchayats or civic bodies. In case of an anomaly, the police will lodge formal complaints and initiate action against the accused," ADG (law and order) Gyanwant Singh said.
Superintendents of Police of all districts have been asked to comply with the instructions the moment they receive a formal complaint.
Incidentally, the state government had earlier launched a grievance cell and started a toll-free number and an email address for receiving complainants about public representatives extorting "cut money" from people.
Nachiketa Chakraborty, a well known Bengali singer-songwriter considered close to Banerjee, has also penned a song denouncing corruption in public life. The song has gone viral on social media.
In his song, Chakraborty asks corrupt politicians to return the money they have taken from people to escape their wrath.
Several protests were staged in Birbhum and Purulia districts on Monday over alleged extortion by TMC leaders and councillors.
TMC leaders at the municipal and panchayat levels also faced public anger in Kolkata, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri,
Burdwan, Malda, Purulia, Nadia, West Midnapore and Bankura.