New Delhi: A Rs 10-crore subsidy given by the Union government to a media company owned by Assam’s BJP chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s family has kicked up a political storm, with the Congress and other opposition parties accusing the saffron party of blatant favouritism.
The matter blew up even further when the Congress produced official documents to back its allegations, hours after the chief minister denied that his family had received a subsidy from the Union government.
Last week, an Assamese news website Cross Current reported that Pride East Entertainment Private Ltd, a media company predominantly owned by the chief minister’s family, including his wife Riniki Bhuyan Sarma, his mother Mrinalini Devi, his son Nandil Biswa Sarma, and his daughter Sukanya Sarma was awarded a subsidy on November 10, 2022 for its food processing project worth Rs 25.88 crores.
Pride East is one of the top media houses in the northeast, that owns two television news channels, a newspaper, a website, and three entertainment channels. The company’s filings with the corporate affairs ministry lists businesses that include silk production and food processing, apart from media ventures.
Cross Current reported that Pride East Entertainment acquired around 50 bighas of land in Dari Goji village in Nagaon for a proposed food processing facility on February 4, 2022 from five people Hemachandra Bira, Jatin Chandra Bora, Deben Chandra Bora, Tarini Bora, and Anil Bishwas. Barring the 2 kathas of land owned by Bishwas, the rest of the land was meant only for agricultural use. However, Assam revenue records show that soon after the purchase, on April 19, 2022, the category of the category of the plots was changed from agricultural to industrial. The new classification of land conveniently allowed Pride East Entertainment to propose a food processing plant at the same location in Assam’s Nagaon, for which Rs 10 crore subsidy was sought.
Assam’s MLA Akhil Gogoi raised the matter in the ongoing assembly session, following which Congress leaders also sought a response from Sarma, accusing him of cronyism.
On Wednesday, Sarma finally gave a reply in which he said on X, “I would like to reiterate again with full responsibility that my wife and the company she is associated with have not taken or received any subsidies from the Government of India.”
Congress leader Gaurav Gogoi, however, produced a document released by the Union food processing ministry that clearly names Sarma’s wide Riniki Bhuyan Sarma as a beneficiary of Rs 10 crore subsidy under the Union government’s Agro Processing Cluster scheme under the PM’s Kisan Sampada Yojana.
For the convenience of the Hon’ble Chief Minister I am attaching the link to the website of the Ministry of Food Processing. It shows the list of companies and promoters who have received the Rs 10 crore government subsidy. Please see serial 10.https://t.co/rR2m9PH8DX https://t.co/O9krRaDSRW
— Gaurav Gogoi (@GauravGogoiAsm) September 13, 2023
However, Sarma has continued to deny the allegations even in the face of documentary evidence.
I completely deny and reiterate that my wife and the company she is associated with, Pride East Entertainment Pvt Limited, have not received any subsidies from the Government of India. https://t.co/VBDGOuX29q
— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) September 13, 2023
Lashing out at the BJP and the Assam chief minister, Congress leader Gourav Vallabh said, “What an Idea, Sirji! Buy Agricultural Land. Convert it to Industrial Land. Receive Subsidy of Rs 10 Crore from Government of India.” Vallabh said that the instance of such corruption in Assam highlights that the Prime Minister’s promise of doubling farmers’s income is vacuous, as only people close to the BJP could avail of the government’s schemes.
“Is this “Na Khaoonga, Na Khaane Doonga” [won’t eat, won’t let one eat] model,” he asked.
This is not the first time when the Assam chief minister is facing allegations of corruption and cronyism. The Wire had reported in June, 2022, how a bulk of Assam government’s orders for sanitisers and PPE kits during the pandemic went to a company with close links with the chief minister’s family at a much higher rate than the market price. RTI replies showed that Assam government placed emergency medical supply orders in 2020 to three firms owned by Sarma’s wife and a close business associate of his family.
Even then, the chief minister denied the charges but could not give any evidentiary support to back his claim.