In bureaucratic circles, she was known as “the person who would get things done” in any department. Be it as the agriculture secretary in the Raghubar Das government or the tourism, industries and mining secretary in the Hemant Soren administration, people close to Pooja Singhal said she was “liked by both sides”.
On Thursday, the Jharkhand government suspended Singhal who was arrested the day before by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) over the alleged diversion of MGNREGA funds to the tune of Rs 18.36 crore during her tenure as deputy commissioner (DC) in Khunti in 2009-’10. Singhal was produced before a special court that sent her to ED custody for five days. The government said Singhal would receive a subsistence allowance during her period of suspension and would be posted at the Department of Personnel and Administrative Reforms once out of custody.
The probe into Singhal is linked to 16 FIRs registered against a former government junior engineer in 2010-’11, but the action comes at a time when Soren is under the scanner for allegedly allotting a mining lease in his favour and a plot of land to his wife. Last week, the Election Commission issued a notice to Soren’s brother and Dumka MLA Basant Soren on the mining lease issue. The EC had earlier sent a notice to the chief minister, asking him about his stand on the charges.
A departmental inquiry conducted by a senior IAS officer had absolved Singhal of all charges, noting in a report dated February 27, 2017, that the allegations were not proved and Singhal was “free of all charges” and the departmental inquiry initiated against her was “closed”.
An officer who did not wish to be named said, “This is one of the reasons why she was viewed as someone close to the previous government and that is the reason why initially after the formation of Hemant Soren’s government she was initially shunted out.”
However, Singhal’s reputation as an effective administrator prevailed and she was soon back at the top echelons of government. Last August, officials in the Chief Minister’s Office hailed the launch of the Jharkhand Industrial and Investment Promotion Policy after the government, during a two-day Investor Summit in Delhi, received proposals for investments worth more than Rs 9,000 crore. At the time, Singhal said the state had prepared a Single Window Clearance Policy in various sectors to invite investors. The bureaucrat said the state government had a “land bank of 1,000 acres” to help industries set up shop, and explained why investors should invest in Jharkhand. She also talked about the JIIPP 2021, ethanol policy, road connectivity, electric vehicle policy, and the Adityapur Auto Cluster.
A mid-level bureaucrat, requesting anonymity, told The Indian Express, “During the agriculture summit, or during some of PM Narendra Modi’s visits, Pooja Singhal had to be there. She had an eye for detail and that is why ministers wanted her to execute any work … It is another matter that allegations of corruption had been levelled against her several times and Friday raids were conducted too. But one needs to understand the system too benefited from her.”
The 42-year-old Singhal, who is a 2000-batch IAS officer of the Jharkhand cadre, has her share of detractors too. A person who worked with her on the industrial policy said on the condition of anonymity, “There is a perception that she used to get things done. But it was more like damp squib. The industrial policy started very nicely, but for more than eight months nothing much happened. She got busy in the mining department.”
A source who worked with the IAS officer when she was DC Pakur (from August 2006 to July 2007) said, “She suspended one person and we all put on a black band protesting against the suspension. Singhal came to the spot and said there was an important NREGA meeting that was supposed to happen and asked us to return and take part in the meeting. We saw that as a threat and the protest got over in an hour.”
Singhal was also the secretary of the Sports, Culture, and Tourism Secretary when the department ran up a Rs 42-lakh bill while organising two unofficial cricket matches involving MLAs and mediapersons. The Indian Express reported this last December based on data obtained from the department under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
“One of the biggest problems was that the order to procure sports material was given to a sports company in Ranchi without any tender,” said an officer who requested anonymity. “And that is the reason why the bills could not be passed and it was taken to the Cabinet, where, too, it wasn’t put up for approval. All this happened when Pooja Singhal was the secretary.”