" The Himachal Pradesh State Cooperative Bank is the latest contributor of Rs.51 lakh to the fund."
By Vishal Gulati

Shimla, July 27 - The circuitous road meandering its way to the Jakhu Hills of Shimla, once the summer capital of British India, touches a long-standing bucolic tea stall where something more than the beverage brews.

Less than a hundred yards from Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh's private residence, the stall has assumed the shape and proportions of a changing room, where people from all over the state come in their normal attire but slip into old clothes to give the impression of being a needy person.

Then they meet the chief minister with often spun tales of woe. Some of them carry documents - medical bills, fee receipts, even housing loan papers - and come out richer with crisp currency notes handed over by the chief minister.

In the tea stall again, they put on their original clothes and trot back home with smiles playing on their lips. They are just a few of the many taking advantage of Virbhadra Singh's munificence.

A scion of the royal family, Virbhadra Singh's generosity has been an open secret. The chief minister's aides say that every day, a number of people reach Holly Lodge to get some monetary assistance.

If someone doesn't carry the proper documents or doesn't fall under the preview of the Chief Minister's Relief Fund, the chief minister doesn't mind paying from his own pocket, an official said.

On an average he gives away Rs.5,000-Rs.7,000 in cash daily among the needy from his pocket. The charity continued even when Virbhadra Singh, who is in active politics for over 50 years, was not at the helm.

Sometimes, it's really difficult to determine who is genuine as some of them, we know, usually hanging around his residence and use their skills to get the money, said the official, who did not wish to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media, told IANS.

Last month, after laying the foundation stone of the Town Hall restoration project in Shimla, an old woman asked the chief minister for money so that she could treat her sick child.

Immediately, Virbhadra Singh pulled out his wallet and gave her three currency notes of Rs.500 each.

If the claimant is in genuine need of medical attention, we don't mind paying from the Chief Minister's Relief Fund, said the official.

The relief fund, which has swelled to Rs.25 crore, has helped 7,115 people from Jan 1, 2013, till June 30, 2014.

A spokesperson said the present government has so far sanctioned over Rs.18 crore to the poor and needy.

The chief minister, on an average, daily sanctions Rs.5 lakh to Rs.7 lakh from the relief fund for medical treatment or for pursuing higher studies.

On an average, over a hundred people from across the state daily came to meet the chief minister with some problems. Five to 10 visitors are those who genuinely come for some financial assistance.

However, their number swells every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, when the chief minister officially redresses public grievances, if he is in Shimla, at his official Oakover residence.

There are some heart-warming stories from the recipients.

My son was suffering from a congenital heart disease. I needed around Rs.350,000 for his surgery. We approached the chief minister and within two days the amount was released, Rashmi Devi, a farm labourer from Chopal in Shimla district, told IANS.

There are thousands of other beneficiaries who received help from the relief fund. They included students who needed money for higher studies.

I am pursing my MBBS in the Indira Gandhi Medical College and Hospital (in Shimla), thanks to the relief fund, Priyanka Thakur (name changed) said.

I keep on requesting the corporate houses to contribute generously towards our relief fund, Virbhadra Singh, 80, who has never taken any salary throughout his political career, told IANS.

Gujarat Ambuja Cement Ltd., ACC and hydropower major Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd. are among the major corporate contributors. Even government employees regularly contribute their one-day's salary towards the relief fund.

The Himachal Pradesh State Cooperative Bank is the latest contributor of Rs.51 lakh to the fund.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at [email protected])

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