Rajendra Thacker, a veteran of public interest litigation, explained the need to go to court...
Medha Patkar-led NAPM claims to have unearthed startling evidence on the involvement of Ajit Pawar, former BJP president Nitin Gadkari, Gopinath Munde, Sunil Deshmukh, MLA, Vijay Vadettiwar in the irrigation project scandal. NAPM has demanded an independent Commission of Inquiry and punishment of the guilty
A startling revelation by Medha Patkar’s National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) says that top Maharashtra politicians have been direct beneficiaries in the irrigation project scandal. The escalating cost of Maharashtra's irrigation projects has cost crores of rupees to the exchequer while bringing no relief to ordinary persons and farmers in the drought prone districts of Maharashtra. According to the NAPM press release, documents, diaries and papers seized from the residences of the director of Mahalaxmi Infraprojects (MIL), Dhirendra Anant Bhat, one of the parties to the scam, show fine details of money paid during the pre-tendering process for garnering the contracts. Documents seized from Bhatt also include details of money paid to the technical experts and officials in the Irrigation Department, Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation and Krishna Valley Development Corporation and the Tembhu project in Western Maharashtra.
The names of the beneficiaries were revealed and included well known politicians, including Ajit Pawar who shot into notoriety for his disgusting “urine” remarks (Ajit Pawar’s Rs70,000 crore uri'nation’). Other beneficiaries were former BJP president Nitin Gadkari, Gopinath Munde, Sunil Deshmukh, MLA, Vijay Vadettiwar and their associates. Last year, when the irrigation scam came out, Gosi Khurd was one of the projects listed. The NAPM has uncovered the following, when investigation carried out by the Income Tax department on MIL showed Rs200 crore as ‘investment’, in 2011, the truth was discovered regarding “speed money” to powerful politicians.
Here is what the NAPM says in its press release:
• Details of ‘payments’ worth Rs43.85 crore were obtained from DA Bhat who ultimately admitted, and so did the chairman and managing director of MIL, Ravindra D Shinde that those payments ranging from Rs1 lakh to crores to each of the persons named by initials or short forms, with designations or nick names, were indeed made during the period of 2-3 years until the raid on 23 September 2009 and thereafter.
• A reading of the detailed note on Tembhu seized during the raid shows that the same MIL has tendered cost of the material to be supplied for the project increased by 60% of the real market cost. This increase, shown as ‘overheads’ amounts to 26.7% of the cost, that comes to about Rs105 crore, admitted by the director Mr Bhat specially entrusted with “operation distribution” to get contracts, get bills sanctioned, to obtain other clearances and keep all, even the each others’ opponents, happy.
• In just one branch canal project, with an estimated cost of Rs287 crore, ‘Dada’, also named as AP in certain seized pages, with amounts and details such as dates tallying with each other, took the largest of the share, Rs27.50 crore i.e. 10% of the total project estimate – the ‘normal’ rate for ‘speed money’ popularly known and taken as indispensable! This amount was shared as 50-50 by the two partner firms, one the assessor, MIL and its IT venture partner, M/s BT Patil & Sons Belgaum Construction Company. There is also a mention of ‘AB’ who invested a part of the first year’s (2006-07) unexplained Business Expenses of Rs200 lakh i.e. Rs2 crore, divided into 50% as assistance to and for each of the JV Partner firms!
• Nitin Gadkari and Gopinath Munde were also paid about Rs 50 Lakh and Rs 20 Lakh respectively.
• Officials of MoEF – Ministry of Environment and Forest as well as the Darda family also seem to have received their share.
• Gosikhurd Dam project of which right bank branch canal of Ghodziri is under scanner as well. Left bank canal has became a mess with Nitesh Bhangadia, present MLC, BJP, another politician contractor getting his due score while Ghodziri branch with the above ‘entanglements’ is still far from complete, with water yet to reach Asolamendha tank, the old tank of 1940’s yet to be expanded, 11 more villages planned to be submerged for the same and irrigation benefits yet not obtained to “lack of funds” for the minor network!
• One more project details, without identification are found to indicate that 14.5% of the total Rs633 crore, bill sanctioned, i.e. Rs92 crore are kept for doling out over and above the official/legitimate profit.
The NAPM report alleges, on the basis on analysis of documents, that the percentage almost fixed and estimated since the beginning, which escalates the project cost by at least the same amount as “well—planned”. Furthermore, the delays, irrespective of “speed money” obviously are a part of the game that “get, set and go”, only when the shares are obtained. And further official escalation in the cost also then becomes a demand. The press release stated, “The people of Vidarbha, Maharashtra are surely made fools and not the water but ‘milk’ from the project—cows diverted!”
More pertinently, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had come up with its report that made references to Tembhu Large Life Diversion Project and Ghodziri which has implications for the ongoing scam. According to the NAPM press release, the report of the Deputy Commissioner refers to the Tembhu Large Lift Diversion Project, started in 1999 but lying behind by years, even when the oustees of Wang—Marathwadi and other related projects are being drowned and displaced, since years in the name of water for Tembhu!
However, no action has been taken so far despite sufficient evidence given by NAPM. The NAPM states, “It’s obvious that this assessment order could be sufficient to take action against the assessed, and receivers too could be tried under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, for receipt of “pecuniary advantage”. However, the Judicial Authority of Commissioner–I-T, investigation was approached by the assessor and assessment order gave a partially clean chit!”
Furthermore, it also states that, “the Appellate report too, however, does not deny the expenditure as “speed money” which would be an adequate basis to act. Who will bell the cat, may we ask? The matter is still with the I-T - Appellate Tribunal, Pune (ITAT) taking months if not years and there is no money for maintaining agency to ‘speed’ the investigation. Meanwhile, Mahalakshmi Infra projects continue to progress and be involved in implementing projects.”
The NAPM has demanded for a committee of enquiry to investigate and take action against those responsible for the scam. It said, “We demand and assert a need to appoint an impartial, independent Commission of Enquiry under the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952, chaired by a judge with integrity and honesty. Investigation into all projects - small and large: dam, canal or lifts by calling for all data, documents, files, summoning anyone concerned including ministers and the chief minister and relying upon a special Investigation Team (SIT) but also assisted by state and central agencies such as Directorate of Enforcement, ACB, EOW, CVC and I-T dept.”
NAPM continues to search details into the water scam feel ashamed of not only the vulgar remarks but more immoral, criminal acts of corruption – misusing and mismanaging public money and resources including water, when we are faced with the worst drought in decades.
Individual decisions are randomly criticized and this does not give a picture of the overall trend of a Commissioner’s decisions. If we have a transparent process for selecting Commissioners and put continuous pressure on them for accountability, we will get much better results from our cherished Right to Information
There is considerable discontent amongst RTI users against the Information Commissions and Commissioners for not delivering the fruits of the RTI (Right to Information) Act. We have a law which directly empowers individual citizens and they are understandably concerned about getting its proper implementation. The political team mandated by the law—PM/CM, leader of the opposition and one minister—is not performing its function with diligence and is using the appointment of Information Commissioners as one more avenue for dispensing patronage. Perhaps they also lack the time required for such an exercise.
The political and bureaucratic establishment have been doing this for years in appointments for various commissions—and many other positions of high ranks—and is unable to understand this sudden outcry and anger of citizens against appointments of Information Commissioners.
Some activists have gone to courts and the Supreme Court’s order in the Namit Sharma case may institutionalize the Information Commissions as senior citizen’s clubs. It mandated that the Information Commissions must decide in benches of two, one of whom shall be a retired judge. This decision will have a huge negative impact on the Information Commissions, and lead to a further decline in their performance.
Presently, the order has been stayed. One positive outcome of this decision is its lament about the lack of a fair and transparent process for selection of Information Commissioners. There is a great need to introduce a transparent process for selecting Information Commissioners, who are expected to oversee transparency.
There should be an insistence on public exposure for those who are interested in becoming Information Commissioners. Many Information Commissioners have no understanding or interest in transparency, or the RTI Act. This is an affliction which is true for many people in power. I agree with the Supreme Court’s suggestion for a transparent process of selection made in the Namit Sharma case and hope that citizens would lend their voice for such a process. This would lead to a better environment for the RTI Act implementation.
The process I am suggesting is as follows:
A. The Information Commissions should set a target for disposals: I suggest 5000 per Commissioner per year. An attempt should be made to increase this target number (around 85% of the matters do not require any legal interpretations as per a study of four months of CIC decisions).
B. Every six months they should review their actual performance per Commissioner and forecast the expected receipts and disposals for the next two years, factoring the retirements. This information should be displayed on their websites. This forecast would show the requirements for new commissioners to be appointed by taking into account the expected retirements.
C. The government should advertise its intention to appoint a certain number of Information Commissioners depending on the need, four months in advance. Eminent people could apply or be nominated by others.
D. A search committee—perhaps—consisting of two members of Parliament, Chief Information Commissioner, one vice-chancellor, one Supreme Court judge and two RTI activists, could be formed to shortlist a panel which could be three times the number of Commissioners to be selected. These could be announced with the minutes of the meeting at which the shortlisting was done.
E. An interview should be held by the search committee in public view to give citizens and media the opportunity to hear the views and commitment to work of the candidates. Citizens could give their feedback and views to the search committee. After this the search committee could give its recommendation for two times the number of Commissioners to be appointed. Based on these inputs, the final decision to select the Commissioners could be taken by the committee as per the Act consisting of PM, LOP and one minister. (A similar process could be adopted for State Commissions with MLAs instead of MPs and high court judge instead of Supreme Court judge).
Citizens will benefit if they could get the Commissions to publish data on the performance of each Commissioner monthly, and also build public opinion to lower the average age of the Commissioners. Atleast half the Information Commissioners should be less than sixty years. There are many RTI activists who have gained considerable understanding of the nuances of the law, and have a natural empathy for transparency. Some of these should be appointed as Information Commissioners. Another useful function which civil society groups could perform is to analyze all the decisions of each Information Commissioner each month continuously in a transparent manner. This would build pressure on those who may be giving errant decisions.
Presently, individual decisions are randomly criticized and this does not give a picture of the overall trend of a Commissioner’s decisions. If we can get a transparent process for selecting Commissioners and put continuous pressure on them for accountability, we will get much better results from our cherished Right to Information. If this works well, it could be used as a model for selecting commissioners for various commissions. The commissions are designed as our checks and balances of democracy. Presently, most of them are not delivering their expected functions effectively.
(Shailesh Gandhi is a former Central Information Commissioner,)