Mumbai: Is the BEST involved in 'streetlight robbery'?

After BEST Undertaking was found quoting over Rs 6 crore for painting streetlight poles when contractors quoted just Rs 4 crore, it will now probe expenditure on such works in the past 10 years

The BEST Undertaking is responsible for the upkeep of streetlights in the city, but it seems to have kept Mumbai in the dark regarding how it is spending taxpayers’ money on such work. After the BMC was caught siphoning off crores under the pretext of maintaining roads and nullahs, it is now feared that the BEST might be involved in a streetlight scam after it quoted grossly inflated costs for painting streetlights. The Undertaking will now order an inquiry into the money it has spent in the last 10 years on painting light poles across the city.

A worker painting a streetlight at Kidwai Marg in Sewri. File pic/Atul Kamble
A worker painting a streetlight at Kidwai Marg in Sewri. File pic/Atul Kamble

Chew on this: in a tender for a paint job for 27,000 poles, while contractors quoted an estimate of Rs 4.14 crore, BEST came up with a far higher estimate of Rs 6.18 crore for the same project. This means, a loss of over Rs 2 crore of public money.

“This means the BEST administration has been paying much higher amounts than necessary for so many years. With such high discrepancy in the rates offered by the bidders and the administration’s estimate, I am sure the money spent earlier has been siphoned off. There is need for a detailed probe to trace losses, which could expose a scam running into several crores,” said Sunil Ganacharya, BEST Committee member from Shiv Sena.

While this is worrying in itself, what is worse is that there’s no way to tell whether the Undertaking has actually been wasting money in past years since it had never bothered to come up with an estimate before. It was only after the department was criticised by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) for not conducting any internal cost audits that BEST decided to prepare an estimate for the first time.

Sources in BEST said, “CAG observed that cost estimates were not prepared prior to tender invitations. So the street lighting department was asked to work out the estimated cost of painting the poles.”

But that doesn’t explain why the BEST estimate is so high. Based on the total quotations, the contractors have quoted an average of Rs 1,532 per pole, while the figure rises to Rs 2,290 per pole in the BEST’s estimate. Going by BEST’s estimate, R758 will be lost per pole. The tender covers different types of streetlamps, each at a different cost. The contractor will also provide cement concrete aprons below and paint them as well.

“These are the estimates made by our department. The rates quoted are high as we have included the use of machines and cranes, while the contractors don’t use them,” said Jagdish Patil, general manager of the BEST Undertaking.

That said, the organisation will now probe expenditure on such works in the last 10 years. At present, there are 40,844 streetlights in Mumbai and officials said that each pole needs a paint job every three years. BEST will also study the corrosion rate and try to determine whether streetlights were painted out of turn.

Many BEST officials are not even happy with the way contractors have been painting the lights. “The contractor hasn’t been doing the job properly,” said Ravi Raja, BEST Committee member. But there are others in the administration who tried to explain this away claiming there were too many restrictions. For instance, the painting work can only be carried out between October and May.

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