A week of political uncertainty has finally come to a close, and while we wait for the next drama to emerge over hurt egos or some other trifle, it would do us well to note the price the state pays while these petty political skirmishes play themselves out.
The current political atmosphere in our state is such that the Congress and NCP can afford to play games of political one-upmanship with each other – only because there is no great threat from their opponents, the BJP or Shiv Sena, who are the principal parties in the Opposition.
Political parties in power have sleepless nights if they have a fierce Opposition trying hard to convince the electorate that it is a viable alternative to the existing coalition. But the toothless Opposition in our state gives rise to no such concerns. Even during the recently concluded Monsoon Session of the State Legislature, the Opposition appeared to not have done its homework — the efforts made by former BJP MP Kirit Somaiya to expose PWD Minister Chhagan Bhujbal and Water Resources Minister Sunil Tatkare were weak, to say the least.
At several instances, the Opposition parties appeared to have been seized with amnesia. Recently, Somaiya met the Comptroller & Auditor General of India (CAG) with a request to probe various alleged scams in Maharashtra, including a PWD project for the construction of Maharashtra Sadan, a palatial guesthouse in Delhi, undertaken through the public private participation (PPP) model.
Bhujbal and his family members have been facing a number of allegations over the project that is clubbed with an SRA scheme, the construction of RTO’s Andheri office and the reconstruction of the High Mount state guesthouse at Malabar Hill. While making the request for the CAG probe, Somaiya and his party forgot that the matter was already scrutinised by the CAG’s state wing and its report was placed before the State Legislature in 2010.
The CAG observed that no tenders were called before awarding the project to a particular developer, who was also offered undue benefits of Rs 73.45 crore because of erroneous valuation of the government property.
Besides, CAG observed that the state forgot its own decision, taken in 2002, to always opt for tendering for such projects, and to grant no more than 20 per cent to the successful bidder. During CAG’s scrutiny of accounts, the government defended its decision not to invite tenders, saying that redevelopment would not fetch an attractive price owing to the existence of slums on the plot.
The veracity of this argument made by the PWD is open to debate, as the plot is located at Four Bungalows in Andheri (West), where residential or commercial developments attract people from the upper echelons of society.
But, none of the Opposition parties have bothered to discuss the CAG’s observations at any forum, ever since the report was tabled in the State Legislature. The BJP also forgot to brief Somaiya on the CAG report. What’s more, the party was silent till Bhujbal made a statement on the floor of the house pleading innocence and rejecting claims of corruption.
The CAG had in the same report made some serious remarks over another redevelopment project at a prime property owned by PWD at Marzban Road near CST station. Here, the government allowed the developer to pocket approximately Rs 9 crore, ignoring important suggestions made by a secretary level committee. NCP seemed to have forgiven and forgotten this as well.
There have been unfavourable remarks from the CAG about toll collection as well. CAG reports submitted to the State Legislature in a last few years have always raised questions about the status of toll contracts. The Opposition parties, including the MNS, forgot to use readily available material from the CAG report and instead spent hours counting vehicles at toll nakas. Such forgetfulness is a threat to the very system of democracy.
When it comes to toll trouble, though the state PWD is facing a number of allegations over its policy of inviting private participation, it has not bothered to set the record straight. The officials who handle these matters have been glued to important seats for years, despite controversies. S S Solanki, an executive engineer, has been holding the seat of deputy secretary in charge of BOT (built-operate-transfer) projects for the last seven years, despite the fact that the post can only be held by an official with the designation of superintendent engineer. Moreover, his posting is with the Thane PWD.
Similarly, the deputy secretary in charge of toll collection, M N Dekate, has been holding his post for the last eight years. The government rulebook says that no official can continue in his post for over three years.
It’s frustrating to see such glaring irregularies go unnoticed and unaccounted for, while the petty political hoopla gets all the attention.
— The writer is Political Editor, MiD DAY