Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh: In 2004, a contractor hired by the Arunachal Pradesh government transported rice to flood victims, charging Rs68.44 crore, or about six times the Rs11.7 crore that the Union government had spent to buy the rice for relief supplies?to the north-eastern state.
The transport company, an unregistered firm, RD Carriages, received the contract without the required tendering process. Its owner: the second wife of Dorjee Khandu, who was then the state’s relief minister. Khandu now happens to be the chief minister, representing the Congress party.
The rice saga is now part of a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Arunachal Pradesh high court filed by Burang Lama, an activist, teacher and former Zilla Parishad president of Tawang district. The PIL accuses Khandu of several instances of corruption and nepotism.
“This time, they went too far,” says Lama, also a member of the Congress party, who denies he is politically motivated in going after the chief minister from his own party.
“They were not making money on contracts for development projects. This time, they were stealing from the poorest people of this country. I could not keep quiet any longer.”
WHOSE MONEY ? (Graphic)
Lama’s PIL, filed last year and reviewed recently by Mint, includes photocopies of several documents—letters, contract papers, bills and newspaper articles—and alleges that the then relief minister used his office to give key contracts to family members, who created fraudulent bills that were paid by the public exchequer.
Khandu denied the allegations in a phone conversation with Mint on Thursday, saying they were “politically motivated” by his “enemies”.
The chief minister’s public relations officer, Jambey Tsering, suggested Mint should “delay the story because the matter was sub judice”, adding: “We should all let the law take its own course.”
The documents filed with the PIL show that RD Carriages inflated its bills to such an extent that the transport of rice, which should have cost about Rs12 crore, actually cost the taxpayer almost six times as much.
The bills, used as supporting evidence, show that the company misrepresented the cost of hiring transport trucks; misrepresented head-loads, or the labourers who carried rice on their heads and walked miles to deliver it to remote villages. Head-loads were 40 times more expensive than truck transport because of the effort involved.
The documents also suggest that RD Carriages appears to have made costs surge by showing head-loads in places where roads exist and by showing longer head-load distances in places where there really are no roads.
For instance, one of the bills shows the company charged the government Rs15 lakh for transporting 800 quintals of rice over 15km from Tawang town to Shurbi village because the transfer was done by head-loads. In reality, it should cost only Rs39,600 because there is an all-weather road and there is no need for head-loads.
In his telephone interview, Khandu insisted there was no road to Shurbi and that often, roads in the state close during rains and landslides. “That is what I am telling you,” he said. “There are no irregularities.”
However, the Union government’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which maintain roads that serve the borders areas, says it had built an all-weather road connecting Tawang and Shurbi in 1976. S. Mindarkar, an official at BRO, says the organization has built all major roads of Tawang and that on this road, trucks can drive up to 1km from Shurbi, the village that is home to 300 families.
The documents show that RD Carriages appears to have inflated other costs as well. For instance, hiring one transport truck typically costs about Rs26,000 in the state, yet the firm charged the government Rs84,000 per truck.
Another allegation made in the PIL is that 14 relief officers were hired on a “temporary basis” to cover up the alleged overbilling. All of them were eventually recruited as full-time government staff.
In his affidavit countering the allegations in the PIL, the chief minister acknowledged that one of the recruits was the son-in-law of the previous chief minister, Gegong Apang. He alleged that they were all offered permanent positions at Apang’s behest.
Khandu defended himself by accusing his predecessor of nepotism. Telephone calls to Apang’s office were not answered this week.
Most of the other allegations are dismissed by Khandu as “imaginary, baseless and unauthenticated”. Others, he simply denies without any further explanation. The government counter-affidavit also alleges that Lama is pursuing the case only to harass Khandu, a political rival.
In his interview with Mint, Khandu said: “They had five years from 2002 till 2005 to file these complaints. Why did they wait until I became the chief minister? So you see it is motivated.”
When a Mint reporter pointed out that the bills were submitted to the government only in 2005, Khandu fell silent. After a moment, he said, “All this was done under the administration of the previous chief minister Gegong Apang. I am not responsible for it.”
Khandu became the chief minister in April last year after dissidence in the Congress party forced Apang to resign.
Interestingly, state government lawyers have not challenged the authenticity of any of the documents submitted by Lama along with the PIL.
People who track the state’s development and politics say they aren’t shocked by the allegations. A class of nouveau riche, be it politicians, bureaucrats or businessmen, has rapidly emerged in what used to be an egalitarian society where, sociologists say, tribes starved and feasted together. But vast development projects and strategic importance of Arunachal Pradesh has ensured it remains flush with money, some of it up for grabs.
It began five years ago: June 2003 brought a devastating monsoon to Arunachal Pradesh as torrential rains pounded the north-east for two days. Embankments exploded under the pressure of the engorged Brahmaputra. The river tore through villages, plains and homes, wrecking everything in its path.
When the water receded, 73 had died, three million people were marooned and half a million displaced. The Arunachal Pradesh government, reeling under the onslaught and burdened with creaky infrastructure, did not have the resources to provide aid. So, the Union government stepped in. It invoked a special food-for-work programme under its Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana scheme that aims to ensure food security in rural India. The plan was to employ the flood-affected villagers to rebuild damaged homes and roads in exchange for wages paid in the form of food (75%) and money (25%). The Centre also promised to bear all costs of transport of rice from godowns of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) to the districts.
On 9 January 2004, a letter from the Centre assured Kha-ndu, then relief minister, that the Centre will pay all bills submitted by the state, using funds from the National Calamity Contingency Fund.
But, it came with conditions: the district collector and district relief officer of each district were responsible for selecting the repairs to be done, for creating wage employment, for transporting and using the foodgrains to pay the wages when the work was done, and importantly, submitting a monthly progress report.
The relief minister’s only responsibility was to make sure the rice was properly distributed. But, Lama alleges in his PIL that the minister inserted himself into the process and 10 days after receiving the letter, he inked an agreement to transport the rice, a job that by right, should have been done by district commissioners.
But, no tenders were issued before awarding the contract. In its counter-affidavit, the state government defended the action and said there was not enough time to invite tenders. However, the Central scheme requires a tender to be issued for a carriage contract.
The contract was then given RD Carriages, based in the state capital Itanagar and owned by Khandu’s second wife, 46-year old Rinchin Drema. She and Khandu’s 35- year old nephew, Jambey Tashi, own and run RD Carriages, and live in Tawang, the home district of the chief minister as well as Lama. Khandu’s counter affidavit confirms this. Drema and Tashi did not return calls from Mint.
Mint has reviewed a copy of the contract that only lists the firm’s address as C sector, Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh, making it difficult, if not impossible, to find the actual office since there is no house number, street name or nearby landmark noted.
Khandu’s wife and his subordinate, T.T. Gamdik, the then director of the department of relief, rehabilitation and disaster management, have signed the papers. Hours after the agreement was inked, Gamdik ordered the trucks to begin lifting the rice from FCI warehouses. Work began that same evening and trucks pulled out early next morning.
In a 2006 inquiry, the state crime branch investigating officer and deputy superintendent of police C.B.Chetri said tenders were important to ensure “economy in transportation of food grains”. His report says that since no tender was issued, Gamdik had violated the scheme’s code by signing the contract. It says that even though Gamdik claims that the government of Arunachal Pradesh approved of his action, he should be “charged with lapses in this regard”.
But, no charges were filed against Gamdik and he is now the district commissioner of Tawang. Gamdik’s phone rang unanswered on Thursday.
At the very least, Lama alleges, this was a conflict of interest that eroded public trust and tarnished the government’s credibility. By rules, the ministry should have played the role of a facilitator, helping district commissioners in executing their responsibility in transporting rice to the work sites and ensuring that the rice reached those who were starving. Lama alleges that the more serious wrongdoing began 12 months later, when RD Carriages submitted bills to Khandu’s ministry to forward to the Centre for reimbursement. The bills seen by Mint seem to have adopted the same process to seemingly inflate the bills.
In all bills for the Tawang district, the firm has showed head-loads in places where there are roads; increased the head-load distances where there are no roads; and inflated the hiring cost of trucks by three times. The tactic appears to have worked: distribution costs for Tawang should have been about Rs94 lakh, but the firm listed Rs5.8 crore. There are 12 other districts for which bills were submitted, but Mint hasn’t been able to review all bills from all those districts. It is also difficult to physically verify the existence of roads everywhere in the state.
At the Central Vigilance Commission, commissioner Ranjana Kumar said she does not know about the case and as such, it sounded like something the state anti-corruption bureau should investigate.
Meanwhile, some observers say that at the very least, Khandu appears to be guilty under the Prevention of Corruption Act that prohibits office bearers from giving contracts to their relatives. In his own affidavit, the chief minister has admitted that he gave the contract to RD Carriages, creating grounds for him to be investigated under the Act.
Last year, CNN-IBN television channel reporter Swetha Balasubramaniam went to Tawang to report on the story, which it aired in November.
She says people armed with guns surrounded her car, forcing Balasubramaniam, her cameraman and driver into the chief minister’s residence where she was threatened to stop reporting on the story.
Recalls Balasubramaniam: “I was forced to take a chopper out of that place, with a lot of manipulated planning to get out alive...with some special help from the army and cops to escape the thugs.”
Khandu describes the incident as “unfortunate”, claiming: “But, I was in Delhi when it happened. I was not there.”
Meanwhile, the next hearing of the PIL is scheduled for July.
(This is the concluding part of a series on Arunachal Pradesh.)