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Scams take a toll on Maharashtra government

By Sanjay Jog
July 08, 2015 08:44 IST
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Legislators, bureaucrats feel an impact, with works relating to their constituencies stuck at various levels. 

Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis greets Pankaja Munde. Photograph: PTI

The image of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Maharashtra has taken a beating, following the revelation of three major scams -- allegedly involving Education Minister Vinod Tawde, Woman & Child Welfare Minister Pankaja Munde and Water Supplies Minister Babanrao Lonikar.

While these issues have given the opposition Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party an opportunity to target the government, they have also hit the functioning of the eight-month-old state government, which came to power on promises of scam-free, transparent and clean governance. Other BJP legislators have also started feeling an impact, as works relating to their constituencies have been stuck at various levels. This, they fear, might take a toll, especially as the state stares at a drought this year.

Displeased with the fact that its nominee ministers have been sidelined in running the government, the Shiv Sena has taken a swipe at the BJP, saying every day, there are accusations of wrongdoing against ministers and it was up to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to defend them. It, however, added Fadnavis was an able CM, who would continue to stand up for his ministers.

The state government’s woes began when Water Supplies Minister Babanrao Lonikar’s name was dragged into a controversy relating to fake degrees. Thereafter, Vinod Tawde, a core committee member of the state BJP unit, came under the scanner for possessing an engineering degree from an unrecognised university, one that wasn’t affiliated to the University Grants Commission or the All India Council for Technical Education.

Subsequently, Pankaja Munde, daughter of late BJP leader Gopinath Munde, was accused of awarding contracts worth Rs 206 crore without inviting tenders. It was said she had cleared all the purchases on February 13, through 24 government resolutions that had been issued hurriedly. The Congress has filed a complaint in this regard with the state anti-corruption bureau, which has sought details from the department secretary.

In fresh trouble for the government, Tawde was accused of committing irregularities in connection with the award of a Rs 191-crore contract for supplying 62,105 fire extinguishers for zilla parishad schools across the state, without inviting tenders. The contract cleared by Tawde was, however, put on hold after the finance department objected to it.

It was alleged both Munde and Tawde sidestepped government norms for e-tendering of contracts, mandatory for all purchases worth more than Rs 3 lakh. Both the ministers have denied any wrongdoing and refused to step down. Tawde and Lonikar have clarified that they did not possess fake or bogus degrees.

The three ministers have also said they are ready to face any inquiry into the charges against them.

However, following the accusations, the state bureaucracy has become cautious and they are unwilling to clear files quickly. A section of senior bureaucrats has told Fadnavis they will not work under pressure from any minister, nor bypass stipulated norms, especially in the irrigation, rural development, agriculture, woman and child development, urban development, industries and power departments.

At the taluka and district levels, government officials have become more vigilant. The suspension of seven tahsildars (revenue officials at the tahsil level) by Girish Bapat, food and civil supplies minister, in connection with the public distribution scam in Nashik district, followed by their reinstatement (after a stay on the order by the Maharashtra administrative tribunal), has further widened the gap between the government and the administration.

On condition of anonymity, a three-term BJP legislator said he feared policy paralysis might set in if the ministers and bureaucracy opted to go slow. “The chief minister will have to reiterate the government’s commitment to being transparent and scam-free. That is the need of the hour,” he said.

Anti-corruption activist Vishmbhar Chaudhari made a strong case for putting in place a Lokayukta in Maharashtra. “The government will have to further improve the investigation process and take one or two scams to a logical end. It is the right time for the BJP to prove its credentials of being a party with a difference. When the government is not clear on its agenda, there is danger of the bureaucracy becoming corrupt.”

Meanwhile, the government has decided to put a cap on the controversial rate contract system. It has done away with the March 31 deadline for spending allocated funds by various departments. According to the revised norms, the highest amount to be spent on purchasing an item under the rate contract system will be Rs 2 crore at the state level and Rs 50 lakh at the district level. For other purchases, tendering will be mandatory.

But this alone is unlikely to be enough. It is credibility that is at stake.

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Sanjay Jog
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