Even as the memory of the high-voltage political drama that followed the 2019 Maharashtra Assembly elections are still fresh, another controversy has erupted, sending ripples within the present government.
On November 22, 2019, when the state was under President’s Rule, Governor Bhagatsingh Koshyari had reportedly signed a controversial proposal sent by the state’s Public Works Department clearing a bill worth Rs 358.79 crore to a private company, Manaj Tollways Private Limited.
A day later, in the wee hours of November 23, 2019, President’s Rule was lifted from Maharashtra, with Bharatiya Janata Party’s Devendra Fadnavis and Nationalist Congress Party’s Ajit Pawar taking oath as Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister under Governor Bhagatsingh Koshyari. The hours preceding this alliance, which lasted just around 80 hours, were witness to a ‘never before seen’ turn of events.
The financial proposal clearing payments was reportedly signed while the state was still under President’s Rule. This controversial development came to the fore almost two months later, after a Superintending Engineer (SE) of the state PWD reportedly objected to releasing the money to the private contractor. Following this, the matter was taken to the Bombay High Court where the SE placed his detailed note alleging gross violations.
In 2009, the Maharashtra government had approved a plan to build a four-lane road in Purandar tehsil of Pune district. The initial cost approved for the project by the state administration was Rs 216 crore. In 2010, a committee empowered by the central government passed an increased cost of Rs 219 crore. Again in 2011, the state cabinet’s infrastructure sub-committee approved an increased cost of Rs 358 crore for the project, as per the SE’s note, a copy of which has been seen by Newsclick.
Manaj Tollway, the company which had been given the tender for the project, was allotted to build 32.64 km out of the total 41.06 km road. However, according to the SE’s note, the contractor failed to complete the work and gave a termination notice in March 2015.
Following this, the state government was to clear the bill for the period of work done by the contractor. According to an independent engineer’s assessment, the contractor should have been awarded Rs 104 crore. But later, a committee of three chief engineers fixed the amount to be paid to the contractor at Rs 197.49 crore, after assessing the total work done by the contractor, the SE has alleged.
The contractor, however, reportedly requested the secretary of PWD (Road) to appoint an arbitrator into the matter on November 17, 2016. As per rules, the arbitrator committee for such issues must have three members. The Pune division of PWD, in this case, is said to have requested the state government (PWD officers in the State Secretariat, Mumbai) to appoint the state's representatives. But due to the delay in the case, the Bombay HC appointed only one arbitrator.
On December 31, 2018, the arbitrator reportedly submitted a report saying that the contractor should be given Rs 332 crore, says the SE’s note. But, the Pune Division of PWD refused to accept this report, requesting permission from the PWD Secretary to file an appeal against the arbitrator’s decision. As per rule, an appeal must be filed within 90 days. But even after 89 days, PWD's senior officers did not give permission for an appeal. So, the Pune Division filed an appeal in the district court against the arbitrator’s order.
Meanwhile, during this period, another meeting was reportedly held in Mumbai under the chairmanship of then PWD Minister Chandrakant Patil on December 10, 2018. In this meeting, the actual amount owed by the state government to the contractor was fixed at Rs 184.15 crore, the SE has alleged, adding that this included the cost of termination rates as well as bank rates and the 3% interest on the amount.
Did the Governor Sign Without Finance Department’s Remark?
Amid these twists and turns, the SE’s note alleges that the file was sent to Governor Koshyari for approval of payment, that too, while the state was under President’s Rule. The file reportedly did not have any remark by the Finance Department, which is necessary as per rules.
Soon after, the new government under Uddhav Thackeray took power in the state on November 28. Then, on December 12, the PWD department reportedly transferred Rs 1 crore to its Pune division for the contractor’s payment. As the transferred amount was negligible compared with the amount fixed by the former PWD Minister-led committee (Rs 184 crore), the divisional office released the transferred money to the contractor on December 16, 2019, the SE has alleged. The note claimed that even while releasing this amount, the divisional accountant of the Pune division of PWD had put a remark of requirement of clearance by law and judiciary department.
Within just 25 days of the new government taking over, the state PWD is said to have transferred the remaining Rs 357.79 crore to Pune division. The amount was transferred on January 6, 2020, just a day after Congress’s Ashok Chavan took over as the new PWD Minister. However, the transfer order did not have Chavan’s signature, which has given rise to speculations whether the minister was informed about the matter or not, the SE’s note has alleged.
HC Takes Custody of Money, PWD Officers Slammed for ‘Lie’
Before releasing such a huge amount, Pune’s divisional PWD office started checking all the necessary documents. But within 13 days, on January 19, 2020, the PWD officer got a call from Bombay HC regarding contempt of court. The contractor had filed a contempt of court case against the SE looking into the matter on January 17, only 10 days after the amount was transferred.
In the fourth hearing on the matter in January 2020, the SE submitted all the documents to the court and said that the amount in question does not have proper approval of the Law and Judiciary Department as well as Finance Department and therefore, he can't release the amount as per law. He suggested that the HC should take custody of all the money till the matter is sub-judice. On January 30, HC ordered the money to be transferred to its custody till the matter is with the court.
After examining the papers submitted by the SE, the HC slammed the PWD saying that three senior officers of the department had misinterpreted the court’s earlier orders. The HC went on to add: “There is a limit to lying, and that, too, from responsible government representatives”.
While the matter is sub-judice, it remains to be seen if CM Thackeray will take cognisance of it to ensure that the State does not lose the money. Will he take action against PWD officers who misinterpreted the HC’s orders and moved the file of payment proposal while the state was under President’s rule?
However, informed sources said the CM has not yet taken any step. "He has taken a brief from all the persons concerned but has not arrived at any decision as of now. Also, the matter is sub-judice so there is a limit to what he can do," sources told NewsClick.
CM Thackeray is also in-charge of the law ministry in Maharashtra, whose opinion was allegedly not taken during the transfer by the state PWD, as highlighted by the SE as well as by the divisional auditor during the first payment. Despite the issue being flagged, PWD officers did not take any action. Being the law minister, it is the CM’s duty to act in the matter, sources said.
Additionally, as three senior officers of PWD have been slammed for ‘lying’ in the court, Thackeray—who also holds the General Administration Department—can also set an example by taking required action against the bureaucrats responsible.