Are the Narendra Modi government’s grand plans to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi this year turning into a messy affair?
For one, the name of late UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, who passed away in August 2018, continues to be on a multi-member high-powered national committee headed by President Ram Nath Kovind.
On the other side, there are chances that the Gujarat and the Central governments’ celebration plans, for which the Narendra Modi government has earmarked Rs 150 crore in 2017-18, may run aground following allegations of bureaucratic corruption and consequent court cases that have significantly delayed the programmes from taking off, inquiries made by Newsclick have revealed.
The trouble began in Gujarat, the birthplace of the ‘Father of the Nation’ when as a part of its plans, the state government headed by Chief Minister Vijay Rupani “hastily” drew up proposals for various programmes that would culminate with statewide celebrations on October 2, 2019, which would continue through 2020. While the Gujarat government allocated Rs 25 crore for redevelopment of Sabarmati Ashram, it also sought to promote “Gandhian values” and “thought” besides revitalising Gandhian institutions across the state.
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It was also decided that Rupani, who is on the high-powered National Committee, would present to Prime Minister Modi detailed plans for the celebrations on May 2, 2018. Nine “foreign dignitaries”, including two “former” UN Secretaries General, Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, South African Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, former US Vice President Al Gore and American Congress representative Tulsi Gabbard were named as members on the National Committee. Copies of two gazette notifications (issued by the Ministry of Culture) naming all the members are in the possession of Newsclick. The mandate of the committee is to “approve policies/plans, programmes and supervise and guide the Commemoration of the 150th Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, including preparatory activities” and “decide on the broad dates for the detailed programme of celebration”.
While a notification of November 13, 2017, included the name of Annan, besides eight others, no modification was made to exclude him after August 18, 2018, when the former UN Secretary General passed away in Bern, Switzerland. In fact, on June 1 last year, an addendum was issued, naming A T Ariyaratne, who heads Sri Lanka’s Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, as the tenth foreign member.
That Annan’s death was overlooked is evident from a Press Information Bureau release (December 21, 2018) which noted that the “President of India holds first meeting of NIC to celebrate 150th Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi” and that the “meeting was attended by 82 members of the Committee, including two from abroad”. Annan was named alongside Ban Ki-moon in the press release.
When contacted, S C Verma, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Culture, pointed Newsclick to the dedicated website which contains the same gazette notifications listing the same names, including Annan’s.
Graft Allegations in Gujarat
Meanwhile, with the Lok Sabha election campaign underway, a court case alleging diversion of funds earmarked for the celebration of Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary by the Gujarat government have cropped up. The petitioner, representing an Ahmedabad-based “new age audio-visual media company” called Budbac Studios, has alleged bureaucratic corruption, claiming it had started receiving “gratification signals” from Gujarat tourism officials, after submission of a reality show proposal named ‘Bapu Ki Lathi”.
Budbac Studios founder Vishwas Bhamburkar alleged that their proposal entailed recreating and reproducing Gandhi’s 24-day non-violent civil disobedience movement, Dandi March or Salt March. “A 24-day march from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to Dandi in Navsari District of Gujarat, comprising 78 participants will start the march…The original route would be followed,” states Budbac’s proposal. The other objective of the TV reality show was to instil Gandhian values and practices among people.
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With the objective of “arousing a huge tourist interest in Gujarat” and putting “Gujarat Tourism on the global tourism map, larger in-flow of foreign tourists and promoting hitherto unknown locations on the Dandi route as tourist destinations, Budbac said it submitted a Rs 20.30-crore project estimate and “requested” Gujarat Tourism and the state government to “take on the role of title sponsor with a 40% contribution to the costs, i.e. an amount of Rs 10,16,25,000 (Rs 10.16 crore)”. Budbac promised to “arrange the rest of the sponsorship and to ensure that the show is broadcast”.
Soon enough, Budbac alleged that it started receiving “gratification signals” from Gujarat Tourism officials. In his petition (filed on November 22, 2018 against the Gujarat government, Principal Secretary of Tourism and the Gujarat Tourism Corporation Ltd) to the Gujarat High Court, Bhamburkar claims that he “tried to speak” to the Chief Secretary and explain the mischief that seemed to be causing the delay in processing the proposal”. He was asked to “meet” the Principal Secretary who “orally assured the petitioner that the proposal would be processed”.
Bhamburkar claims that the GTCL managing director “was not inclined to forward the proposal” and told him “in as many words that if he submitted a new proposal reducing the amount of sponsorship…by at least 20%, he would forward it; else he would write negative comments so that the proposal would get rejected”.
Bhamburkar claims to have submitted a fresh proposal by reducing the sponsorship amount to Rs 8 crore, yet facing stonewalling by a top GTCL official. He also claimed that eventually he was informed on August 21, 2018, via a WhatsApp message that the “Govt. has returned the file”.
When contacted by Newsclick, Bhamburkar claimed that his proposal was rejected because he did not cough up bribe money, adding that he had submitted screenshots of the WhatsApp messages to the court. He said he filed the petition “with the express intent of bringing out in the open, the corrupt practices that are being resorted to by the Respondents which is resulting in no programs being held to commemorate the 150th Birth Anniversary Celebrations of the Father of the Nation”.
Several representations to the Chief Minister’s Office and the Principal Secretary, Tourism, elicited no response.
On January 10 this year, when the petition came up for hearing, the assistant government pleader reportedly sought more time to respond. Through January and February, the case would be listed and adjourned because the Advocate General would invariably fail to appear on behalf of the state government, Bhamburkar said, adding that “the case has been languishing.”
On his part, in his affidavit, GTCL General Manager Hiteshkumar Champaklal Vyas said the “mala fides (alleged seeking of bribes) have to be established and proved beyond reasonable doubt and mere making (sic) allegations of mala fide would not suffice”. In this context, he said: “…the petitioner’s contentions do not stand on any proof that the respondent authorities had demanded any illegal gratification and therefore” he “may not be permitted to raise such contentions”.
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