New evidence shows that the Maharashtra Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board, headed by Omprakash Yadav, a BJP corporator from Nagpur and a supporter of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, had gone ahead with the multi-crore scheme even as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India had objected to it. In fact, at one point in 2014, the government had even accepted the top auditor’s objections and formally decided not to continue the scheme further.
A new set of documents obtained under the Right to Information Act raises further questions regarding the Board’s decision to implement the scheme. It now turns out that the Board’s expert panel, headed by then Principal Secretary (Labour) Arvind Kumar, had decided to drop the scheme on June 09, 2014. Documents reveal the decision, which was taken in light of various objections raised by the CAG and irregularities noticed at that time, was even shared with the government and the top auditor.
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Questioning the motive of the board in the implementation of the scheme, the top auditor had, in its annual report for 2013-14, pointed out that “the board already ran statutory schemes that provided medical assistance and compensation for accident victims, which already covered all registered construction workers. Besides this, the Board has also implemented the Janshree Bima Yojana, a health insurance scheme for construction workers. This shows that the board’s policies are overlapping. What was the reason behind implementing the mediclaim and personal accident policy?”
Official documents obtained under RTI and published in The Indian Express on Thursday show how the Yadav-led board had flouted the government’s own norms while appointing a consultant, and selecting an insurance firm, for extending a mediclaim and personal accident insurance policy to 2.5 lakh registered construction workers by paying a premium amount of Rs 50.09 crore. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis eventually cancelled the board’s scheme after the Labour Commissioner and senior bureaucrats with the state Labour Department flagged off various irregularities in the appointments of the consultant or a brokerage firm, and the insurance company.
While the previous Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) regime had first rolled out the contentious welfare measure for construction workers on July 23, 2013, documents show that against the advice of the state’s bureaucracy, the Yadav-led Board, under the present regime too, had stuck with the scheme. “We have cancelled the scheme. If it had been accepted, it would have led to a loss,” the chief minister had told The Indian Express Wednesday, when asked if an inquiry would be initiated over the various irregularities which had come to light. Ironically, Fadnavis, while still in Opposition, had come down hard on the previous regime for irregularities in the scheme.
The CAG’s strictures had come after it audited the scheme’s performance in 2013-14. “While the state had intended to extend the insurance benefit to 94,244 beneficiaries by paying an amount of Rs 37.03 crore (premium paid in 13-14), the benefit was just extended to 978 workers and the total compensation availed was just Rs 3.82 crore. It is seen that the cost benefit ration of the scheme was just 1.08 per cent. The scheme was virtually non-beneficial. A huge amount was unnecessarily spent from cess fund,” the CAG had remarked. The government collects one per cent cess from property developers to fund welfare activities for construction workers.
Documents show that the Board’s expert committee, which met on June 9, 2014, agreed with the CAG findings. An official noting entered by the Labour Department following this meeting confirmed a decision was taken to discontinue the insurance scheme because of the less benefit provided as compared to the premium paid. Workers can be given benefit from the existing statutory schemes, it says. But in the run-up to assembly polls, the erstwhile Board, which was controlled by the NCP, overturned this decision just a month later. On July 23, 2014, this Board proposed extensions of the scheme for another three years.
While the state’s bureaucracy objected, pointing out that the norms had been flouted while appointing the consultants and contractors, then Labour Minister Bhaskar Jadhav (NCP), now an MLA, overruled these. On August 12, he issued directives for extending the scheme for another year, raising several eyebrows. But even before this period ended on July 25, 2015, the BJP government’s new Board, under Yadav, had already decided to continue with the scheme. In fact, following the change of regime, officials confirmed that all that had changed was the consultant firm. Even the insurer shortlisted remained the same.