Updated: September 24, 2021 8:06:50 am
Bihar’s showpiece scheme to ensure drinking water for the poor through taps right at their homes, Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal, launched by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar exactly five years ago, is a success on many counts — it has covered over 95% of the target of 1.08 lakh panchayat wards.
But on the ground, the implementation of the scheme has also been marked by political patronage to a sweeping set of beneficiaries that corrodes Nitish’s message of good governance, a four-month-long investigation by The Indian Express has revealed.
Top of the list are family members and aides of BJP legislature party leader and Deputy Chief Minister Tarkishore Prasad who got projects worth over Rs 53 crore under the scheme.
Then come a slew of state-level leaders of the two ruling parties, JD(U) and BJP — a testament to how politics permeates the civil construction business here when it comes to implementing government schemes.
This comes when the Centre, showcasing its own Jal Jeevan Mission last month, included Bihar’s numbers as part of it, prompting a rebuttal by the state Water Minister. Bihar had jumped from the bottom five on the Centre’s dashboard two years ago (1.84% households that receive tap water) to be ranked among the top four (86.96%).
For Bihar’s own Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal, The Indian Express investigated bid documents for projects in as many as 20 districts and matched them with records maintained by the Registrar of Companies (RoC) and Bihar’s Public Health Engineering Department (PHED). The PHED is the scheme’s implementing authority along with the state’s Panchayati Raj and Urban Development departments.
This newspaper also visited project sites where those who got contracts had political links, spoke to several contractors involved in executing the scheme on the ground, and interviewed beneficiaries in villages across the state.
Bottomline: patronage flows from the top.
Records show that in 2019-20, the PHED allotted 36 projects under the drinking water scheme covering several wards in at least nine panchayats of Katihar district, from where Deputy CM Prasad is a four-time MLA, to his daughter-in-law Puja Kumari — and two companies linked to his brother-in-law Pradeep Kumar Bhagat; and close aides Prashant Chandra Jaiswal, Lalit Kishore Prasad and Santosh Kumar.
In some cases, the family’s hold was absolute: records show that work in all 13 wards of Bhavada panchayat in Katihar was awarded to Kumari, and Bhagat’s company. And, at the sites of all projects allotted to Kumari and the two companies, local staff told The Indian Express that Bhagat ran the show.
Officials linked to the scheme’s implementation in Katihar, speaking on the condition that they not be named, said Kumari has no record of any work in this field.
When contacted by The Indian Express, Prasad denied that any political patronage was involved in the award of these contracts — and pointed out that he was the Katihar MLA at the time and became Deputy Chief Minister in November 2020.
Prasad, however, confirmed that his daughter-in-law had got contracts for four wards but said he had no direct link to the two other companies although his brother-in-law was a director of one of them.
And yet, records show otherwise:
Puja Kumari, daughter-in-law of Bihar Deputy CM
Project: 4 wards, Bhavada panchayat, Katihar. Awarded by: PHED. Cost: Rs 1.6 crore.
Kumari is registered as an individual contractor with PHED and shares the same postal address as her father-in-law, the Deputy CM: JB Niketan, Gerabadi Road, Mirchaiwadi Chowk, Katihar.
She has been allotted work in four wards of Bhavada panchayat, barely 10 km from Katihar town with an estimated project cost of Rs 1.6 crore. Subodh Shanker, the approval authority for these contracts as PHED executive engineer in Katihar from June 2016 to June 2021, said that the project has been completed and around 63 per cent of the money disbursed to Kumari.
The Indian Express visited each of the four wards and found that several beneficiaries welcomed the scheme while some others complained of faulty implementation and incomplete work.
Sanjay Mandal, the designated water tank operator at ward No. 4, said 150 taps have been provided and that he reports to Pradeep Kumar Bhagat, who is the brother of Deputy CM Prasad’s wife. “We had trial runs in March and April. This is Puja Kumari’s contract but I coordinate with Bhagat’s men,” said Rajendra Jha, the operator at ward No.10.
Kumari could not be reached for comment despite several attempts by The Indian Express, including messages to her husband Amit Kumar who is the Deputy CM’s son.
Deepkiran Infrastructure Pvt Ltd
Project: 9 wards, Bhavada panchayat, Katihar. Awarded by: PHED. Cost: Rs 3.6 crore.
RoC records list Deputy CM Prasad’s brother-in-law Pradeep Kumar Bhagat and his wife Kiran Bhagat as directors of the company.
PHED records show the company was allotted three contracts covering nine wards under the scheme, all in Bhavada panchayat. When contacted, Pradeep Kumar Bhagat told The Indian Express that Rs 1.8 crore of the total project cost has been disbursed and that work has been completed. But again, a visit to the spot last month showed that there were several gaps still to be plugged. For instance, at ward No. 1, the water tank had not yet been fixed, with a bundle of pipes piled up at the site.
Bhagat did not provide any other details of the company’s involvement in the scheme.
Jeevanshree Infrastructure Pvt Ltd
Project: 110 wards, 8 panchayats, Katihar. Awarded by: PHED. Cost: Rs 48 crore.
RoC records list Deputy CM Prasad’s aides, Prashant Chandra Jaiswal, Lalit Kishore Prasad and Santosh Kumar, as directors of the company.
The company was allotted projects by the PHED under the scheme in 110 wards covering the panchayats of Dherua, Garhmeli, Purvi Dalan, Dalan Paschim, Dandkhora, Amraili, Raipur and Sahya in Katihar.
When contacted Jaiswal said: “I stay in Patna. Bablu (Gupta), a staff member, looks after the company’s work in Katihar.” Jaiswal confirmed that he was associated with Deputy CM Prasad.
Bablu Gupta said that Rs 33 crore of the project cost has been disbursed so far to the company by PHED. “We were earlier in the real estate business, and we have been providing quality work in Katihar,” Gupta said.
Lalit Kishore Prasad, another director, said he is “based in Patna” but did not provide any details about the company’s involvement in the tap water scheme. Asked if he was related to Deputy CM Prasad, he said: “Not directly.” Santosh Kumar, the other director, could not be reached over phone and did not respond to queries on email about his alleged association with Prasad.
At several of the project sites, like those under Puja Kumari and Deepkiran Infrastructure Pvt Ltd, local operators told The Indian Express that the work was being managed by Deputy CM Prasad’s brother-in-law Bhagat.
“Bhagat pays me Rs 3,000 per month for maintenance. My job is to supply water three times a day — two hours each in the morning, afternoon and evening,” said a site operator at ward No.8 of Dalan Purvi panchayat, where Jeevanshree Infrastructures Pvt Ltd’s board is displayed.
‘Need people to come forward, complain’
When contacted by The Indian Express, Bihar PHED Minister and BJP leader Ram Prit Paswan said that he had “heard about such cases” but not about contracts awarded to the Deputy CM’s family and associates.
“We need people to come forward and complain about this. If contractors have substantial proof that another person with bureaucratic or political influence has got contracts at their expense, they can complain to us. All contracts were awarded before I became PHED Minister. There are also complaints about some engineers awarding contracts to their favourites,” he said.
PHED Secretary Jitendra Srivastava said: “There is a standard process of tendering and bidding. A company or contractor that qualifies as L-1 (lowest bidder) gets the contract.”
Asked if the department had received any complaints about political patronage in the award of contracts, Srivastava said: “No. We are coming to know about it for the first time. If there was irregularity in awarding the contracts, action can still be taken.”
Shanker, the former PHED executive engineer in Katihar who is now posted in Araria, said: “Puja Kumari, Deepkiran Infrastructure and Jeevanshree Infrastructure were allotted work during my tenure in 2019-20 after they duly qualified through the bidding process.”
Read Part II tomorrow: From ex-minister to JD(U) state leader, all got contracts
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