The High Court of Himachal Pradesh has ordered an inquiry into alleged lapses and favouritism in a tendering process by the state urban development authority for the proposed construction of an 11-storey commercial complex in Shimla.
A four-member committee, including an officer from the vigilance and anti-corruption bureau, has been asked to probe the matter and fix responsibility of officials of the HP Housing and Urban Development Authority (HIMUDA) within a period of four weeks.
The court issued the order after observing that prima facie, some high-ranking HIMUDA officials tried to give undue benefit to some contractors while awarding tender for the complex which is proposed to come up in Vikas Nagar.
“If persons responsible …are not held accountable, there is every likelihood of repetition of such illegalities and irregularities in the future… it is the duty cast upon all of us to correct and purify the system which has become rotten on account of highly irresponsible, callous and indifferent attitude of officers responsible for running public organisations,” said Judge Sandeep Sharma in his order, while hearing a clubbed petition by two unsuccessful bidders.
According to the petitions and the court order, HIMUDA first invited a tender in August 2017 for constructing the complex at an estimated cost of Rs 85 crore by using pre-fabricated structures and expanded polystyrene (EPS) technology.
The proposed 11-storey building will have shops, kiosks, offices, stores, multiplex halls, parking floors and a food court. Without completing the process, HIMUDA issued another tender more than a year later, in October 2018, this time at a revised estimated cost of Rs 45 crore. A month later, the Authority yet again issued a revised tender in which it allegedly diluted eligibility conditions required by participating bidders. The latest tender removed a clause which required the firm to not have a dispute with any bank such as a non-performing asset (NPA) case for the last five years, which the court said was against central vigilance commission (CVC) guidelines.
Another “most relevant condition” requiring past experience of similar projects was also eased, the court said. The lowest bidder, Vasu Construction Company, was issued a letter of intent two days after the bids were opened, and asked to start work even though rates were not finalised and contract agreement not concluded, the court order said. Two unsuccessful bidders moved the court alleging foul play following which the letter was withdrawn but the company still asked to proceed with the project.
Along with the court case, some complaints were also made to the government, and HIMUDA formed a committee to probe the matter. The committee found “many lapses on part of the technical evaluation committee” which finalised the tender and recommended that either the tender be considered after certain clarifications or be scrapped altogether. The committee also suggested action against erring officials. However, the court said, this committee’s report was never brought to its notice and moreover, some other material documents were also withheld from the court.
This fact came to light with the “startling revelation” of a superintending engineer part of the committee who later deposed that the report submitted by her was not the one placed on record. Another official, Executive Engineer Sandeep Sen, stated in court that he issued a letter of intent to the company after instructions from the then Chief Executive Officer-cum-Secretary Umesh Sharma.
Sharma, however, denied this during the hearing. The court also found other discrepancies in the tender process such as the failure by Vasu Construction Company to prove that its joint venture partner was a contractor qualified to construct using EPS technology – one of the eligibility conditions. During the course of the hearing, the court was also surprised to learn that HIMUDA had awarded the contract of building a hospital building in Bharmour to Level 9 Biz, one of the petitioners, despite having earlier told the court in another case that the work was being awarded to the state PWD.
Regarding the commercial complex, HIMUDA told the court that the tender is being cancelled. Nevertheless, the court said that “great injustice to the public at large and loss to the public exchequer would be done if the illegalities committed by officers manning high posts in HIMUDA are not brought to the fore”. Under article 226 of the Constitution, the court has asked a committee comprising of the current HIMUDA CEO, an IGP rank vigilance officer, and the engineers-in-chief of PWD and Jal Shakti departments to probe the matter. The case is now listed for December 29.
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