Saubhagya scam probe: Thy name is subterfuge

SHILLONG, Aug 31: Months after the Saubhagya scam came to light and two months after state government under pressure had announced an “independent inquiry committee”, there are indications that the inquiry is neither independent nor focussed on the Saubhagya scam. The terms of reference laid out for inquiry are generic and broad-based and appear to be crafted to mislead and subterfuge the very process and the outcome of the investigation.
Independent investigation conducted by The Shillong Times suggests that right from composition of the inquiry committee to the post haste closure of the Saubhagya project, the needle of suspicion points to the higher-ups in the Power department and collusion of pliable MeECL officials aside from the minister-contractor nexus.
From all indications, the Committee headed by a retired judge of Allahabad High Court is an eyewash. The Chairman and members of the Committee were allegedly handpicked by a senior cabinet minister and his close associate – the contractor named in the scam, who is suspected to have duped Meghalaya to the tune of Rs 200 crore. The Saubhagya scheme, which ran to approximately Rs 500 crore, could have been completed within Rs 200 crore, according to established contractors.
The Committee, it is alleged, is just a sham to absolve both the minister and contractor of any act of omission or commission in the implementation of the Saubhagya scheme. The Committee recently had an online meeting and, according to credible sources, the contractor in question who is known to be hand in glove with the members of the Committee, is allegedly assisting in predetermining the findings relating to the scam.
Sources in the Power Department informed that earlier the same contractor tried to bring in one of the members in the Inquiry Committee, namely Sunil Kumar, former Executive Director, REC, Government of India as one of the directors of the newly formed Meghalaya Energy Efficiency Limited (MEEL), of which the Power minister is the chairperson. No one in the government knows what this company has done since its inception six months ago. The same is the case with the other member, a retired IAS officer.
Earlier a retired Justice of Allahabad High Court recused himself from the Committee citing ill health.
It took almost two months for the Inquiry Committee to be constituted and till date not even a single notice has been served by the Committee to anyone connected with the Saubhagya scam or other alleged corruption cases and even to officials involved for fact-finding.
In the first place how can an inquiry into the affairs of MeECL be independent when the Power minister under whose tenure the scam has broken still presides over the department?
It may be reminded that former MeECL CMD, Arunkumar Kembhavi and Power Secretary, Pravin Bakshi were both unceremoniously removed from their posts because they allegedly refused to sign the closure papers of the Saubhagya scheme. The government then did a rejig by posting Additional Chief Secretary Rebecca Suchiang as CMD MeECL and Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer Dr Manjunatha C. as Power Secretary.
Sources in the Power Department inform that Rebecca Suchiang refused to sign on the Saubhagya closure report but delegated the powers to the Director Distribution, Mohan Chettri, thereby contravening the REC rules that require the closure papers have to be mandatorily signed by the CMD/MD of the discom. Sources in the REC said that the papers are being scrutinised and things are under process.
Manjunatha, a forest officer with no engineering background or experience in the Power sector, was brought in specifically for submission of the closure of Saubhagya scheme to the REC so that the pending bills of the contractor are settled. There are now reports that since the closure of Saubhagya is done he will be relieved of his post in the Power Department.
This is not all. For technical vetting of the Saubhagya papers, a retired Chief Engineer of MeECL, UN Madan, who sources claim is closely connected to the contractor, was appointed as OSD Technical. He promptly cleared all the papers allegedly at the behest of the minister.
Further, a relatively junior Chief Engineer, Mohan Chettri was made the Director Distribution superseding many eligible and meritorious Chief Engineers, apparently for toeing the line of the Power Minister and for closing the Saubhagya Scheme. It may be recalled that the MeECL Associations were up in arms against the appointment of Chettri as Director Distribution.
According to sources, the reason for the hurry to close the Saubhagya scheme within the deadline set by the Ministry of Power is so that the contractor in question would not lose the nearly Rs 100 crore from the undue profit he has made at the cost of MeECL by citing very high profit margins for materials etc.
It will be interesting to see whether the REC and Ministry of Power will pay any heed to the allegations of corruption in implementing of Saubhagya scheme and the interim report of the Accountant General’s office which had raised some serious concerns against the MeECL, the Power Department and contractors like Satnam Global from Delhi.
As per documents accessed by this reporter, items supplied by Satnam Global under the works awarded in Saubhagya Scheme like Steel Tubular Poles (8 metres SP14) at Rs 15,678 per pole is nearly three times the amount since the purchase price including freight and insurance from a private supplier was only Rs 6,500. Similarly, they supplied the transformer with a profit of 300%. A bag of cement was supplied to MeECL at a whopping Rs 855 per unit.
These issues have been highlighted time and again by the opposition leaders but no action was taken by the chief minister or the Power minister. MeECL associations and unions since 2018 have been questioning why turnkey contractors from outside, quoting exorbitant rates have been brought in when there are capable contractors in Meghalaya who can execute the household electrification at much lesser cost.
The question that needs to be asked is when there are so many complaints within MeECL itself that Satnam Global has not completed the electrification works even after three years; when the Inquiry Committee is still ongoing and when the Accountant General’s report has castigated Satnam Global for shoddy work what was the tearing hurry that necessitated the early closure of the Saubhagya scheme?

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