Rs 632-crore ecotourism project misused: TMC

AITC spokesperson Saket Gokhale. File image.

SHILLONG, Dec 5: The state government has threatened to file a defamation case against Saket Gokhale, the national spokesperson of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) for accusing an IAS officer of misusing USD 79.05 million or Rs 632 crore in the Meghalaya Ecotourism Infrastructure Development Project (MEIDP).
The officer is D Vijay Kumar, a top aide of Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma.
In a statement issued on Monday, Gokhale underlined the gravity of the “immense financial irregularities” in the MEIDP through Meghalayan Age Ltd, a company “spearheaded” by Kumar.
Stating that the company is implementing the MEIDP for which the state government took a loan of USD 79.05 million from the New Development Bank (NDB), Gokhale said tenders and RFPs were floated by the company and not the Meghalaya government. This conveniently made the tenders private so that the names of the contractors, awarded the project, are not made public.
“A majority of projects under the MEIDP are the construction of roads, which technically falls under the ambit of PWD (Roads) but is instead being undertaken by Meghalayan Age Ltd.,” he said.
“Road construction and public works are a sector where massive corruption and irregularities have been seen in the past with most contracts going to favoured “special” contractors like Badri Rai & Company instead of local contractors. It is absolutely bizarre and unclear why road construction projects worth crores are being undertaken with borrowed funds in the guise of ‘ecotourism development’ when these are basic responsibilities of the PWD,” the TMC leader said.
He claimed the company under Kumar did not file a single financial report to the Ministry of Corporate Affairs since its inception in 2020.
“In that period, USD 79.05 million has been sanctioned from the NDB for ecotourism projects by Meghalayan Age. However, not a single penny has been accounted for. Moreover, the company has floated tenders worth crores of rupees for numerous projects as well as for consultants. The MDA Government has a track record of appointing ‘consultants’ with a process that has zero transparency. Keeping with that tradition, D Vijay Kumar sanctioned crores worth of projects without any transparency in how they were awarded, to whom they were awarded, and what were the criteria for awarding the projects,” Gokhale said.
He said it was “absolutely unfathomable” why Meghalayan Age Ltd. did not fulfil its requirements under the law and not file any financial report despite having been given over Rs 600 crore in funds. Moreover, these funds have been borrowed as a foreign currency loan by the government of Meghalaya, which means people of the state are being saddled with huge loans without any transparency in how that money is being used, he added.
The Commissioner-Secretary of the Planning Department said the state government has strongly rejected Gokhale’s “fabricated” claims devoid of facts.
“The issuer of this statement has made such motivated and inaccurate claims in the past and it appears that the sole intention behind the recent press statement is to mislead the public. The state government views this very seriously and is considering suing him for defamation,” he said. The Commissioner-Secretary pointed out that the project cost of MEIDP is Rs 731 crore and it is one of many externally-aided projects (EAPs) being implemented in the state. In keeping with a policy for the Northeastern states, the state is paying 10% of the total amount while the Centre is funding 90% as a grant, he said in a statement.
“Further, the entire tendering process for MEIDP is being done according to the norms of the state government and is being overseen and approved by NDB, the funding agency,” it said.
Ruling out any foul play in the tendering process, the Commissioner-Secretary said the tenders were floated by the Public Works Department, the Directorate of Tourism and the State Sports Council of Meghalaya by following the norms. The tenders are available online, he added.
He countered Gokhale’s claim that much of the project cost has been allocated for the construction of roads that should have been handled by the PWD (Roads). The roads comprise just 14% of the project size, he said.
“Further, these road sub-projects are being taken up by the PWD as part of the overall project. It must be noted that the development of tourism cannot happen in silos. Connectivity is integral to tourism and such connectivity projects are also taken under the government of India-sponsored programmes such as Swadesh Darshan and PRASAD,” the official statement said.
The official denied that the tender for eight major works was floated in a hurry over the last three months. Two of these tenders were floated in December 2021, four in March and one each in August and October this year, he said.
“Further, one of the conditions for signing the project agreement is that projects worth 30% of the project size be tendered and awarded. Given that the agreement is scheduled to be signed in January 2023, it is imperative that projects worth Rs 219 crore are awarded by December 2022. It must be noted that all the processes are being followed for tendering and awarding of projects. They are done only after the required approvals have been obtained from the NDB,” the statement said.
On the claims that Meghalayan Age Ltd has not filed a financial report since 2020, the official said all the statutory and legal compliances are being met by the company.
“A few aspects of how EAPs are funded, sanctioned and implemented need to be clearly understood to appreciate the state’s emphasis on these projects. First, for the Northeastern states, the EAP money is almost equivalent to a grant from the Centre, which borrows the project cost as a soft loan from external agencies and 90% of it is provided as a grant to Meghalaya. The state will only have to repay 10% of the project cost over a 12-20-year period at the most nominal interest rates. Thus, EAP money is the cheapest source of funding,” the statement said.
Gokhale issued another statement in the evening saying he was not bothered by the Meghalaya government’s bid to threaten him with defamation.
“It is quite shocking that a government mired in corruption is making such threats. Let them go to court if they have the courage. All their black deeds will be out in public,” he said.
He also said that he intends to soon release a point-by-point rebuttal while adding that he would approach the Chief Vigilance Commissioner requesting an urgent probe into this issue.