Smoke of suspicion

The fire that broke out and raged in the top floors of the Maharashtra secretariat, Mantralaya, last week was extinguished after many hours of efforts but the smoke of suspicion that enveloped the incident may not be easy to clear. The fire destroyed key offices, including those of chief minister Prithviraj Chavan and deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar which should have been the most secure in the government. Chavan has ordered an investigation by the crime branch but has ruled out sabotage or mischief even before the inquiry started. Whenever important papers or files in government offices go missing or are destroyed in fire or for other reasons there is always apprehension in the public mind about the cause. The chief minister was quite categorical that the fire was purely accidental but he should have waited for the investigation before pronouncing his final verdict.

This is because the files which were destroyed related to many controversial issues and corruption scandals which have attracted much public attention. Apart from the chief minister’s and the deputy chief minister’s offices, a number of departments like finance, revenue, urban development and power were affected by the fire. Tens of thousands of files relating to decisions taken in these departments were destroyed and many of them cannot  be reconstructed. Files pertaining to the Adarsh scam and those relating to many real estate scandals in the state are among them. Since the central computer room was also destroyed, back-up files may not be available. The fate of investigations into many of these scandals, which are under way, may be uncertain. It is almost certain that they will be delayed.

It is premature to apprehend that the fire was a deliberate attempt to scuttle investigations into these scandals. The chief minister may have been convinced that the fire was genuine but passing a judgment on it was hasty and uncalled for. The fire in the government’s headquarters has also raised issues relating to safety and disaster management which even have a bearing on national security. An all-round failure in preparing for and fighting a disaster was seen in Mantralaya, which reminded many of the response to the 26/11 terrorist attack. Another lesson of the fire is the need to completely digitise all government files in all departments and ensure that they are never lost in any circumstance. It will not only make governance more efficient and reduce corruption but preempt suspicions in such situations.

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