The first step towards addressing a problem is acknowledging that it exists. That is what Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai has done in ordering a complete stop to awarding government projects based on the oral instructions of ministers and elected representatives and warning erring officers of strong action. This comes against the backdrop of a contractor from Belagavi, Santosh Patil, taking his own life after blaming former Rural Development and Panchayat Raj (RDPR) Minister K S Eshwarappa for holding up payment of Rs 4 crore due to him. According to Patil, he had taken up a road-laying project on the oral instructions of the minister, but once the work was completed, he was told to pay a commission of 40% of the project cost to get the payment released. Though no project is supposed to be implemented without a formal work order, it is common for ministers and the local MLA to issue oral instructions and grant post-facto approval. This has become all the more common after the government recently amended the Karnataka Transparency in Public Procurement (KTPP) Act to permit works of up to Rs 2 crore in rural areas without calling for tenders. Though the stated purpose of the amendment was to undertake urgent works when required, in practice, the amendment has only given room for increased corruption. Bommai should plug this loophole, too.
The Chief Minister’s decision to set up a high-level committee headed by a retired High Court judge, which will also comprise a technical and financial expert, to oversee the tendering process of works exceeding Rs 50 crore is welcome. Bommai has also admitted what his predecessors shied away from acknowledging -- that the irregularities begin at the stage of drafting the tender document itself. It is an open secret that tender conditions are often tweaked to favour a particular party or to disqualify those who are out of favour. Another issue that calls for the Chief Minister’s attention is what is known as piecemeal contracts, where projects are divided into small bits to avoid the tendering process. In the case of Patil, for instance, the works worth Rs 4 crore were to be presented as 108 piecemeal contracts.
While it goes without saying that an impartial inquiry should be ordered into corruption charges that have been flying thick and fast during the past few months, Bommai’s move to address the root cause of the problem is welcome. Undoubtedly, this will not be met with appreciation by many politicians and bureaucrats, but the Chief Minister must show strong resolve on ending this form of corruption, and not buckle under pressure.