The Special Investigation Team (SIT) formed by chief minister Prithviraj Chavan to probe irrigation projects may meet on January 19. Every bit of this SIT’s past and present, however, is a bit farcical.
To begin with, the term, ‘SIT’, is a misnomer in this case. Usually, SITs are formed by the courts and after due deliberations. The irrigation SIT was formed as an afterthought at the nth hour — before the night of December 31 — to protect Chavan from a breach of privilege motion in the legislature. The terms of reference were drafted only after the formation of the team.
By definition, an SIT should be empowered to investigate under the Criminal Procedure Code. When an SIT was appointed by the Bombay high court to probe the fake stamp paper scam in 2003, its head S S Puri had asked for complete investigation powers and the high court had generously granted him the powers of a director general of police even though Puri had retired.
The irrigation SIT has the mandate to investigate but no powers to do so. It cannot summon even a file, let alone a person, or demand explanations. Without the authority to ask for documents, it is reduced to a departmental inquiry which usually does a hatchet job. Let alone functional powers, the SIT has no secretariat as of now. It will be housed in WALMI (Water and Land Management Institute) in Aurangabad but without any administrative or clerical support.
Its terms of reference are humongous and ambiguous. They do not expressly mention corruption, but talk of fixing the responsibility for any irregularity that it may chance upon. Even if this reference is stretched to include corruption, it’s most unlikely that the SIT will be anything but a cosmetic promise-keeping exercise.
Here’s why. Before Ajit Pawar returned as deputy chief minister, the NCP had conducted due diligence to see if he could be nailed for any wrongdoing. Its analysts found that the letter of the law had been largely followed in these cases and only a indepth probe could throw up the loot.
To understand why it is difficult to stick blame on Ajit Pawar, it is important to understand how irrigation tenders are awarded. In every tender, there are some items that are included in what is called the DSR (district schedule of rates) and some which are not. The DSR, updated frequently, gives the exact estimate for that item of work beyond which no bidder can charge. However, it’s in the non-DSR items that the mischief happens. The non-DSR items are technically supposed to be priced at market rates but are awarded to the lowest bidder without any verification of the rates.
The contractor lobby gets into action before every tender and divides the non-DSR items among themselves. Then, all except the one designated to bag the tender file exorbitant bids to make sure that the tender gets awarded to the identified beneficiary. In the absence of any systemic requirement for market research or cross-checking of rates, there is nothing to prove that the contractor who quoted lowest and thereby bagged the tender has actually quoted far higher than the market price. On record, the procedure has been followed and everybody is home clean.
It is this area as well as the procedures which need an intensive scrutiny by the SIT but by forming the SIT in this ham-handed way, Chavan has declared to the world that he does not mean business.