Punjab’s finance department has come in for flak from the judiciary for “mindless breaches” and hiding its inertia by wearing “impenetrable apparel”.
In a damning dossier about the fiscal mismanagement of the Parkash Singh Badal government and the finance department babus “hiding behind a cloak of intransigence (stubbornness)”, the Punjab and Haryana high court has given a dressing-down to the state government in a recent ruling pertaining to non-payment for the works completed by contractors.
As the government has admitted that Rs 588-crore bills of numerous completed works were due by October 28, and sought six months to clear this liability on the basis of first considering the oldest completed works, justice K Kannan of the high court observed: “…if we have a state going on an affidavit that more than Rs 575 crore are still due for works completed… where amounts are bound to be released, it only betrays a sorry state of affairs…”
In response to court directions, principal secretary (finance) Vini Mahajan had filed an affidavit and justice Kannan observed that “it becomes essential to paraphrase the affidavit” to bring home the extent of admission made regarding the liabilities.
Nearly 130 writ petitions were filed by various persons to whom contracts of public works had been awarded by the state. The petitioners contend that the works had been completed as envisaged, but the payments, as provided by the terms of the contract, had not been made, according to the November 5 ruling of justice Kannan.
In view of this ruling, the finance department on November 17 instructed all financial commissioners, principal secretaries and administrative secretaries to read this ruling for compliance. The department has sought in a week information of works completed and partially completed so that a schedule of payments, as directed by the court, can be chalked out, which will be put on the department website for transparency.
Meanwhile, the government has advised its departments to withhold fresh tendering/allotment of works other than substantially centrally/externally funded projects, till the pending liabilities have been fully cleared. The works would be allotted only after arranging necessary expenditure sanction from the department of finance.
Referring to the affidavit, justice Kannan observed: “Under normal circumstances, it should have been possible for me to pull the curtains down after taking on file the affidavit of the principal secretary (finance).”
The ruling reads: “There have been assurances galore ... and there have been mindless breaches. There is invariably a gaping hole in the cauldron held to collect the promises of the state and they drop by unattended, as forgotten undertakings, forcing the courts to issue directions yet again. It calls for serious action if the breaches are contumacious (lacking respect for authority).”
“Every contract that is completed by one party,” the court pointed out, “and when there is a failure by the state to pay what is obligated under the terms, there is clearly an illustration of hiding behind a cloak of intransigence; wearing an apparel that is impenetrable…This could lead to abuse of power.”
Stating that there must be a case for identifying “persons responsible for causing delay for making payments,” justice Kannan quoting from the Arthshastra, reminded the Badal government: “All state activities depend first on the treasury. Therefore, a king shall devote his best attention to it.”