Last Friday, the state government told the Legislature it was planning to apply the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), the law enacted to tackle the organised crime in Mumbai, to the Rs352 crore road scam case in the city.
It says the road scam -- in which contractors who had been given Rs352-crore road-rebuilding contracts were allegedly building sub-standard roads and civic officials as well as independent auditors were hand in glove with them -- is an organised crime.
It also said the roles played by politicians will also be probed. The announcement has obvious political angle.
It is being alleged that the BJP is issuing veiled threats to its alliance partner Shiv Sena as the two parties are locked in a bitter game of one-upmanship ahead of the civic polls early next year. The Sena has been ruling the Mumbai civic body in alliance with the BJP for two decades. Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray has retorted, asking the government to probe all civic works and even insisted that none of the Sena leaders would have any links to the contractors.
At this juncture, it is not clear whether the Devendra Fadnavis-led government is serious about getting to the root of the scam. It will become clear when the police make progress in their investigation and start making inquiries that may make some political parties uncomfortable.
Still, the move to treat the case as an organised crime is definitely significant. What happens in the civic bodies that govern our cities is not a secret. It is common knowledge how contractors rule the roost and many politicians and bureaucrats are hand in glove with them and how taxpayers’ money is pocketed in the name of building infrastructure in the cities. After spending hundreds of crores of taxpayers’ money, what our cities get is sub-standard infrastructure.
Within the government, there are different opinions whether the case should be applied the MCOCA or the laws applicable for economic offences. The MCOCA was brought to curb the activities of the underworld in Mumbai. Under its provisions, stringent punishment can be sought for the accused who commit a crime for financial gains in an organised manner by forming a syndicate. The Maharashtra government has sought legal opinion on the same.
What common people would like to know is whether the government is serious about punishing the people who are responsible for bad state of the roads.
In Mumbai alone, the civic body spends up to Rs2,000 crore to rebuild and repair the roads every year. In the past five years, it spent over Rs5,000 crore only on roads. The figure would be more than Rs10,000 crore in the past 10 years. This is enormous amount of money. Clearly the roads in Mumbai don’t look like anybody has actually spent that kind of money on them. For the past several years, what we see is that the city’s roads develop potholes after first few spells of rains.
It is not just Mumbai. It is the familiar story in most cities of the state — Pune, Nashik, Thane, Kalyan-Dombivli, Mira-Bhayander, Aurangabad..... In fact, it is the same model everywhere.
Hundreds of crores of rupees are collected from people in the form of taxes and a big chunk of it is spent on roads. The contractors are not part of reputable companies in the infrastructure sector.
In some cases, the same set of contractors runs monopoly for years. Either no audit of the work is conducted or there is no guarantee that the independent auditors will give an honest report.
Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who also heads the urban development department, has taken a good initiative by launching a probe into the road scam. Will he show willpower to end this decades-long corrupt system in our civic bodies?
Experts have been demanding that the government should get reputable companies in the infrastructure sector to build good roads in the city. Fadnavis should also consider getting Comptroller and Auditor General to audit the finances of the civic bodies.
And, while he is cracking down on the contractors, the action should not remain limited to road only.
Erring contractors in all kinds of civic work and even those who have committed fraud in irrigation and Integrated Child Development Scheme (the worst of kind where the greedy contractors supply sub-standard food to poor children) and those in government who are aiding them should also be booked by treating their acts as an organised crime. The real place of such people is in the jail.