Saubhagya: Kashmir power contractors threaten suicide - The Probe

Saubhagya ‘har ghar bijli’: Kashmir power contractors threaten suicide, say government defaulted on payment

How ‘Saubhagya’ becomes ‘Durbhagya’ for Kashmir’s power contractors
Saubhagya

Saubhagya

On August 14 last year, Riyaz Ahmad Dar, a power department contractor from South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, posted on his Twitter handle: “The government is yet to take a decision with regard to the release of our pending dues. Consequently, I may be forced to end my life if I am not paid before August 15. It’s up to the govt whether they want to save my life or force me to commit suicide over such blatant injustice.”

Dar is among hundreds of contractors engaged in executing Saubhagya, Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana. The contractors were hired on a war footing basis in 2017 to meet the deadline of the Central government’s flagship scheme in the valley.

Aashiq Hussain Pandit, an electrical contractor in Pulwama speaks to The Probe and threatens suicide

With a total outlay of Rs 16,320 crore and the gross budgetary support of Rs 12,320 crore, Saubhagya was launched across the country in September 2017 for the purpose of providing electricity to every unconnected household before December 2018. Certain households, identified via the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) of 2011, were declared eligible for free electricity connections. Others would be charged at Rs 500 per month.

Rural Electric Corporation (REC) of the Government of India was appointed as the central nodal agency for the execution of the works under Saubhagya.

Dar and dozens of other contractors in Pulwama and districts lifted bank loans and completed their allotted works within the deadline. They submitted their claims which were duly verified and processed for payment. Until this day of February 2022, not a penny has been released to them. However, claims have been settled in other districts.

In the end, if I don’t get my money, I will have to commit suicide. Other than this, we don’t have any other option. In my dying declaration, I will name the Prime Minister and the LG as responsible for the cause of my death, and they will have to look after my family. Some people tried to commit suicide, and some died as they had no money. I completed the work on war-footing and provided electricity to far-flung areas. I submitted the bills to the department, but so far, they have not released a single penny. I am tired now of walking from pillar to post and meeting the authorities. They owe me around one crore rupees.

Aashiq Hussain Pandit
Electrical Contractor, Pulwama

Kashmir Power Distribution Corporation Limited (KPDCL) owes an amount of Rs 74 lakh to Dar alone, even as the aggregate liabilities in Pulwama alone are said to be of the order of Rs 7.50 crores. There are more or less similar liabilities in Awantipora and Ganderbal divisions as well.

Even as Saubhagya was foreclosed on 31 March 2019, no payment was made to Dar and other contractors. Why? “The engineers had a vested interest in procurement of steel tubular poles and other materials through SICOP (Jammu and Kashmir Small Scale Industries Development Corporation Ltd). They diverted the entire outlay to purchase the material and left nothing for the civil construction and labour component. In Pulwama alone, steel tubular poles and other materials, hugely in excess of the genuine requirement, were procured for Rs 18 crore. When we submitted our bills, we were told that there was no money,” Ghulam Rasool Wani, General Secretary of Kashmir Electric Contractors Association (KECA) said.

According to Dar, Wani and others, there were “substantial kickbacks” for procurement of the materials from the unitholders. “From us, they would have earned nothing. From the material suppliers, they got huge amounts of commission. Since different officers at different layers are involved, and there was no accountability, they diverted the funds fully to the acquisition of poles and other things,” Himayun Ali Malik, proprietor of New Asia Sanitary Works and brother of the electric contractor Mohammad Yusuf Malik said.

Irshad Ahmad Dar, a power contractor in Pulwama says the government defaulted on payment

The material procured through SICOP, allegedly in excess of the requirement for pecuniary considerations, included steel tubular poles, transformers, steel channels, cables and heavy-duty switches. Much of it lies unutilised in stores.

Like others, Dar left no stone unturned to pursue his payment. As everybody remained unmoved, he decided to end his life much like Shoib Mir of Kulgam, whose father’s salary as a schoolteacher had not been released for five years. Mir (25) committed suicide by consuming poison on 28 May 2021. The suicide moved the Lieutenant Governor’s administration, and the entire outstanding amount of Rs 33 crore was released to 630 teachers on 2 June 2021.

We have only one option of committing suicide. We have worked in far-flung areas. We have taken electricity to villages. The government’s mission was completed, but we have not been paid. I have sold the gold ornaments of my wife to get the government work done. We are not defaulters. The government is the defaulter. We thought this was ‘saubhagya’ work, but it became ‘durbhagya’ for all of us. Whoever worked under Saubhagya in Pulwama, are all in depression. They owe me 1.75 crores.

Irshad Ahmad Dar
Electrical Contractor, Pulwama

“Nobody from the government reached out to me. Only the idea of responsibility towards my elderly parents and two young daughters prevented me from self-immolation. The Jammu and Kashmir Bank is charging me an interest of 5-6 lakh a year. They are badly after the instalments and interest at the rate of 14% on loan. My earnings have touched zero. My father is under treatment at a hospital in New Delhi,” Dar revealed. He said that later in August 2021, Managing Director of KPDCL Mohammad Aijaz Assad assured him full support. His successor Basharat Qayoom too, held out similar assurances. But, at the end of the day, no payment has been released in his favour.

Himayun Malik added: “I was engaged in executing some works related to a receiving station at Kellar. Police were let loose after me to ensure the completion of the works within a short deadline. I put in all available resources and completed the work on time. Governor inaugurated the receiving station in 2018. In the last three-and-a-half years, my payment has not been released despite the availability of funds. Corruption is unabated, and there’s no accountability.”

Riyaz Ahmad Dar, an electrical contractor in Pulwama narrates his ordeal

According to Malik, steel tubular poles, which were available in the market at Rs 7,000 each, were purchased for Rs 15,000 each. “Why would they spare money for civil works and labour?” He said that his condition was miserable as, for the first time in his life, he had no money to buy medicines for his family members or for paying the children’s school fees.

“I was also engaged in executing some works among the ‘languishing projects’ in 2018. In April 2020, an approach road was allotted to me in Shopian. The DC (Deputy Commissioner) assured me to release my payment within a week’s time. I have been tossed from Executive Engineer to Superintending Engineer to Chief Engineer. Till date, nothing has been released,” Malik lamented.

According to Wani, all the contractors, who had taken the works in a tough tender competition, completed the execution as per the allotment within the deadline and submitted their claims. The site engineers of the J&K Government’s Power Development Department, Rodic Consultancy and REC verified the claims and found everything in order.

While the payments were released without hassles in other districts, Detailed Project Reports (DPRs) with regard to Pulwama and Ganderbal districts were found deficient. The Executive Engineer of Electric Division (ED) Pulwama incorporated only the material component of Rs 18 crore and left out the civil and labour component to the tune of Rs 7.50 crore. Consequently, no payments were made to the contractors.

Amid allegations of kickbacks in procurement of the material, J&K’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) conducted a preliminary investigation. However, the engineers and the material suppliers, according to the contractors, “managed the things,” and the ACB certified that there was nothing amiss. Still, no payments were released to the contractors.

The labourers were pressuring us. I had no other option with me. So, I thought I should… but for the sake of my children, I didn’t. They owe me 74 lakhs. I submitted the bills and went to the department. They said they are not getting the money from higher up. I went to the chief. He asked us to meet the MD. I met the MD. He said go to the Commissioner. At that time, the Commissioner was Rohit Kansal. He was dilly-dallying. Nothing has happened so far. DPR is their issue. We have knocked on all doors. We have many families with us. The families of labourers are all suffering with us. Three months ago, one of the contractors suffered a stroke because of this problem.

Riyaz Ahmad Dar
Electrical Contractor, Pulwama

Executive Engineer ED Pulwama Nazir Ahmad Malik maintained that the Saubhagya works had been executed in 2018, but the contractors did not submit their bills on time, and the scheme was foreclosed. “It was a time-bound scheme of around Rs 88 crore. In Pulwama, total foreclosure is currently underway. Procurement of material was given the first preference. Therefore, some contractors suffered,” he told The Probe.

Chief Engineer of KPDCL, Aijaz Ahmad Dar, said that some issues came up only in the two divisions in Pulwama and one division in the Ganderbal district. “According to the scheme’s guidelines, the Government of India has to first approve the short closure. Thereafter only the payments could be released to the contractors. In case it is not done, we will release the funds out of the Union Territory’s Capex budget in April,” the Chief Engineer assured The Probe. He accepted that material had been purchased “in excess of the requirement”.

MD KPDCL, Basharat Qayoom, asserted that he has been helping the contractors ever since he joined the Corporation last year. He attributed a part of the delay to the ACB’s preliminary investigation and said that he was constantly in touch with the REC as well as the contractors and seeking to release their payments. “Preliminary closure has to be followed by the permanent closure. It will take some time but I am sure that their work-done claims will be settled shortly,” Qayoom said.

Ahmed Ali Fayyaz is an independent journalist based out of Jammu & Kashmir. With 27 years of experience, Fayyaz is a policy analyst and a political commentator. He has extensively reported on conflict – after the 1990 Kashmir conflict – for the national and international media.

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