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State PWD trying to cover up lapses in Meluri road projects: HC

Gauhati High Corut Kohima Bench

DIMAPUR, MARCH 3: The Kohima Bench of Gauhati High Court has ordered Rhino Construction and Agency to complete before May 31 its road projects in Meluri while observing that State PWD officials were attempting to cover up lapses and also dismissing “preposterous allegations” that two of the litigants have tried to extort Rs 65 lakh from the Contractor.
Controversy has been stalking this project for years, which prompted four persons ~ Kezuwete Wezah, Pilongla, Hilo Pojar and Bisha Katiry ~ to file a Public Interest Litigation in 2020.
“Failure to complete would lead to legal consequences which this Court would be constrained to pass on the next date. Further to that, we direct the respondent authorities not to disburse any amount to the respondent No.7 (Rhino Construction and Agency) in respect to the three work orders, without taking leave of this Court. It is however open to the respondent No.7 to file appropriate application in the meantime, if the works are completed, seeking release of funds”, stated an order issued by a Bench comprising Justice Devashis Baruah and Justice Susmita Phukan Khaund on February 29.
Initially, the PIL was filed to draw the Court’s attention to illegalities in the construction of work from Lephori to Molhe Camp, which was in connection with the work order dated November 20, 2011, wherein the Executive Engineer of PWD (R&B), Phek Division, even prior to the work having started, had granted a completion certification and released money to the Contractor.
“This aspect require no deliberation in as much as it is an admitted fact more so taking into consideration the stand of the State Respondent in the proceedings while the present proceedings was going on, various pleadings have been exchanged were illegalities and acts of manipulation and misappropriation had come to light”, the order stated.
The same Contractor, Rhino Construction and Agency, was also awarded the contract for construction of road from Akhen to Star Lake at a cost of Rs 569.27 lakh on April 11, 2011. For both the projects, the time granted for completion of work was 24 months.
“Another important aspect which was also brought to the attention of this Court that a Firm in the name and style of ‘Nagaland Steel Engineering Works’, which also belongs to the proprietor of the respondent No.7, was issued a work for construction of road from T-01 to Kanjang (38 km) at a contract value of Rs 2672.77 lakh on November 21, 2017. The period for completion of the said work was 18 months from the date of the issue of the work order”, it stated.
During the submission of pleadings, it was alleged that the three work orders overlapping each other “and as such, it was the categorical stand of the petitioners that the State respondents granted three contracts to the respondent No.7 for construction of a road which were overlapping and thereby amounting to huge misappropriation of money”.
In regard to disbursal of money even without the work having started, the Court had already passed an order directing the State Authorities to disciplinary actions against the erring officer.
It also formed a Committee in November 2022 and sent it for a spot verification. Accordingly, the Committee submitted its report, which was made a part of the Court’s order dated November 16, 2022.
Cover-up attempt
“A cursory glance at the order dated November 16, 2022, as well as the Report so submitted by the Committee, reveals that the allegations of overlapping appear to be correct and further the allegations that the construction works have not been completed also appeared true”, the order stated.
However, in response to the Committee’s report, the Chief Engineer of PWD (R&B), Kevide Nakhro, filed an affidavit on January 18, 2023, contending that said report about overlapping of work was incorrect.
“We however find it very pertinent to observe that the said reply in respect to the third work stating that earthen side drain constructed under the work order in 2012 and the same had to be reconstructed under the third work order in 2018 after 6 years seems be preposterous taking into account that admittedly the second work order is yet to be completed.
“This aspect prima-facie shows that attempts are being made to cover of such lapses which would only come to light on a proper enquiry being made by an independent agency”, the Bench remarked.
Questions of maintainability
It also dismissed three preliminary objections raised as regards the maintainability of the PIL. “First, that the filing of the PIL is not in accordance with Rule 10 of the Gauhati High Court (Public Interest Litigation) Rules, 2011 (for short, ‘the Rules of 2010’) and for which the instant PIL is required to be dismissed.
“The second objection so taken is as the work in question comes under the PMGSY-I and PMGSY-II and the Government of India, Ministry of Rural Development, Department of Rural Development vide the communication dated June 8, 2023 had extended the timeline of all contracts till March 2024, the instant proceedings are premature.
“The third objection which has been taken is that petitioner Nos. 1 & 2 (Kezuwete Wezah and Pilongla) had met one Smti. Vonuo, who is the cousin sister of the private respondent No. 7, at 9:20 a.m. on July 29, 2021 at her private residence, Northern Angami Colony, Walford, Dimapur, demanding financial favour amounting to Rs 65 lakhs from private respondent No.7 and threatened to file Public Interest Litigation”, it stated.
The Contractor “went to the extent of stating that necessary evidence, including voice recording, in that regard shall be produced if and when required”.
On the first objection, the Court ruled that notwithstanding anything contained in Rules of 2011, relating to the procedure for filing and entertaining any petition in the nature of Public Interest Litigation, the High Court may suo moto decide to treat any matter or issue as Public Interest Litigation, without insisting on adherence to said procedure.
As regards the second point, it ruled: “We are of the opinion that merely because there has been a grant of an extension in respect to PMSGY-I and PMSGY-II till March 2024, in respect to the third work order, the instant PIL would not fail on that count”.
On the third objection, the Bench stated that the allegation seems “to be preposterous taking into account that the present PIL was filed on November 10, 2020 and allegations made relates to the time in the month of July 2021”.
It therefore dismissed the preliminary objections for dismissal of the PIL as meritless. The next hearing will be on June 3.
(Page News Service)