An American firm came to Assam and Goa, paid huge kickbacks to ministers and bureaucrats, bagged huge water supply contracts and is now in the docks in a US federal court. From the detailed accounts it maintained, as well as incrimiting communications between senior executives, murky details are now emerging about New Jersey-based US firm Louis Berger. Recently, it agreed to pay crimil fine to the tune of 17.1 million dollars to resolve charges that it ‘bribed officials in India, Indonesia, Vietm and Kuwait to secure government construction magement contracts’. Two former executives, Richard Hirsch and James McClung have already pleaded guilty to the charges and will be sentenced in November. McClung served as senior vice-president in charge of the firm’s operations in India and Vietm. Federal prosecutors have charged that Louis Berger executives paid a bribe of 9,76,630 dollars which is nearly Rs 6 crore rupees, to a minister and other officials for a Goa project in 2010, though their mes have not been disclosed by the US Department of Justice. The five-year Goa Water Supply and Sewerage Project to expand, rehabilitate and build water and sewerage facilities was initiated by the Indian government and assisted by Japanese government, with Louis Berger, two Japanese firms and an Indian partner forming a consortium to execute the project.
As for its operations in Assam, Louis Berger is in charge of technical monitoring of the water supply project being executed in Guwahati, in its capacity as a consultant for the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA). Aiming to provide 24-hour water supply to city residents, the five-year-long project is already behind schedule by one year and is only likely to be completed late in 2016. The Japan Intertiol Cooperation Agency (JICA) is fincially assisting the Rs 1,500 crore project, which began in 2010. How much bribe Louis Berger paid to higher-ups in Dispur and the GMDA has now become a matter of intense speculation in State political circles and the media. The ministe0r in charge of Guwahati development in 2009-11, Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma, has already rushed to issue a clarification that his me has been unfairly dragged into the controversy, that no Assam minister has been specifically med in the US federal court chargesheet. If palms were greased by Louis Berger, it must have belonged to the officials, Sarma has claimed in effect. However, Sarma was a hands-on minister with a formidable reputation, and any monkey business by officials in a department under his charge, ought not to have escaped his knowledge. It simply does not behove well of a minister, current or former, to shift the blame on to lower functiories.
Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma has lately been highly vocal against various omissions and commissions of the Tarun Gogoi government. It remains to be seen though whether this government musters enough courage to seek a CBI probe into the matter. Meanwhile, Goa’s BJP government has already sought a CBI probe into the bribery charge, with Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar alleging that not one but two former ministers in the previous Congress-led Digambar Kamat government may have received kickbacks. However, the Congress in Goa has welcomed the move to seek a CBI probe, demanding at the same time that the probe ambit should be expanded to inquire into all contracts awarded to Louis Berger after 2010 as well. The Congress has specifically pointed to the appointment of the US firm as technical consultant for the Mopa intertiol airport in 2013, with the BJP by then in power in Goa. As for Assam, Louis Berger’s me was in the news in January last year when activists All India Students’ Federation, Paschim Guwahati garik Sajagata Mancha, Society for Socioeconomic Development in the Region, NE and several other organisations foiled an attempt by the Pollution Control Board of Assam to hold a public hearing on the draft detailed project reports (DPRs) of the Rs 600-crore project to revive the Kolong and the Bharalu rivers. They had pointed out several anomalies in the draft DPRs, and also complained that the stakeholders had been given very little time to study the DPRs and frame their responses. Interestingly, those draft DPRs were prepared by Louis Berger and the New Delhi-based DHI (India) Water & Environment Pvt Ltd. Whatever be the fates of the Bharalu and Kolong rivers, the Guwahati water project has now come under a cloud due to the Louis berger sleaze case. In a city where 70 per cent residents do not have access to regular water supply, and are forced to dig wells or buy water from tankers — it is highly reprehensible that public officials got round to provide an indispensable public amenity like water only after their pockets were handsomely lined by a US firm.