As scams go, the unfolding Rs 33 crore scam in the Directorate of Information and Public Relations is run of the mill stuff. Assam has been afflicted with scams far bigger in scale, the so-called Rs 1,000 crore NC Hills scam, the Rs 3,000 scam in Agriculture department involving just two schemes, the Rs 4,500 crore Social Welfare scam are but a few mega scams that spring to mind. But the skeletons now tumbling out of the DIPR closet are symptomatic of how deeply the rot has set into the entire governmental apparatus. This scam occurred during the fag end of the 15-year Congress rule, with the Tarun Gogoi regime pulling out all stops to try beat back the anti-incumbency wave in the run-up to the May 2016 assembly elections. The ‘Vision Assam Mission Assam’ campaign was rolled out to tom-tom the Congress government’s achievements, as part of which advertisements were issued to print and electronic media, branding was carried out, promotiol materials distributed, and large hoardings installed at key locations across the State. The ruling party would surely have wanted more bang for every rupee spent, so as to impress maximum number of voters. But a corrupt section of babus in DIPR then got into the act, hatching a rip-off with the three advertising and publicity firms that had been awarded the works. The campaign would have run for four months from January to April in 2016, planned to give a nice springboard to the Congress for the battle of the ballot in May. But the corrupt circle in DIPR first reduced the campaign period from 4 months to 3 months, and then filly compressed to one-and-half months from January 14 to February 29. Obviously, the feel-good message the Congress regime wanted to convey to voters fizzled out too early in February itself, when there was still more than a couple of months for the polls. Yet the money fixed for the 4-month campaign was paid out in full to the three media buying firms despite the campaign length being curtailed to one-and-half months.
According to the probe report by Chief Minister’s Vigilance Cell, the Fince Department did not give approval to this payout. Then who did? DIPR officials under the scanner claim they got “verbal instructions” from the Chief Minister’s Secretariat and the Information and Public Relations Department (IPRD). This needs to be investigated all the way up, but sudden transfer of the ADGP who carried out the probe raises questions whether the present State government is prepared to net the really big fish. The probe report goes on to detail a series of “irregularities and unethical practices of very serious ture”. Instead of the 42 TV quickies planned, only three quickies were filly telecast in “mindless, repetitive manner” for which the entire sanctioned amount of Rs 2.5 crore was paid. Promotiol documentaries were not carried on State broadcaster Doordarshan at all, while less than half the required number were telecast on satellite TV channels. Payments were however fully made, ‘no pelty was imposed and no question asked’ as to why the output was so less compared to that stipulated in the work order. As for installing hoardings and kiosks, some districts were left out altogether; while these hoardings would have become government property after the period of contract, there was neither any stock taking nor were local authorities asked to take charge of these materials. This apart, the prices at which hoardings were issued were “more than double the prices quoted in the annual tender”; physical verification later revealed that hoardings at many places did not come up at all; for those hoardings taken on rent, “four months rental was charged when the hoardings were there for one month only”.
The probe report is littered with many such instances of sheer malfeasance and loot of public money. No wonder it has squarely held DIPR responsible for “manipulating the work orders and the schedules for media buying arbitrarily” without seeking instructions or approval of Fince Department. It speaks volumes that one-and-half month before the campaign was to end as per contract, bills claiming the full amount for works undertaken were submitted by the firms, and DIPR officials obliged by falling over themselves to issue completion certificates. With the CM’s Vigilance Cell now pursuing a case of crimil liability by accusing concerned DIPR officials and the three media buying firms of “unethical and fraudulent collusion”, it remains to be seen how far the probe extends after arrest of the DIPR Director himself. However, the larger question that needs be asked is whether it is at all justified for Central and State governments to spend thousands of crores of taxpayers’ money for publicity. It is doubtful to what extent voters are really influenced by these campaigns. Rather, such campaigns open the door for scams in government publicity departments — with the opportunities ripe due to expenditures nearly always overshooting allocated budgets, while accounting norms are thrown out of the window and austerity becomes a joke. Whether ‘good governce’ can do without such wasteful blowing of the government’s trumpet is a matter for introspection.