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Assam ministers must stop persol meetings with contractors

The key promise that Assam’s new Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal made on the day he took oath was to free the State from corruption and illegal migrants. One is to assume that he means business and would like to leave no stone unturned to fulfil these promises. As much as 85 per cent of Assam’s voters turned up to exercise their franchise for a ‘parivartan’ or change, not just in the party heading the government in the State, but to see a change in the style of governce.

We saw an interesting spectacle within three weeks of the BJP-led government being in power. It was that of a Divisiol Forest Officer (DFO) being trapped by anti-corruption sleuths as he was taking a bribe of Rs 30,000 in cash to release three trucks held up for carrying forest produce. Subsequent raids by the police at his residences led to the recovery of more than Rs 2 crore in cash. This could mean he was stashing away ill-gotten cash from quite sometime.

I am not particularly excited about the arrest of the DFO over bribery charges because this actually could be just one case that has come to light after the trap that worked. There could be many such officials who have been indulging in corruption and stashing away cash disproportiote to their known sources of income. Of course, most government officials may be honest, but it is not enough for such people to turn a blind eye to their colleagues indulging in such open loot of public money. The responsibility of checking or halting corruption is not of the ministers or the chief minister alone, who are accountable to the people, but of the bureaucrats in charge of the departments as well.

The politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus is legend in Assam or the North-east as a whole. But why should such a sweetheart nexus continue? My suggestion to the new government in the State would be this: ministers should stop meeting contractors individually. After all, why should contractors meet ministers and vice versa? There will be tenders floated, contractors would file tenders, they would be opened, examined and then the contracts would be awarded. Yes, ministers of respective departments can call meetings with respective contractors as a body, discuss the problems and also tell them what the government expects of them. The meetings can be minuted and follow-up action taken. This actually can be a simple and transparent exercise.

 The practice traditiolly has been this: whenever a change in government takes place, contractors and brokers would arrange meetings with ministers. They would meet the minister and say they have come to introduce themselves (chiki hoboloi ahisu). And, often during such meetings, contractors would like to ‘gift’ something to the mantri mahudai! This practice can be stopped right away without a problem if the new dispensation so desires. And, it would do Assam a whole lot of good.

 Integrity of the elected representatives, their desire to be long-term players in Assam’s politics, vigilance by the public and the civil society, and a proactive role by the honest bureaucrats can help reduce corruption. Exemplary punishment is also the need of the hour. For instance, the state government must make sure officers arrested in corruption charges must be prosecuted and for this, the legal team has to match the acumen of the defence lawyers. To put it simply, prosecution has to be strong and for this, the state government must take adequate measures.