DATELINE Guwahati /Wasbir Hussain
Even before anyone in Guwahati has drunk a drop of water from the Japan Intertiol Cooperation Agency (JICA) funded water supply scheme in the city, the project has hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. That the project has missed its commissioning deadline is not a big story anymore. What, however, is are admissions by executives of an American company engaged in maging the project that they had bribed officials in Assam to bag the project magement consultancy contract in February 2010.
Officials of the American construction magement firm, Louis Berger Intertiol Inc., has admitted before Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials and US courts that its magers had paid Rs 6.21 crore as bribes to officials in Goa and Guwahati to bag the consultancy contract for water supply projects in these two states. Louis Berger has now agreed to pay a pelty of 17.1 million USD to the US Department of Justice after admitting its misconduct and also promised setting up an independent ethics and compliance department at a cost of 25 million USD.
Now, Chief Minister Gogoi has announced an enquiry by an additiol chief secretary with the intention of finding out if there is any prima facie evidence of the charges by Louis Berger representatives that they had bribed officials in Assam to bag the consultancy for the Guwahati water supply project funded by JICA. Gogoi said the CBI would be asked to probe the matter only if the enquiry that he has called for comes up with some evidence to back the charges of the Louis Berger officials. In an election year, Gogoi would have done well to have handed over the investigations to the CBI since it is the FBI that has probed the matter in the US and since foreign companies are involved in the execution, design and magement of the project.
What could be the role of the Assam officials in this matter? Well, discussions between the Union Fince Ministry and JICA on the Guwahati water supply project began sometime in 2007 and things concretized around 2009. The contract with Louis Berger was signed in February 2010 and their fee was around Rs 80 crore. Louis Berger’s job was to plan, design and mage the construction of new waterworks facilities. The project has since missed the commissioning deadline. Now, the job of the additiol chief secretary enquiring into the matter is actually simple—he has to find out if any undue favour was accorded to Louis Berger who bagged the magement contract. The files relating to the awarding to the contract will have to be examined because there were around ten bidders. With reports now emerging that some relevant files have gone ‘missing’, the scope for speculation has increased manifold.
I am not excited about the Assam Government probe. I am, of course, curious to know whether Chief Minister Gogoi would write to the Centre to approach the US Justice Department and the FBI to get the mes of the Assam Government functiories who may have received the bribe from Louis Berger. After all, considering the Indo-US relations, Washington should not find it difficult to provide New Delhi the mes of the alleged recipients of the Louis Berger kickbacks.
Getting the mes won’t be difficult because US Justice Department documents on the case clearly states that Louis Berger bribed officials in Assam to secure the consultancy contract. The documents states: “...Along with several consortium partners, the company (Louis Berger) won two water development projects in Goa and Guwahati. The Company paid bribes to win both those contracts. The bribe money was disguised as payments to vendors for services that had never actually been rendered. The Company through its employees and agents and its consortium partners kept track of the bribe payments by circulating a spreadsheet amongst themselves, showing the proportiote share of each bribe that they had paid to the foreign officials overseeing their work on the Goa and Guwahati projects...” Since Louis Berger kept a record of all the money spent on bribe, it is to be seen how India proceeds to get the mes of the officials in question.
I wonder if Gogoi would take the trouble of setting up something like an accountability commission in Assam to look into spending and execution of mega projects in the days ahead. Of course, the question as to whether he would be interested in setting up such a body will arise only if he or his party is able to win the polls next year! Right now, Mr Gogoi, please take steps to get to the bottom of the matter. Get the mes of the ‘corrupt officials’.