Tamil Nadu’s anti-corruption watchdog that doesn’t bite

Tamil Nadu’s anti-corruption agency, the DVAC, seems to be on a go-slow mode, with ineffective action being taken to tackle the malaise

shivani

Shivani Chaturvedi | November 9, 2017 | Chennai


#Vigilance   #DVAC   #Tamil Nadu   #Directorate of vigilance and anti-corruption  
The directorate of vigilance and anti-corruption (DVAC) in Chennai. Photo: Shivani Chaturvedi
The directorate of vigilance and anti-corruption (DVAC) in Chennai. Photo: Shivani Chaturvedi

The directorate of vigilance and anti-corruption (DVAC), Tamil Nadu’s watchdog against corruption, seems to be working at a snail’s pace.

Here is an egregious example. Tamil Nadu medical services corporation (TNMSC) had floated a tender in January 2016 for outsourcing of housekeeping and security services in 37 government hospitals and 20 medical colleges that come under the directorate of medical education (DME).

The eligibility criterion was that only public and private limited companies can participate. The rationale was that it is always better to hand over huge tenders to accountable and publically scrutinisable firms rather than proprietary and partnership firms whose compliances are limited.

The last date of submission for bidders was January 28, 2016. However, through notification, the deadline was extended to February 5, 2016. Just a day before the deadline, the basic eligibility criterion was changed and the time limit for submission was extended to February 16.

The technical committee shortlisted six companies out of which only Padmavathi Hospitality and Facility Management Services was a partnership firm and the other five companies were private and public limited.

Central vigilance commission guidelines mention that if the eligibility criteria are changed to suit a particular successful bidder by either relaxing or adding clauses, then it amounts to irregularity. Also, Tamil Nadu Tender Transparency Rules, 2000 say that one-month notice needs to be given for tenders of value above Rs 2 crore. However, in this case after amending the basic criteria of eligibility, the deadline was extended only for 11 days.

Ultimately, the tender went to Padmavathi Hospitality and Facility Management Services, in which former Tamil Nadu chief secretary P Rama Mohana Rao is alleged to have interest. 

B Murali Kumar, director general income tax (investigation wing), Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, told Governance Now that when IT officials conducted a raid in December 2016, Padmavathi Hospitality and Facility Management Services was not on their radar. “The firm started its business only in 2016 and its first return of income is yet to come. Yes, we too have heard that because of the firm’s association with former chief secretary Rao, the firm got the contract. But only when the first return of income comes, we would conduct searches, if needed,” he says.

Activist Jayaram Venkatesan says that immediately after the income tax sleuths raided the residence and office of Rao in December last year, the IT raids were also conducted at Padmavathi Hospitality and Facility Management Services. This rang a bell for him. He researched and found the alleged connection with former Tamil Nadu chief secretary Rao.

“We came to know that Rao’s son was associated with the company. We dug further and found that Padmavathi Hospitality and Facility Management Services has been awarded the contract in the health department. When we went through the contract, we found discrepancies in the tender. We inquired with whistleblowers as well. There were all indications that there was a nexus,” Venkatesan says while sitting at his office at Marshalls Road in Egmore locality of Chennai.

Venkatesan, who runs Arappor Iyakkam, a two-year-old NGO that is a corruption watchdog, decided to take up this matter.
It took him 15 days to collect all evidence and on January 9, 2017, Venkatesan and his team thought of approaching the state investigating agency, the directorate of vigilance and anti-corruption (DVAC) that oversees anti-corruption cases.
In January, he sent the evidence along with a complaint under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 against Rao and others to DVAC through registered post.

Venkatesan made several visits to the DVAC office, a white building that stands at MKN Road in Alandur locality, but he was not allowed to meet the officers. “When I called over phone to get appointment with the DVAC director, I was asked to come directly, and on reaching there, I was not allowed to meet him. I was told there was no such procedure to meet the director,” he says.
It took almost six months for Venkatesan to get an appointment with the director of DVAC. They have not given him written intimation acknowledging that they are taking up the issue. All communication is verbal.

So, what did DVAC do?

DVAC director MN Manjunatha says many petitions that come to them are exaggerated. Some of them are not backed by enough documentary evidence. Where there are verifiable facts, the DVAC carries out preliminary inquiry, and then depending on the nature of the case, “we convert it into regular or detailed inquiry”.

“We do get cases related to disproportionate assets. Also, we deal with criminal misconduct such as irregularities in awarding of tenders and irregularities in swindling of scheme money,” he says.

To a query, he told Governance Now: “In the Padmavathi Hospitality and Facility Management Services case filed by NGO Arappor Iyyakam, where the NGO has alleged irregularity in awarding of tender, we are carrying out preliminary inquiry. Though the supreme court’s general guideline says that preliminary inquiry should be over in around six weeks, in some cases it does take longer.

“We may expand our area, so more hands would be needed then,” he adds.The investigating agency is hit by staff crunch as well.

A senior DVAC officer says that the department is facing a shortage of staff. The sanctioned capacity of the staff in the entire state is 550, but now there are 429 people working in the investigating agency, and there is shortage of 121 personnel
The total number of pending cases in all the DVAC units stands at 4,496.

As per the data obtained from DVAC, the number of convictions has gone up from 21 in 2013-14 to 79 in 2016-17. The number of cases against IAS and IPS officers fell from six in 2013-14 to two in 2016-17. In contrast, the DVAC registered total 226 cases in 2013-14 and 702 cases in 2016-17.

The number of traps laid in 2013-14 was 206, and it reduced to 99 in 2016-17. The DVAC did not have data on cases registered against ministers, MPs and MLAs.  
An RTI reply received by Arappor Iyakkam shows that in the last three years there has been no action taken under the Prevention of Corruption Act and no random searches have been done.

DVAC and its role

DVAC is headed by a vigilance commissioner. Barring a few instances, the post of vigilance commissioner has remained with the chief secretary in Tamil Nadu for close to two decades. The vigilance commissioner heads the DVAC, which probes all corruption charges against state government officials and people’s representatives.

In August this year, the state government appointed senior bureaucrat VK Jeyakodi as vigilance commissioner.

DVAC’s role is to prevent corruption, which is done through various ways. One of the duties of the DVAC is that they have to take a look at big state government projects (which are above Rs 10 lakh), conduct checks and pay surprise visits. The departments undertaking the projects are supposed to intimate the DVAC about the mega project and if they fail to do so, the DVAC has to serve notice to the department for not informing the investigating agency.

The RTI reply received by Arappor Iyakkam states that DVAC gets information about 200 to 300 projects every year. However, they have not stated how many they have visited and how many projects they have checked. They have also not even sent notices to the departments that have failed to inform the DVAC about the projects.

Additionally, the DVAC is supposed to carry out surprise checks at the government departments and see if corrupt practices are taking place. As per the RTI reply, the investigating agency has conducted 50 to 70 such checks and wherever they have conducted checks, they have found irregularities. But none of these irregularities are registered as regular cases and in only one of these cases detailed inquiry has been conducted. In the last two years, not even one surprise check has been carried out.
The DVAC has to ensure that in every government department, a vigilance officer is appointed. But many departments don’t have one. In all these preventive aspects the DVAC seems to have failed, says Venkatesan.

The DVAC says that they are carrying out 120 traps per year. However, these traps are generally on low-end bribery cases, involving bribe money of Rs 2,000 or Rs 5,000, he says. And in 32 districts, they are hardly carrying out three or four traps per year, per district, and are registering FIRs in 80 or 90 cases per year, which means only hardly two or three cases per district. For the past five years, the average number of conviction per year is around 40.

The state is spending around Rs 55 crore every year on DVAC.

The number of cases the DVAC has taken up against All India Service Officers including IAS and IPS has come down substantially. In the last four years, the DVAC has not filed even a single FIR against any such officers. This shows that DVAC has pretty much been inactive regarding corruption involving senior bureaucrats. In Tamil Nadu, there have been a lot of complaints of corruption, but no action has been taken by the DVAC where high-level officers are involved. 

Not only this, the DVAC units working in all the districts are supposed to submit a monthly report, and in 2017 alone, out of 30 plus units, 12 units have not submitted even a single report to the DVAC head office, says the RTI reply.

DVAC and another case of corruption

DVAC doesn’t seem to have made much headway in an alleged corruption case at a government hospital in Dharmapuri, about 300 km from Chennai. The hospital lacks basic amenities and hygiene. There is lack of infrastructure facilities because of which patients go through a tough time.  

Funds were allocated under patients welfare fund and lakhs were spent. The hospital authorities, however, say that because of lack of funds they are unable to provide the amenities, says Senthil Arumugam, general secretary of anti-corruption NGO Satta Panchayat Iyakkam.

An RTI reply shows that funds have been received and they have spent it, and it shows the balance amount left. Whereas, another RTI reply shows that the hospital does not have funds at all. Also, a bank statement of the hospital shows that there have been transactions. So the question is, where has the fund gone?

“We took this matter to DVAC. We went in person to the DVAC head office in Chennai and gave the complaint and requested them to inquire about it. Instead of sending the complaint letter (our original petition) to the authorities concerned (the directorate of medical services) to look into the matter, they sent our original complaint to us, attached with a letter asking us to take action.

“We went to their office to bring it to their notice that they had wrongly sent the original petition to us. They just said we will take care. We asked them for an acknowledgement receipt but they told us there is no such procedure in DVAC. After an argument that lasted for an hour they gave us the acknowledgement receipt for our petition. Though it is a clerical mistake, I am trying to make a point that they are working in such an ineffective way,” says Arumugam.

 He adds: “DVAC is working just like a post office. Whenever they receive complaint, they just direct it to somebody else. We followed up for three years with DVAC on the Dharmapuri hospital corruption case. We reminded them through mail. Also visited in person to meet the DVAC chief. After a year or two, we were asked to come for inquiry. We went there. However, even after inquiring from us, they did not take action. Finally we gave up.”

Dr Ravi Chandran, a practising doctor and social worker from Dharmapuri, brought the issue to Satta Panchayat NGO and asked them to follow up on it. “In future, Chandran will also lose confidence in DVAC’s mechanism. On the doctor’s tip-off we took this matter to the DVAC. People keep saying the corruption issues that we take to the DVAC go unaddressed. The authorities just keep quiet without taking any action. What is the point in wasting our time and efforts,” says Arumugam.

Talking to Governance Now over phone from Dharmapuri, Dr Ravi Chandran claims, “Seeing the condition of the hospital I collected evidence on fund flow in the hospital. Patients welfare society fund is allotted to every hospital. But this government hospital has siphoned off money. And it looks like investigating agency DVAC is not much bothered about such cases. Having a bitter experience with DVAC, I am not going to approach it in future.”

Arumugam says a body like DVAC should be allowed to function independently without any interference of politicians and officers. Not being an independent body makes it toothless. Corruption investigating agency must not be like this and that is the reason why the civil society is demanding Lokayukta in Tamil Nadu.

Neighbouring states like Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have already set up the Lokayukta. Tamil Nadu is one of the few states where the Lokayukta Act has not been passed yet.

shivani@governancenow.com

(The story appears in the November 15, 2017 issue)

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