Editor's note: Probably one of the most delayed infrastructure projects in the country, Gurupriya bridge in the Naxal-hit Malkangiri district of Odisha, was finally inaugurated last month by Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik. The chief minister also announced a special package of Rs 100 crore for people living in the cut-off areas. The bridge links the state’s mainland to 151 villages and nine gram panchayats that were severed when the Machkund reservoir was constructed in 1960 and the Balimela Hydro Power Project later in 1972. In this three-part series, we look at the change in lives of people inhabiting over 900 sq km of cut off area, the Maoist threat and the politics that delayed the project for over 35 years since inception.
Malkangiri: For valid reasons, Odisha’s newly-opened Gurupriya bridge has been termed one of the most delayed infrastructure projects in the country.
Situated in the Malkangiri district, the bridge had its foundation stone laid way back in 1982 by then chief minister JB Patnaik of the Congress. Probably no one thought then that the unfortunate project would be inaugurated 36 years later, by a chief minister belonging to a different political party.
Nonetheless, the 910-metre bridge has proved to be a boon for around 30,000 tribal villagers residing in a zone cut-off from mainland Odisha for more than five decades in the absence of any concrete road or proper river link.
The inauguration of the bridge has also led to a different kind of tussle — a political one where the state’s leading parties — vying for the Assembly as well as Lok Sabha polls next year are leaving no stone unturned to discredit the project.
The latest salvo has come in the form of allegations of a Rs 74 crore scam in the construction of the bridge.
Charges before inauguration
According to the locals, tribals in the Chitrakonda block, that includes the 151 cut-off villages, suffered because of lack of land titles and caste certificates -- an issue that was taken up by the rival parties to corner the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government. The Malkangiri Congress unit even claimed that around 2,000 school children had to drop out in the absence of relevant certificates.
“Around 99 percent of the people here are either Scheduled Castes (SC) or Scheduled Tribes (ST). Due to the apathy of the BJD government, a number of families in the Chitrakonda block could not get ‘land pattas’, without which the children could not get caste certificates. As a result, around 2,000 children were not allowed to avail the facility of hostels,” Govind Patro, Congress district president, Malkangiri told Firstpost.
BJD MP from Nabarangpur, Balabhadra Majhi, rubbished the Congress claim and insisted that the BJD had developed Malkangiri far better than its former MP.
The Congress, while supporting the construction of the bridge, used the local issues to protest against Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik inaugurating the link. It also asked why the state waited for around two months to open the bridge when work had been finished much earlier.
When Patnaik visited Chitrakonda, the local Congress leader accompanied by the party’s youth wing leaders called a strike. The party also alleged that around 35 of its members were taken into preventive custody on inauguration day.
The BJP was not far behind in creating a ruckus over the bridge.
Unlike the Congress cornering the BJD over the delay and the ‘land patta’ row, the saffron party chose to allot credit for the bridge to itself and the security forces which had been stationed near the construction zone for four years to ward off the Naxalite threat.
“The BSF set up camp and kept a tight vigil to ensure hassle-free construction. The Centre prepared the policy for areas hit by left-wing extremism while the home ministry sanctioned money for the bridge. It is strange how the state government is bent upon snatching away credit,” Samir Mohanty, BJP state vice-president said in an interview to local Odia channel OTV.
It wasn’t long after Chief Minister Patnaik inaugurated the Gurupriya bridge on 26 July that a draft report from the Office of Principal Accountant General (PAG), Puri, came to the fore, accusing the state government of giving undue favour of Rs 74 crore to the contractor who handled the project.
The bridge had earlier already been beset with charges of shoddy workmanship, cave-ins and pillar collapse.
A copy of the PAG’s draft, which was proposed to be put into the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, is with Firstpost.
“In deviation of Analysis of Rates, estimates prepared for EPC contract with undue lump sum provision of Rs 24 crore for hiring barges and Rs 4 crore for launching girders besides excessive provision of overhead charges and contractor's profit led to undue benefit of Rs 73.91 crore to contractor,” the draft report said.
Soon after the report made news, the Congress and BJP pounced on the BJD government again.
Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee president Niranjan Patnaik stated to the media that “before the general election, the state government has misused public money for the benefit of the contractor company. Rs 74 crore has been unnecessarily paid to the contractor. Why the state government was in a hurry to inaugurate Gurupriya Bridge - that has now been known after PAG’s report”. The party also demanded a CBI probe into the matter.
The BJP too fired salvos against the Odisha government. “This is a scam of Rs 74 crore. First Gammon India was given a tender of Rs 47 crore in 2006 but things could not (be) figured out, and later they claimed an estimate of Rs 90 crore. In February 2010, a CM-headed committee rejected the proposal and the agency was rejected and works stopped, so why was Gammon India given Rs 9 lakh? Only to test the soil? But the government did not give a reasonable reply,” Golak Mohapatra, BJP spokesperson in Odisha, alleged in a statement.
The local units of the two opposition parties are now busy holding a series of press conferences over the issue in capital Bhubaneswar, and also planning to escalate the attack on other fronts.
BJD spokesperson Sasmit Patra has, however, dismissed the charges, saying the rival parties are unnecessarily politicising the issue and that administrative systems should be given a chance to work.
The author is a Bhubaneswar-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com.
Updated Date: Aug 10, 2018 11:59 AM