Crisis in Kashmir Construction: A Case of ‘Rs 1000 Crore’ Bill

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As the two-day downpour coinciding the sixth anniversary of the September floods has already created fresh concerns in the valley, Kashmir’s contractor community continues to await the flood repairing and rehabilitation bill since that devastating fall of 2014.

MID 2018, an oddly familiar phrase was being reiterated in media and public discourses in Kashmir. A memory from four years ago – the devastating 2014 floods which had uprooted many lives and forced several others to rebuild theirs, had made the sinister term ‘flood alert’ intimate and recognizable to many Kashmiris.

During the monsoon-month of June that year, intermittent heavy rains had jolted authorities into taking ‘safety measures’ such as closing the Srinagar-Jammu highway and issuing a sincere warning to the communities living on the banks of Jhelum river. Reportedly, ‘small-scale evacuation’ was also carried out to leave no stone unturned in ensuring safety to all citizens of the valley. Since three people had already lost their lives due to flash floods and landslides in Jammu, life – as controlled – was brought to a halt in Kashmir.

The well-remembered and feared instance of the 2014 floods had already transformed ‘rainfall’, from being a natural occurrence, into a bad spirit which haunted Kashmir and had to be combated with duas calling for the dispersion of grey clouds. Thus, anxious prayers and panic were brought alive in the minds of commoners watching the rash downpour, two years ago.

As a part of their ‘safety measures’, the 2018 administrative setup had asked local contractors to rise to the occasion and help authorities in mitigating the damage to life and property. This business community was asked to do “their bit for the public” by dedicating their services and resources to the construction of embankments along Jhelum river.

They rose. They built. But now they wait in limbo.

The ‘Rs 1000 Crore’ Bill 

“Since 2014”, after the infamous floods wreaked havoc in Kashmir, Zeeshan Rehman informed that “a lot of ‘rehabilitation work’ amounting to Rs 1000 crore including macadamisation and school reconstruction was executed by civil contractors.” Rehman is the Acting Chairperson of the Senior Contractors Coordination Committee (J&K).

According to him, ‘rehabilitation work’ had begun soon after the calamity and was completed over a period of one and a half years. “Post that, there have been many times when everyone here (Kashmir) has anticipated a flood because of unseasonal rain. Almost every time such fears rose, local contractors were approached to take care of it,” he added.

Owing to a similar condition in 2018, after the Jhelum rose above its ‘danger mark’, a syndicate of technocrats, representative of the then-Srinagar administration, had reached out to a group of civil contractors for building embankments along the river to prevent flooding and a ‘2014-like crisis’.

“There was no flood but the warning was given by the officials anyway. The chief engineers, superintendent engineers, etc. from departments such as Public Health Engineering (PHE), Public Works (R&B), Irrigation and Flood Control (IFC), used to visit the Jhelum very often,” Rehman explained.

Generally, contractors are awarded infrastructural projects after the concerned department issues a tender for the same. As most government processes have been digitised to mirror the pace of international institutions, even tenders are required to be issued electronically in Jammu and Kashmir – especially since the inception of J&K’s e-tendering portal in 2011.

“We guessed at that time that they did not have the time to float e-tenders because they told us to begin our work without issuing anything. We were told, at that time, in complete seriousness, that it was an emergency. We dutifully followed the government officers then, but they have been missing in the conversation ever since we appeared with our bills and liabilities from the projects we finished,” he said.

The committee of contractors that Rehman represents has alleged that the Department of Finance has been outrightly rejecting the bills presented by his peers from the ‘rehabilitation work’ they executed post 2014. The Department has reportedly claimed that the contractors cannot be compensated because most of their contracts were carried out without ‘e-tendering’.

The due process has not been followed, we are told. But the irony is that we were asked to do the work by officials and technocrats,” he lamented. “The bills must contain the details of e-tendering, administrative approval, and technical sanction, otherwise they are being dismissed.”

Basheer Ahmad Khan, former president of Hot Mix Plant Owners Association, compared the extraordinary circumstances of 2018 to the unprecedented pandemic of 2020.

He questioned if the administration had issued e-tenders, as per the formal process, to manufacture masks, sanitisers, etc. suggesting that the opposite had happened. “The same thing affected us in 2015. Government authorities told us to focus on completing the civil projects while assuring that our payments will happen as and when we finish our assignments. We trusted them but now an amount of Rs 309 crore is due from the Public Works Department (PWD) alone,” he said.

Khan and Rehman have stated that three ministers from the PDP-BJP coalition government of 2015-2018 – Haseeb Drabu, Naeem Akhtar, and Altaf Bukhari – have been responsible for ordering the infrastructure work, approaching the contractors, and forming the agreement.

Commenting on his implication in the pending payments problem, Apni Party chief and ex-PWD minister of J&K, Altaf Bukhari told Kashmir Observer, “Yes, a lot of road restoration work along with other projects was completed after the floods and I would like to compliment all the contractors who helped the government at that time and finished their jobs efficiently. I am aware that, unfortunately, around 300 plus crores are due to them.”

However, Bukhari added that there was little he could do after the government reshuffle in 2016 owing to Mufti Mohammed Syed’s death.

“We were asked to finish the projects on a war-footing-basis. This has been the case from 2014. Since the introduction of JK Pay Sys in early 2019, the officials in the Treasury Department tell us that without e-tendering, our bills will not be accepted. However, there is close to nothing we can do to change the past. We were contacted and employed by chief and superintendent engineers of different public departments. If something has gone wrong they are equally responsible if not more,” Rehman declared.

The contractors asserted that they have always welcomed modernising initiatives like the ‘JK Pay Sys’ – which is being implemented in full swing since this financial year. But the moot point between the employing (government) and employed (contractors) parties has been whether the ‘work undertaken or completed before the institutional introduction of JK Pay Sys should be scrutinised by the new rules’.

They, at that time, were given administrative approvals and technical sanctions fulfilling two out of the three prerequisites of the new payments system. “So now when they ask us, ‘why was there no e-tendering’ before rejecting our bills, I wish to question their motive behind directing the query to us, contractors. Why ask us? Ask the ones who gave us the job, who also have to float the tenders as a part of their responsibility,” he rued.

Altaf Bukhari has called this treatment “harassment” and expressed concerns over the “financial mismanagement in Jammu and Kashmir.”

Amin Khan, a mechanical contractor, also admitted to not having received his payment from the last three years. He said that a lot of contractors have been taking up tenders after applying for bank loans at a time when, he believes, the administration is issuing tenders without having any monetary funds to fulfill their part of the deal.

In September 2019, he had worked with the PHE and IFC departments (now collectively called as ‘Jal Shakti’) for Narendra Modi’s ‘Ghar Ghar Paani’ scheme which promised citizens access to tapped water facilities. “Despite having completed my job and spent around Rs 15 lakhs, I haven’t got a single penny that is to be rightfully paid to me,” he solemnly said.

‘Bloated Bill’

“The 1000 crore figure is simply not true,” Iftikhar Ahmad Kakroo, the Chief Engineer of Irrigation and Flood Control Department (IFC) told Kashmir Observer. “A lot of the dues have been paid back to the contractors that were employed in the specified period.”

As per this official, all dues have been cleared by the IFC department for 2014. “Yes, there is some liability for 2018. This was work that was undertaken to help the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) and I think that the outstanding amount is only a couple of crores,” he said.

Interestingly, Zeeshan Rehman alone has bills amounting to Rs 35 lakhs from 2018 and 7 lakhs from 2014, which need to be paid for by the IFC department.

However, Mazhar Hussain, the Director of Finance for the Public Works (R&B) Department, maintained that the “government has been very serious about clearing the liabilities” while citing the “new order” which presents a roadmap for clearing macadmisation dues.

“This issue is very tedious and does need careful examination,” Hussain told Kashmir Observer. “It would not be right to comment right now since I am not completely aware of the problems of the contractors. But I would like to say that every process needs to be transparent.”

Noting that e-tendering was not a new feature in the business of contractors, Kakroo admitted that “in 2014 and 2018, when an emergency was declared, e-tendering was not done.” He has been chairing the functions of the IFC department since the past two months but has claimed to have taken the contractors’ issue with the seniors of his department.

“We are committed to solving this and undoing the confusion,” he stated.

What Do Officials Want?

Even after several attempts made by groups representing Jammu and Kashmir’s contractors to bring the miscommunication and discrepancies in the system to the attention of the authorities, Rehman believes that all the efforts have so far been in vain.

“We did not go to then-government with begging bowls asking for work. They came to us for our services. Also, if we have done anything wrong then all the chief and superintendent engineers should also be penalized with us. We are told ‘you did more work than you were allotted’ but it was the officials who asked us to do it and because of their carelessness we have been having liabilities since the past 4-5 years,” he further mentioned.

Basheer Khan argued that the process of budget allocation has been tampered with, leading to all these problems.

“Previously,” he said, “lawmakers had a mechanism that allowed the budget to be slightly more than the estimate for the community and state. For example, if the budget needed to be Rs 100 crores, it would be made Rs 120-130 crores. Our dues were being cleared as per our agreements until 2014.”

According to his interaction with the authorities, the accrued amounts of 2014 and onwards will be cleared only after the physical examination of the embankments is completed. The examination is reportedly being conducted by the Anti-Corruption Bureau, which has now started digging the earth around the river to check the work that was completed four years ago.

But in a region like Kashmir, where all construction projects would be time-bound for weather-related reasons, the players of this seasonal business say that are being “pushed to the edges of despondency.”

“The government has been ignoring us after 2014. We are a community on the operations of which a government functions. Without us, there would be no one to build and establish all the schools, hospitals, infrastructure that the politicians promise the public. But we have been grossly ignored by the political setup since 2015,” Basheer said exasperatedly.

Altaf Bukhari confirmed that the contractors have been troubled by these developments in their case.

“The present Finance Secretary has been delaying this case, but I know that he is an honest bureaucrat,” the Apni party chief said.

“Nevertheless, honesty is not only about being non-corrupt but it is about doing your duties properly. One cannot hide behind the smokescreen of ‘anti-corruption’ and delay processes. Issues must be solved on priority. I vouch for the contractors as I know their problems are real.”

The politician also stated that the contractors’ dues must be paid to them with interest so that they can pay their lenders and justify their wait of many years.

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