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Corruption alleged in HP Panchayati Raj exposure visit contract allocation

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SHIMLA – HW received a scanned copy of a complaint filed with the Director of Panchayati, Himachal Pradesh. It was followed by a copy of the RTI filed seeking information regarding the schedule and expenditure on Kerala exposure visits organized by the Panchayati Raj Department every year.

In complainant alleged that the department did not follow the standard procedure before awarding the contract. The directions under HPFR 2009 Rules directs the department to invite bids through proper advertisement of tender to allocate the contract to eligible private agency. The tender in this case was awarded to a private contractor by the DPO, that deprived other candidates from fair opportunity. The complaint said,

It is brought to your kind notice that DPO Shimla had finalized the exposure visit during the month of July – 2015 to give exposure about the Panchayati Raj activities to the representative of Panchayat Member/BDC and Zila Parishad members and their staff. Sir the work relating to traveling & boarding/loading likely to be incurred on the exposure visit has been out sourced to a private agency by the DPO, Shimla without inviting bids through advertised tender system. As provided under Himachal Pradesh Financial Rules 2009 the activity/exposure visit costing upto Rs. 10,000/- & above are required to be finalized after inviting bids through competitive firm through advertised tender. However, the prescribed procedure has not been followed in this case. Since the same is illegal thus the exposure visit finalized by the DPO is required to be cancelled by inviting bids from other competitions through advertised tender published, at least, in two leading news papers.
It is, therefore, requested that necessary action in the matter may kindly be taken on priority basis so as to avoid any litigation/irregularity as well as to safeguard the interest of the competitive firms(s)

The complainant has also filed an RTI seeking the following information:

Corruption-alleged-in-HP-Panchayati-Raj-exposure-visit-contract-allocation

The contractor or the trip organizer is then responsible for the transportation and lodging of the delegation throughout the exposure visit. The delegation can consist of 25 – 40 members. The total cost of the expenditure is huge. Lakhs of rupees are are spent to facilitate the delegate.

The exposure visit is meant to provide knowledge regarding panchayat activities in Kerala that has decentralized

The complainant alleged that the DPO allocated the contract after inviting quotations from some pre-selected candidates without any advertisement.

The allegations are also hints towards manipulations in the standard procedure to favor a particular candidate, who in return might have bribed some officials to obtain the contract.

The complainant told us that he had approached the Director, Panchayati Raj with a written complaint. Surprisingly, the Director had no information regarding any scheduled exposure visit, according to the complainant.

What is an exposure visit?

The exposure visit is meant to provide knowledge regarding panchayat activities in Kerala and it socio-economic features, local self government structure, decentralization and local government system, participatory planning and development experience, gender mainstreaming, poverty reduction etc. The visits are paid to the functionaries of the some selected villages to obtain first-hand knowledge regarding the working mechanism in panchayats.

In reality, such visits are nothing more than perfect opportunities to spend a holiday at the cost of public tax money.

After reviewing the copies of complaint and the RTI, HW editor called at provided contact number of the office of District Panchayat Officer, Shimla to verify the allegations. HW was told that the DPO isn’t at her office. He called the next day and again we received the same reply.

However, the official who attended the call told us that there is no such procedure under which bids are invited through advertisement of tenders.

The DPO further added that previous contract for exposure visits were also awarded by the same way without any advertisement of tender. When HW insisted for an official statement regarding the same, the official told us that the DPO will be able to provide us sufficient and accurate information regarding the matter. We were told that the DPO is on holiday.

We dialed the DPO’s contact number provided on the official website.

HW member tried to verify two relevant facts like,

Is there any direction in the Panchayati Raj to allocated contracts above 10, 000 through proper invitation for tenders and its advertisement?

The second piece of information requested was related to the exposure visit scheduled for the month of July 2015.

However, the DPO didn’t find the topic comfortable to discuss and didn’t provide any direct answer initially. However, after repeated query regarding the same, she denied having any such direction under Panchayati Raj or HPFR 2009. We further informed her regarding the copy of the written complaint filed with the Director and the RTI filed by the complainant.

After 15 minutes, the DPO again called the HW member, who was covering this public grievance, and threatened to file a complaint with the high command of whatever newspaper he was employed with.

Apka high command Jalandhar main hain hai na, main call karti hun wanha apke head ko,

she said.

Well, we didn’t know either that HW had some high command in Jalandhar. Thanks for the information.

The DPO also threatened to file charges of misbehave with an officer on duty if she was further asked any questions regarding the mentioned exposure visit or any of her official activities.

The DPO,

Exposure visit ka contract kisko aur kaise dete hain ye app mujhe batayenge? App kaun hote hain mujhse ye poochne wale ki contract hote hain ya nai?

We were wondering that it took 15 minutes for the DPO Shimla to realize the misbehave issue and all that. May be, the DPO was trying to figure out details of HW. The anxiety and irritation was apparent in the DPO’s voice. That suggests that there is some crust in the complaint lodged.

First of all, respected DPO Shimla, HW isn’t a newspaper of media house. There is no high command that could be used to harass reporters like it’s done to most of the journalists or reporters from regional dallies. Here, at HW, the public, our members and readers make the high command.

We speak on the behalf of public. We represent public and public has every right to ask questions from any government official employed for its service. Perhaps, such government officials have forgot that they are meant to serve the public, not rule them.

Moreover, no tricks or threats will work on HW members. Unfortunately, we are quite poor at flattering too.

A lot of journalists, RTI and social activists are murdered brutally in India every year. Some of them are burned and buried. Almost every day, we read about someone burnt alive, others axed in public.

We are quite aware how the police and state machinery is used to harass those seeking replies from or trying to expose corruption among high rank government officials and politicians.

HW won’t mind facing the same while fighting against corruption or in effort to raise public grievances and distress.

Coming back to the grievance, we would request the Director Panchayati Raj Department to look into the matter and take note of the irregularities in the allocation of the contract. We are also forwarding the copy of this complaint to higher authorities.

Original Copies of the RTI and written complaint filed with the Director

Madan has studied English Literature and Journalism from HP University and lives in Shimla. He is an amateur photographer and has been writing on topics ranging from environmental, socio-economic, development programs, education, eco-tourism, eco-friendly lifestyle and to green technologies for over 9 years now. He has an inclination for all things green, wonderful and loves to live in solitude. When not writing, he can be seen wandering, trying to capture the world around him in his DSLR lens.

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Amid Surge in COVID-19 Cases in Himachal, Speculation of Complete Lockdown Gains Momentum

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Himachal Pradesh Lockdown from August 1st speculations

Shimla-The number of COVID-19 cases is rising at an alarming rate in Himachal Pradesh as for the past five consecutive days, the state had been reporting nearly 100 cases per day. With Monday’s 95 new cases, the tally  for the state jumped to 2270. The number of active cases has crossed the 1000 mark to reach 1025 on Monday. So far, 1216 patients have recovered while 12 of them succumbed to COVID-19 infection.

Among Monday’s cases, Sirmaur district reported the highest 31 cases from Govindgarh (mohalla) locality in Nahan. Complete lockdown of two days was imposed in this area but the spurt in cases continues. Fifteen new cases were reported from Baddi and Parwanoo in Solan district while remaining cases were reported from Bilaspur (11), Mandi (10), Kangra (16), Shimla (5), Una (2), Hamirpur (1), and Chamba (3).

In Shimla, five family members of a policeman, who had tested positive a couple of days ago, also tested positive.

HP Health Department’s COVID-19 Bulletin July 27, 2020 (9PM)

himachal pradesh demand of lockdown amid surge in covid-19

Some leaders of the ruling party (BJP) continue to invite criticism for behaving irresponsibly. The government itself is not learning any lesson from the situation in Govindgarh- a hot spot where the outbreak was triggered due to a marriage ceremony.

On Monday, the opposition Congress filed a police complaint against three persons including a BJP leader for violating rules by roaming around and meeting a large number of people instead of placing themselves under home-quarantine. The opposition said that samples of these persons were taken after they showed symptoms of the COVID-19 infection. Still, these persons kept roaming around after giving samples. The opposition has also alleged a discrimination was seen in initiating legal action for violations of social distancing norms. In Spiti, hundreds of tribal women were booked for staging protest against Minister Ram Lal Markanda for not adhering to the resolution passed by the locals regarding mandatory quarantine for all including the residents of the district. Cases have been filed against the opposition Congress too for violating these norms during recent protests. 

Earlier, a leader from Mandi had introduced the coronavirus in Chief Minister’s office and the State secretariat and infected about two dozen of his contacts including the Advocate General and his family. The leader reportedly visited the IGMC, Shimla, State High Court and other offices.

Now, another ex-MLA from Nadaun and the Vice-Chairman, HRTC, was reported to have met several party workers and even attending an event as the chief guest. Vijay Agnihotri reportedly continued shopping, roaming around, and meeting people after giving a sample. Reportedly, he also attended a marriage ceremony. The district administration would now have a task to trace all his contacts.

At the sametime, the Congress was also seen disregarding the social distancing norms during their recent protests against the hike in bus fare.

Laxity in Organization of and Checking Gathering in Govt Events

While the state government has issued guidelines for attending funerals and marriages, there is hardly any seriousness when it comes to organizing government or the party events. The ‘havan’ organized in Shimla where hundreds of people had gathered and several party leaders including Chief Minister Jairam Thakur had visited it. The event had invited criticism as the Chief Minister and workers of BJP Mahila Morcha were seen disregarding every social distancing norm. 

An employee of HP University also tested positive recently. A few days prior to the confirmation of this case, an event was organized at the varsity on the occasion of the Foundation Day a large number of people including media persons were present.  

Amid such a sharp increase in cases, instead of being so lax, the government is supposed to prohibit any such gathering or at least issue guidelines regarding the maximum number of persons allowed to attend such events/functions.

Solan district where the total COVID-19 cases have reached 553 has begun to witness a shortage of health staff.  The BBN area is the worst hit and has reported about 80 percent of the total cases in Solan. According to a media report, there are only 10 doctors at the CHC at Nalagarh and six at the Civil hospital, Baddi. There are only 28 nurses.

Amid this panic, the public, especially from Shimla district has been suggesting the imposition of a lockdown and questioning the government over still keeping the border open for tourists. To make thing even worse, there are instances where people violated quarantine rules after their samples were taken or were not monitored properly. In Mandi district’s Bagsaid market, a person had opened his meat shop giving a sample. It was after the arrival of his report that the shop was closed. 

Further, the online opinion poll of the State Government inviting public opinion over the imposition of a complete lockdown in the state has led to speculations of a possible lockdown from August 1st.  The matter regarding a lockdown is expected to be taken up in the Cabinet meeting to be held on July 30. The public is confused and preparing to stock up ration/essentials or planning to leave for villages. Several readers have also been writing to Himachal Watcher to inquire about the possibility of imposition of a complete lockdown.  

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First Open for Tourism, Then Train Staff, HP Govt Goes Topsy Turvy

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Himachal pradesh CM jairam thakur on hotel staff training

Shimla- In the last week, the Himachal state government has taken decisions that could have a long-lasting impact on citizens without consulting or even informing all stakeholders.

First, it came out with guidelines for tourism that did not have any inputs from the tourism industry. Second, it decided to open the state for tourism without consulting hotel and travel industry or keeping village pradhans in the loop.Six days after the decision to allow tourist activity and opening State borders for tourists, the state government of HP has decided to train people employed with the industry.

“Online training for the Hospitality sector would also be held in wake of COVID-19. About 10,000 candidates would be provided one-day training on hygiene and sanitation procedures. Three weeks training on basic essential of a tourist guide communication skill etc. would be provided to about four hundred candidates,”

said Chief Minister Jairam Thakur in a review meeting with Tourism Industry officials on 8th July. It’s surprising that the Government did not find the time to either have this ‘1 day training’ program ready or train the staff of hotels and restaurants before throwing open state borders for tourists. The government gave no time to the hotel industry to understand, prepare and implement directions given in the issued SOPs.

Major Hotel Associations have already decided to keep hotels closed at least till September and  Village Pradhans have also refused to allow tourists into their jurisdiction. The Chief Minister said that the State Government is following the lead of states such as Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Goa, Kerala etc. where the Governments have decided to open the State for tourists.

To enter Himachal Pradesh, tourists have to meet three conditions, a valid booking for at least five days, a COVID-19 test report from an Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) certified laboratory not older than 72 hours and their vehicle should have a sanitisation certificate.

About 600 tourists have already entered Kangra district. Police arrested a couple in Kangra district who managed to enter the State by furnishing a fake COVID-19 negative report.

“A case was registered at Damtal police station against a couple who entered HP from Bhadroya barrier based on fake COVID Negative test report. Legal action is being initiated against them for cheating, fraud & forgery. They are currently lodged in an institutional quarantine facility at Parour,”

SP, Kangra, Vimukt Ranjan, said confirming the report. In another case in Kullu, five tourists, who managed to enter the State and reach Bajaura barrier in Kullu, were detained for not carrying required documents. A total of 12 tourists have been allowed in to Kullu district after they met the three conditions needed for tourists.

According to Kullu district police, about 70 tourists from Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Rajasthan, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh etc. were sent back for not fulfilling conditions prescribed by the State Government. Tourists who should be sent back for a lack of required documents and fulfilling conditions given in the SOPs issued by the State Government are able to cross barriers at borders, like Parwanoo and Swarghat.

Police manning barricades are also frontline staff who are at risk.

We have provided police who are manning the barricades with N95 masks, raincoats that will serve a double purpose for rain and COVID protection and long gloves, policemen over the age of 50 years and those with existing conditions are not deployed at barricades,

said DSP, Kullu, Priyank Gupta.

While the majority of the hospitality industry players, (which is worst hit by the loss of business), is against opening the State for tourism, there are some, especially those who have leased hotels and taken loans who want to open for tourism. However, until the state government takes steps to add healthcare facilities and make more dedicated COVID hospital wards especially in rural areas, large scale tourism could endanger locals.

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Environment

Govt Legitimizing and Legalizing Environmental Violations for Business by Amending EIA Rules: Activists  

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Himachal pradesh EIA Notification 2020 Amendments news

Shimla-While in statements, the politicians in power at the Centre and State Governments have been expressing concerns over environmental issues and ensuring the people that they are committed to protect and preserve the environment, the reality is contrary to it. The most recent evidence is the proposed 2020 draft amendments to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification. With these amendments, the process of environmental assessment before granting permission to execute commercial projects, like hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh, would be reduced to merely a formality.

Environmental activists and people’s organisations from across Himachal have written to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) to scrap the 2020 draft amendments to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification proposed by it.

These activists and environmental protection groups are of the opinion that the EIA Notification, first issued in 1994 under the Environment Protection Act 1986, is a critical mechanism that regulates clearances granted to all kinds of development projects and economic activities in the country. It is one of the environmental decision-making processes that makes it mandatory for project developers to not just study the socio-economic, ecological and other impacts of a proposed project but also place them in front of the affected communities for their opinions and objections, thus, ensuring the process of a free, fair and informed consent. However, this notification has been amended and read down several times in the last two decades, in favour of ‘easing the norms’ for business. The latest draft continues to move in the direction of rendering the EIA process a mere formality. 

The submission made by HP groups states,

“In the context of the already vulnerable and sensitive Himalayan region, flouting of various provisions of even the present EIA notification has heavily impacted the local ecology and livelihoods of the people. The new amendments will only legitimize and legalize these violations and this will mean irreparable damage to the Himalayan ecosystem”. 

The key objections raised are around exemptions of a variety of projects from the mandatory  Public Consultation’ process as well as the dismantling of this process itself.

“The reduction of the time prior to public hearing from 30 to 20 days is also highly objectionable. In the given 30 day period itself, the information about Public hearings does not reach all the affected areas which are often spread out widely in case of mountains with some project-affected communities residing in remote and inaccessible terrains. Here accessing information takes a long time and reducing this time to 20 days will completely exclude such people from raising their grievances and suggestions in the public consultation. This is a clear attempt to block their participation in the environmental decision-making process”

said R.S Negi of Him Lok Jagriti Manch, Kinnaur. 

 

“It is shocking that the amendments include allowing post-facto clearance, which means that the project proponent can start work and before they have obtained environmental clearance. If the basic precautionary principle on which the EIA notifications is grounded is itself not followed it can lead to a disastrous situation for the ecology and local people. In this situation who is going to be responsible for the losses? If the project proponent is not in a position to pay for losses, will the MoEF&CC take the responsibility of losses? This provision will encourage project developers to bypass the process of environmental decision making. We absolutely oppose this amendment”,

said Prakash Bhandari of Himdhara Collective.  

The 2020 draft also dilutes the guidelines for monitoring and compliance of Environment conditions.

“Already the system of monitoring is weak, the conditions lose, the pollution control board and companies non-accountable, thus, leading to widespread destruction of local ecology and impacting health, lives, and livelihoods of project-affected communities. In the case of hydropower projects, for instance, the illegal and unmonitored dumping of muck along river beds, in forests and on common lands, has damaged pastures, disrupted the flow of the rivers, and caused massive disasters when floods occur. The proposed changes will give a free reign to those profiting from extractive and polluting projects,” 

according to Kulbhushan Upmanyu of Himalaya Bachao Samiti. 

It is ironic that on one hand, the global COVID crisis has thrown up several studies showing that pandemics like COVID emerge from ecological degradation and forest loss, and on the government is pushing for policy changes which will accentuate the environmental crisis that the country is already reeling under.  

“If the MoEF&CC wants to change the environmental laws, it should carry out countrywide regional consultations”,

added Uma Mahajan of Himachal Van Adhikar Manch.

The country, especially ecologically diverse yet climate-vulnerable regions like the Himalayas need a robust and strong environmental regulatory and governance regime that makes project proponents accountable and keeps the affected communities and ecological concerns at the centre of the EIA and environmental decision-making process. 

Notably, MoEF&CC had called for citizen’s comments before May 11 but this deadline was extended upto  June 30 and now August 11 as environmentalists and concerned groups expressed outrage that calling for public inputs on this critical law amidst the COVID led lockdown was unjustified. The MoEF&CC has in this period received thousands of objections highlighting the new draft as anti-people and environment.

The demand is to scrap these proposed amendments for the sake of the environment. 

Submission Made to Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change by Activists and Organizations

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