An insurgency or a low-intensity war is not new to the Seven Sister states — Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura — in northeastern India. The people in these states have suffered it for a long time now. However, TEHELKA brings to you a different story from the hill states. This is a story about a war that needs to be fought from within.
The malaise of corruption, which runs deep in our society, has spread to matters concerning national security. This should be a rude wake-up call for the Central government, the armed forces and the public alike. Corruption is eating into the vitals of the Assam Rifles, a force spearheading counter-insurgency operations in India’s Northeast. And as it assumes alarming proportions, Assam Rifles is turning out be a bad advertisement for India’s paramilitary forces.
In the past, there were certain allegations made against India’s oldest paramilitary force with regard to the use (and misuse) of the discretionary funds. However, Tehelka reveals a clear and present danger in the organised manner in which some Assam Rifles personnel are taking cuts from contractors for the smooth passage of tenders, thereby tarnishing the organisation as a whole. The bribes are openly taken by the men in uniform sitting inside their respective offices.
TEHELKA penetrated the Assam Rifles and the unseemly activities we uncovered would make you cringe with shame. On the one hand, we see innocent jawans dying for the nation. On the other hand, there are uniformed officials taking a bribe. It poses a serious threat to national security and could affect the morale of the jawans.
Many officials in the Assam Rifles are appointed on deputation from the Indian Army. TEHELKA’s investigation finds that most of them, after their stint at the Assam Rifles, return to their home unit with a huge amount of illicit wealth. Shockingly, the corruption is institutionalised; it happens in an organised manner and the well-planned racket includes clerks and high-ranking officials alike.
How it is done
Every financial year, the Central government makes budgetary allocations for the security forces. In this year’s budget (2014-15), the Assam Rifles has been allocated Rs 3,580 crore. (The corresponding budgetary allocation for the Assam Rifles for 2013-14 was Rs 3,358 crore and Rs 2,966 crore for 2012-13.)
Construction projects envisioned under the annual budget are implemented through tenders. Officials at every level make sure that they get their share of money every time a proposal moves from one table to another. The contractors who pay bribe reveal that for any project, 30 percent of its cost goes straight into the officials’ pockets. This adversely affects the quality of the construction activity. Such is the extent of the rot in the Assam Rifles that officials openly accept money in their offices.
The modus operandi is simple. A contractor, who floats a tender for any construction activity in the area administered by the Assam Rifles, is supposed to go through a particular network to disburse cash at every level. The booty is shared by lower-level clerks as well as the director-general, who is of lieutenant-general rank. The high-ranking officials do not take cash directly; their subordinates do it on their behalf.
A senior contractor who has been in this business for the past seven years rues the day he decided to take up this profession. His grouse is quite valid. If a tender is worth Rs 1 crore, then 30 percent of it (Rs 30 lakh) needs to be spent on ensuring that there are no bottlenecks in the smooth execution of the project. In other words, that 30 percent disappears without even the project getting started.
“Thirty percent of a proposed tender has to be given to various officers in the Assam Rifles. Sometimes it can go up to 35 percent. We have to manage with the money left for arranging for raw materials, labourers and, of course, the profit,” says the senior contractor. Consequently, quality suffers.
“First you float a tender and in order to get that passed, it has to go to Shillong (Meghalaya). There you have to pay 5-8 percent. If you don’t pay, then the tender will not move an inch from there. Your project will be over before it can be launched. The bottom line is that this 30 percent has to be given at any cost,” the senior contractor explains.
“The total expense is 30 percent, but the bribe money is not paid in one go; it moves in a phased manner, first at the tendering stage, then at the billing phase and so on. A major share of it is cornered by SO1 (Special Officer 1), where a tender originates.”
In all, there are 543 contractors registered with the Assam Rifles. Basically, there are five types of contractors. They are categorised as: Special, A,B, C and D classes. The classification is done on the basis of money involved. Those in the Special class can take up projects involving unlimited sums of money. The contractors in the A and B categories are eligible for projects worth Rs 2 crore and Rs 1 crore, respectively. Those in the remaining two categories (C and D) are into projects with even less money. New contractors automatically fall in the D category; according to their performance, they are promoted to the higher categories.
How the booty is shared
The procedure for sharing the ill-gotten money is very systematic. Five percent goes to the sector where the work is allotted. In some cases, it could go up to 10 percent. Another 5 percent goes to the DGR (Director General Resettlement). Then the unit where the bill goes to, comes into the picture; it gets another 5 percent. When the bill returns to the sector, 3 percent has to be given to the officials and another 5 percent to the DGR. And, finally, there is a 7 percent VAT(value added tax), which brings the total to 30 percent. This is how the gravy train runs. Apart from this, 1 percent has to be given to the accounts department, from where payments are released.
Tehelka followed a contractor as he paid money to the officials of the Assam Rifles. Last year, the contractor erected a pre-fabricated shelter at the Tamanglong district headquarters in Manipur at a cost of Rs 24 lakh, for which he had already paid 16 percent of the project cost as bribe to various officials to acquire the tender. Now, he gives another 18 percent of the cost as bribe to officials to get the bill passed. This time, TEHELKA followed him and for the first time in the history of India, officials in combat uniform are caught red handed — on camera — accepting money! It included a colonel and two lieutenant colonels. Shockingly, the chief of the Assam Rifles also took his share in the deal, indirectly through his subordinates. Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) H Deb received the money on behalf of his superiors, including the DG, ADG and the Chief Engineer.
Deb: Give me three (thousand) more.
Contractor: Please leave three, sir.
Deb: I have to give. Please understand.
Deb: I have to give to Limbu (Subedar, Engineer JCO) and others, including those who take 5 percent.
It all began when a C-level contractor working with the Assam Rifles, CC Mathew, a native of Kerala, approached TEHELKA. A former jawan, Mathew wanted to expose the corruption in the Assam Rifles. Before approaching TEHELKA, he went to various media organisations for help. But, only to return home disappointed. However, the Special Investigation Team of TEHELKA joined hands with this whistleblower.
Our sting operation started with the clerical staff and went right up to the top. Subedar Gautam Chakravarti not only insisted on getting his share of the money to clear the bill but also ensured that the contractor paid the balance amount from a previous project to a Lt Col Kakar, who had been subsequently transferred to a different location. After receiving the money on behalf of Lt Col Kakar, Chakravarti even calls him up to give him the “good news”.
Chakravarti: Give if you want to. Otherwise forget…
Chakravarti (On phone): Sir, there is a good news. Mathew has given your share of 20 thousand. (Hands over the phone to Mathew.)
Contractor Mathew (On phone): Sir, whatever was pending in the bill of 30 lakhs, that has been given.
An officer, identified as Lt Col Gogoi, directs Mathew to hand over the money to his subordinate.
Lt Col Gogoi: Working over here is a little tricky… Give my share to the saab sitting there (points his finger in that direction.)
And Subedar P Limbu receives the money for his superior and for himself.
Subedar Limbu: (While counting) What did sir say?
Contractor: Sir asked me to hand over his share to you.
BK Sarkar is a senior accountant officer in the Pay and Accounts Office, Directorate-General of Assam Rifles — the highest post in the accounts department. The moment the TEHELKA team entered his cabin, he took out all previous bills of contractor Mathew, calculated his own share of money in the deal and asked us to first clear his dues.
TEHELKA’s investigation reveals that over the years, some of these officials have accumulated a huge amount of illicit wealth. Sources say that a senior officer of the Assam Rifles is allegedly building a five-star hotel in the Northeast with his ill-gotten wealth.
TEHELKA has learnt that a camp near Imphal is soon going to be vacated for another project to be sanctioned for building a new camp, thus minting more money. Likewise, there are many such projects being floated around unnecessarily.
Another shocker is that a contractor has constructed his own warehouse inside the Assam Rifles camp. He claims to have taken the DIG’s permission. The warehouse is used to store raw materials and equipment required for construction purposes. The camp cannot be used for such purposes; it is totally illegal. A contractor, Suresh, confessed on camera that he has built the warehouse for his personal purpose inside the sensitive zone with the DIG’s permission.
Contractor Suresh: This whole location is built by us since its inception. I have taken this area. I have got permission from the DIG for this.
In the past, there have been allegations of financial irregularities against the high and mighty in the Assam Rifles, but those cases hardly reached a logical conclusion. It raises a serious question about the functioning of both the Intelligence Bureau and the Vigilance Department. However, the question that must worry everyone is how can these greedy officials be trusted with national security? Is our country safe from the nefarious designs of our external enemies?
These illegal practices are bound to cast a big shadow on an entity like the Assam Rifles. The players involved in the corruption are those assigned to desk work, namely, clerks, JCOs, engineers and other officials. In contrast, the soldiers who risk their lives in counter-insurgency operations get paid less compared to those who do office jobs.
In the end, everyone gets tarnished because of the greed of a few. That would be an insult to the combat soldier whose unflinching devotion to duty is in stark contrast to the unscrupulous ways of the office staff. This racket is bound to hurt the soldiers more than the bullets of insurgents.