Gujarat boat tragedy: HC orders inquiry against former Vadodara civic chief over contract process

Gujarat HC observed that the officer appears to have illegally granted the contract in 2015-16 for Harni lakefront project to Kotia Projects.
People gather during a rescue and search operation after a boat overturned in a lake, in Vadodara, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024
People gather during a rescue and search operation after a boat overturned in a lake, in Vadodara, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024Photo | EPS

AHMEDABAD: The Gujarat High Court on Thursday ordered a departmental inquiry against the then Vadodara municipal commissioner in connection with the January 18 boat tragedy after observing that, prima facie, he appears to have illegally granted the contract in 2015-16 for Harni lakefront project to Kotia Projects.

Twelve students and two teachers were killed after a boat capsized in Harni lake on January 18 this year.

Hearing a suo motu PIL of the incident, the division bench of Chief Justice Sunita Agarwal and Justice Aniruddha P. Mayee directed the Principal Secretary of Gujarat's Urban Development and Urban Housing Department to conduct a departmental inquiry against the then Vadodara Municipal Corporation chief and complete it within two months.

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The HC also said the role and responsibility of other officials, if any, shall also be duly taken into account during the inquiry.

The procedure prescribed for award of a public contract was given a complete go-by while granting the contract to Kotia Projects, the court observed.

"From the turn of events brought on record from the affidavit of the municipal commissioner, as reflected from the original record in the matter of grant of contract, it is evident the then municipal commissioner of the corporation is responsible to grant contract illegally in favour of Kotia Projects," the HC said in its order.

"However, this opinion expressed by us be treated as a prima facie opinion to conduct an inquiry against the then municipal commissioner of the corporation as also other officials whosoever they may be," it added.

As per the incumbency chart of civic chiefs on the VMC website, HS Patel was the municipal commissioner during February 25, 2015 and June 23, 2016.

He was succeeded by Dr Vinod Rao, who held the post from June 24, 2016 to July 17, 2018.

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When the then MC, on October 15, 2015, submitted the proposal before VMC's standing committee for the development of various lakes and surrounding areas under PPP mode, it was not approved, the court noted in the order.

However, on September 23, 2015, the then municipal commissioner himself gave in principal approval for the expression of interest (EOI) to develop Harni lake under PPP mode and issued advertisements in newspapers.

When the proposal was placed before the VMC's standing committee on October 1, 2015, it was postponed by a resolution for a later date.

However, on submission of EOI by Kotia Projects on October 5, 2015, a resolution on October 8, 2015 was passed by the standing committee approving the said proposal, subject to the directions that it was required to again place the proposal after incorporating suggestions for approval, the court stated in its order based on details furnished by the MC, VMC in an affidavit.

Kotia Projects was established soon after the then MC conceived the project, and its entry in the column for financial was nil, it said.

"With this fact, we may record our strong suspicion of the manner in which the EOI was submitted by a new entity established after the project was conceived.

This aspect itself requires inquiry into the manner in which the entire project was conceived by the then municipal commissioner," the court observed in its order.

Bids of two entities for the projects were then rejected, and advertisements were published in local newspapers on December 9 and 10, 2015 inviting EOI for development of Harni lake on PPP mode, it said.

On December 27, 2015, Kotia Projects submitted an EOI and a consulting agreement executed by it with one Prem Fisheries providing consultancy services, the court said.

There were two proposals, from Kotia Projects and Mangalam Construction Company, and both the bidders were qualified on January 8, 2016.

Mangalam said the project was not financially viable for it, and the project was finally awarded to Kotia Projects after approval by the standing committee by a resolution dated September 8, 2016, it said.

"With this chronology of the event, it is not understandable as to how Kotia Projects became qualified within two months when it was disqualified in September, 2015," the court noted.

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