Over the past decade, state governments across India have collaborated with various companies to attempt to streamline waste management. The idea is simple: experts in waste management bring in their knowledge, backed by logistical support from the state agencies. On paper, it sounds ideal. However, as Tinsukia shows, such tie-ups can also mean the worst of both worlds: serious financial irregularity, violation of MoU and complete non-transparency in day-to-day operations, among others. 

Last week, reports emerged that the Solid Waste Management project run by the Tinsukia Municipal Board (TMB), with the help of an NGO: M/s Care North East Foundation, had, to put it mildly, been a disaster of epic proportions. The MoU was signed in June 2019 and included waste collection, segregation, and creating awareness among others. 

The report of an in-depth enquiry ordered in February this year, submitted to the deputy commissioner in May, detected several instances of financial irregularities and recommended constituting an expert panel for an in-depth analysis of day-to-day transactions starting from daily fuel consumption by the CNEF to daily tax collection/ monthly tax collection, etc.

Nailing the project’s stakeholders, the enquiry report read: “Both TMB and CNEF have failed in the execution of part of the MoU in its letter and spirit”. Residents under the TMB are being greatly affected by this, the report read and advocated scrapping the MoU.

As per the enquiry report, the NGO did not hand over their collection accounts from other sources, including usage charges and other revenue receipts. They did not take user charges receipts from TMB and never opened a joint bank account though it was included in the MoU. “The TMB too did not put much effort in opening a joint bank account,” added the enquiry report, indicating that huge cash collections happened without TMB’s supervision.

The report said the MoU period was for one year, divided into two periods of six months which could be extended for another six months after a review, and if the performance was satisfactory. “However, a period of one and half years – from December 31, 2019, to June 21, 2021 – passed without any review at all.”

Minutes of a review meeting held on June 21, 2021, were exclusively accessed by this correspondent. As per the minutes, the junior engineer informed the house that the last review meeting was held on December 31, 2019. The then Board did not approve an extension to M/s CNEF. Since then, the NGO has continued the works without sanction and approval from TMB, underlining that they collected lakhs of rupees as usage charges every month for door to door garbage collection from thousands of households and commercial establishments. Instead of acting upon this, the TMB chose to give the NGO another chance.

Curiously, 13 persons attended the review meeting, with nine officials from TMB, including former executive officer and member of the enquiry committee Niluram Sharma, two representatives from M/s CNEF, including director Sanjay K Gupta and City Project Officer for Swachh Bharat Mission Nitumoni Patowary. 

The enquiry report continues its scathing attack on the two parties. The CNEF, the report said, should have started segregation and processing work at two Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) ready to function. That did not happen, as no MRF facility was ready to function as mentioned in the MoU. “As per clause 3(2) in the specific conditions of the MoU, separate collection of biodegradable and non-bio-degradable waste was to be adopted, but it has not been properly implemented,” the report revealed.

The responsibility to monitor the door-to-door collection of wastes lies with the TMB, and after the work satisfaction report at the end of every month, CNEF was to receive payment for primary and secondary waste collection. “However, for the last 2 years, no efforts were made by TMB for proper monitoring of the same,” the report said, adding, “Awareness rally was not taken out by the CNEF with the help of TMB as mandated in the MoU.”

The minutes of the 2021 June meeting showed remarkable anomalies. The Junior Engineer stated that the CNEF could achieve only 60-70% of the door to door collection from the 15 wards even after completing two years of continuous workings. Gupta countered it on the grounds of a shortage of vehicles and higher households than the data provided.

The review meeting minutes also showed the assistant engineer stating that in violation of the MoU, the NGO has been collecting waste and service charges from outside the TMB’s territory, which declined its performance. “Some of the drivers engaged by the CNEF are plying vehicles without valid license and experience, as a result, most of the vehicles are in deplorable condition, and one of them met with an accident due to negligent driving,” he added.

Usage charges collected in cash

The report also cited collection of user charges in door-to-door garbage collection in the past three years, running into lakhs of rupees per month in cash without any supervision of TMB, paving way for misappropriation of funds.  

“The TMB could make provision of garbage tax against the holding numbers of individual households just like sewerage and drainage tax that are being collected directly from residents under holding tax. But that did not happen, rather, TMB authorized private parties to collect usage fees from locals without proper checks and balances,” a resident of Tinsukia, wishing not to be named, said.

Made a scapegoat for TMB’s violations

CNEF is clearly in the spotlight following the inquiry report, but the director of CNEF, Sanjay K Gupta, said he is being made a scapegoat for TMB’s violations. “On several accounts, I had insisted the concerned official of TMB open a joint bank account as mandated in the MoU, but they did not pay heed to my requests. I was made to sign account opening documents twice. Once, when HDFC Bank officials visited the TMB office. The second was at the SBI Rangghar branch, but the account was never opened,” he told EastMojo

“The responsibility of ensuring a joint bank account rests on the shoulders of TMB headed by the executive officer. Had I been the one not willing to open a joint bank account or not cooperating in following the clauses of MoU, why did the TMB make me payments for months?” questioned Gupta. 

Between July 2019 and May 2021, TMB made over Rs 1.4 crore after making deductions of over Rs three crores towards salary and fuel.

Gupta said they shared account details of our collection, including user charges and another source as and when TMB sought details. Hence, to say they did not submit account details of our collection is a blatant lie.

Gupta said there was a scope of misappropriation of funds collected in cash. “Hence, we insisted on opening a bank account and discussed with TMB about using digital machines for fee collection, but in the field, hardly anyone was willing to use their debit or ATM cards,” he added. 

Contesting the allegations of collecting garbage and user charges without any approval or sanction from TMB after the review meeting held in December 2019, Gupta said, “I had never received any notice or communication informing me that TMB has not approved the extension of MoU. Hence, it is deemed to be renewed automatically.” 

“It was in the domain of TMB to review our performance every six months, and if they failed, it amounts to dereliction of duty on the part of the executive officer, and he shall be dismissed,” Gupta said.

“We did attempt to submit a carton full of printed receipt books to JE, but he refused to accept it because he is already overburdened with work,” he added.  

“We believe the TMB had already done the due diligence of checking skills and driving license. But later, some were found not having a driving license and were removed immediately, though they were engaged on the recommendation of TMB officials,” Gupta clarified. 

On the charge of collecting waste and user charges outside the territory of TMB, Gupta said the then executive officer Niluram Sharma had asked them to send a vehicle to one location which was adjacent to the territory of TMB. He had also fixed user charges. “We provided service to the office of the deputy commissioner too, which is outside the territory of TMB. But no one questioned this. There is a scope to collect waste and user charges from areas adjacent to TMB territory, a practice followed across the country,” Gupta added. 

Earlier, in a press meeting at Tinsukia, Gupta failed to produce the audited accounts related to the project to prove the amount collected by his NGO and usage charges, other sources and the amount paid by TMB ever since they entered into the MoU and the expenses there off.

Role of TMB in question

The inquiry report has raised serious doubts about the functioning of the TMB in the Solid Waste Management project, leaving pertinent questions to be answered.

What stopped TMB from scrapping the MoU when CNEF failed to open a joint bank account, provide printed receipt books and provide an account of collections, including usage charges and other sources, for months altogether? 

From January 01, 2020, to June 20, 2021, TMB failed to review the CNEF’s performance, which should have been reviewed every six months as per MoU before granting any extension. Who is accountable for such a serious lapse, and what action was initiated against the erring officials?

The junior engineer informed the house during the review meeting on June 21, 2021, that the CNEF has been carrying out works without sanction and approval from TMB for almost one and half years. Doesn’t the usage charges collected without approval and sanction from TMB amount to the illegal collection? What steps did TMB take to stop it? 

Admitting serious lapses on TMB’s part, Niluram Sharma rejected charges made by Gupta that he apprised him that a joint bank account is not being opened. “It is on my initiative that the review meeting was held on June 21, 2021, and we issued multiple notices to CNEF, and that the enquiry into the Solid Waste Management Project has taken place,” he told EastMojo.  

Sharma took charge of TMB as executive officer (EO) in October 2020, yet held the review meeting almost 9 months later in June 2021, despite the review meeting due in June 2020. Though Sharma handed over the charge for a brief period of around two months before returning in May 2021, he failed to give any satisfactory response for the delay in the review meeting of the Waste Management project – one of the most important projects. The other EO’s during the said period are also answerable for this lapse.

His attempts to pass the buck on Covid-19 for the delay didn’t hold ground as the review meeting was held during the peak of the second wave of Covid-19 on June 21, 2021. Hence, it could have happened much before. Why was no responsibility fixed and action taken on erring officials due to whom the Solid Waste Management Project could not be implemented in letter and spirit, thereby wasting manpower and public money, as pointed out in the enquiry report, and why was CNEF given an opportunity during review meeting instead of taking steps to scrap the MoU is something that Sharma needs to explain.

Action so far

Talking to this correspondent, the deputy commissioner of Tinsukia, Narsing Pawar said following the revelations of several anomalies, they had formed an expert committee of finance & accounts to carry out an in-depth analysis of accounts to find out the exact scale of misappropriation of funds. “Once the report comes in, suitable action will follow in this regard,” he added. 

“The district administration has directed the executive officer of TMB to scrap the MoU with CNEF and float a new tender for door-to-door collection and disposal of the garbage,” Pawar said.

Admitting serious violations on part of TMB, Pawar said the executive officers for the said period will be called for a hearing to find out the violations from the TMB side. “Responsibility will be fixed on the erring officials of the TMB concerning the Solid Waste

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