Thursday, March 7, 2019

CGO Fire, on the Eve of a Major Audit, Could Be a Case of Sabotage, Officials Say

Key files of the Accessible India Campaign, under evaluation by an audit team, have been lost – which may suit department officials and the Central government. CGO Fire, on the Eve of a Major Audit, Could Be a Case of Sabotage, Officials Say
The fire at CGO complex. Credit: Youtube screengrab

New Delhi: The fire in Antyodaya Bhawan in Delhi’s CGO complex on March 6 destroyed hundreds of files belonging to the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DoEPwD). One CISF officer, M.P. Godara, lost his life in the blaze.

Yet the fire may suit the Centre, as a large number of audit files on the Accessible India Campaign (AIC) – a flagship project of the Modi government – were also incinerated.

Just last week, an entire audit team moved into to the fifth floor of the complex. Its files are believed to have been destroyed or damaged.

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Officials from the department said that, following standard practice, audit officials conducted inspections in various offices. After a few transfers from the DoEPwD office, these audit officers moved in.

Chief Fire Officer Atul Garg confirmed that the fire started in one of the Ministry’s offices.

Officials were up against the wall
The massive fire at the start of an audit has alarmed many officials. “The entire section of Accessible India Campaign has been burnt,” one government official told The Wire. “The campaign was launched in December 2015, but was moving at a very slow pace. The department officials, especially the secretary and joint secretary, were unable to provide a credible explanation for this slow pace of work.”

The official said that in January this year, the cabinet secretary convened a meeting in which the department officials struggled to justify the campaign’s sluggish pace.

‘Sabotage possible’
“The Centre, too, was facing embarrassment due to this,” said the official. “This was a flagship programme for the Modi government. Just recently, the Centre started assessing what promises were made and how much has been achieved. But we all know that none of the targets of the AIC have been achieved.”

According to the official, all the audit reports seem to have been lost in the fire. “Most of the cost estimates, too, have been burnt.” Many fear this could be a case of sabotage.

Crores spent, but not one building fully accessible
According to the official, the audit had established that
·         While over Rs 300 crore were spent on making government buildings accessible, not a single building had yet been made completely accessible in the country.
The best illustration is the Dr B.R. Ambedkar International Centre, which the prime minister recently inaugurated at 5 Janpath. “This building was constructed by the Ministry of Social Justice and the Central Public Works Department but is also not accessible [to persons with disabilities].”
·         Inflated cost estimates of spending on lifts and other facilities. “Some of the buildings that the department claims were completed, do not even exist,” he said. “Many such cases were highlighted.”
·         A large number of NGOs had received funds three to four times over, by changing their names despite giving the same address.

The cost estimates of the AIC have also been destroyed, he said.

“The whole campaign has been turned into a garbage bin. Over the last two years, officials in the Ministry were even scared of taking out a tableaux on the AIC, as they feared questions about their achievements.”

Besides the AIC, the official said the Deen Dayal Disability Rehabilitation Scheme could also suffer as its whole cell was gutted in the fire.

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Key file-observations lost forever
On how the fire could affect future audits, the official said, “now no one will know how audit objections were raised about more projects funds being released than the sanctioned amounts, or how inflated cost estimates were raised for various works.”

The files of the department were last scanned in June-July 2017. “After that no files were officially scanned.”

The Centre has now been given a pretext for not moving forward with the AIC agenda, the officer said, as it can say that no copies of the documents were available for the last two years. This will push the accessibility campaign back to where it stood in 2015.

Lives put at risk
The fire also exposed the hazardous conditions in which government officials work.

On the fifth floor, where it started, “old broken furniture, boxes and almirahs stuffed with files were kept in a casual fashion in the passages”, and hoards of waste lay strewn around.

A large number of small wooden cubicles were erected, which were fire hazards.

The open electricity meters and exposed wires completed a recipe for disaster.
But such brazen neglect for safety was not only confined to the CGO complex. “It also extends to North Block – home to the offices of the Ministry of Home Affairs – which is in-charge of all disaster management and fire departments. There, too, one can find such cubicles and encroachments in corridors,” the official said.

In the CGO complex, wooden partitions were set up in the offices of the Ministry of Social Welfare without any approval from the local body, fire department or CPWD.

NGOs, disability rights activists concerned about ongoing projects
NGOs and disability rights activists said that camera-scans or back-up copies of the original documents were maintained very rarely.

Rati Mishra, adviser to the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, said “it is unlikely that there would be so much back-up in computers. They mostly relied on hard copies of documents. Even we are concerned as we feel a lot of our papers will be lost. It is just that those who have applied would have their own personal copies.”

She hoped that new documents or scanned back-ups will be accepted, as the fire was not the fault of the applicants. “They should ideally make some allowances to those who submitted these documents.”

Another disability rights activist, Satendra Singh said: “I doubt they keep back-ups on the Cloud. They usually have camera-scan copies, but a question remains of how useful those would be. Some of these scans are also put on the web. But in this department, there were few techno-savvy people, and so most of the work happened on paper.”

Official response awaited from Department
The Wire spoke to the Director of DoEPwD K.V.S. Rao, but he said other officials were dealing with the matter of document losses. As attempts to reach Secretary Shakuntala Gamlin on her mobile and Director (AIC) Vikash Prasad, also failed. E-mails and SMSs have been sent seeking their responses, and this story will be updated as soon as they are received.—The Wire

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