Water Woes in Meghalaya : Anatomy of PHE Scams

Now that the Chief Engineer of Public Health Engineering Department (PHE), Meghalaya, Mr. S. K. Sun, has retired and reluctantly announced his intention to enter the political arena, it is important to remind the citizens about the damning audit report on the shenanigans under the ‘able leadership’ of Mr. Sun in PHED, Meghalaya.  If his technocratic track record is anything to go by then the electorate of Mawphlang are in for an interesting performance.

Former PHE chief engineer SK Sunn playing with a baby during the meeting organized by the Lyngwiar Sain Pyrkhat Ban Ksan ka Lawei (LSPBL) held near the famous Sacred Grove of Mawphlang village (image by ohmeghalaya.com)

Based on a recent CAG audit report which has a 33 page performance review of 28 Water Supply Schemes in Meghalaya. This essay (published earlier on RAIOT) by Himanshu Upadhyaya ([email protected]) covers the main and major findings and aspects where local community and CBOs can follow some of these audit findings. There are also comments on water quality and testing aspects, which have not been covered (for reasons of the length) in this article.

Meghalaya WSS

An audit report by Comptroller and Auditor General of India that got tabled in Meghalaya assembly on 23rd March 2016 reveals the sorry state of affairs on water supply schemes. It brings under scanner the corrupt practices of Public Health and Engineering Department (PHED), presents before us the real causes of the delays in completion of these schemes. This performance review shows that PHED has failed to learn any lesson from similar indictment from constitutional auditor in the past and continued its business as usual with impunity. The audit also shows in unambiguous manner how PHED officials failed to supply information and documents in support of their claims. CAG auditors have also presented photographic evidence of the undue favours granted to contractors and have shown that works that are listed as executed and paid for on records don’t exist on site. Will this performance audit of drinking water schemes in Meghalaya initiate a phase of a more credible public audit?

The performance audit covering the period from 2010-11 to 2014-15 was conducted between July and August 2015. During the course of this performance review auditors carried out scrutiny of records pertaining to the office of the Chief Engineer, PHED and 9 out of 21 divisions belonging to 6 out of 11 districts. Audits selected for detailed check were 28 Water Supply Schemes (WSS) out of 85 in these 9 division whose expenditure was more than Rs. 1 crore.

Before initiating the performance review an entry conference was held on 10th June 2015, where CAG auditors explained the audit objectives, scope, criteria and methodology to representatives of the state government and PHED. Audit findings were discussed with the Chief Engineer, PHED and officers from Finance Department in an exit conference held on 27th November 2015. Replies of the government on audit findings was received on 6thJanuary 2016 and they have been incorporated in the final audit report.

Defective Planning: As per the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MoDWS) guidelines, Village Water Security Plans (VWSPs) were to be prepared, which were to include the demographic and physical features, water sources, and other details of the village, and also indicate details of management, operation and maintenance of the system and sources. Preparation of such VWSPs were to be used as inputs in preparing District Water Security Plans (DWSPs). Auditors found that none of the nine selected divisions could furnish any VWSPs to audit. Further, none of the six selected districts prepared any DWSP during 2010-15. Thus, the objective of having participatory planning and implementation of integrated water resources management practices was not achieved and PHED continued to implement various WSS without ascertaining the needs of the villages.

Similarly, as per MODWS guidelines, convergence with programs such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), Integrated Water Management Projects (IWMP), National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) and Irrigation Schemes should be ensured. It was seen during the audit that there was no convergence in any of the test checked divisions for the period covered by the audit.

Auditors also noticed that there was a shortfall ranging from 4 to 50 percent in achieving the targets fixed by Government of India (GoI) for coverage of habitation from Partially Covered (PC) to Fully Covered (FC) during 2010-’11 to 2013-’14. In addition to shortfall in targets, the audit also observed that the slipback from FC to PC status ranged between 147 and 3592 habitation during the years 2010-15. Thus, despite the yearly increase of the FC habitations, the achievements were offset by the number of ‘slipback’ habitations. Auditors asked PHED to furnish the reasons for such ‘slipback’ in July 2015 to no avail.

Meghalaya WSS 2

Old schemes incomplete, new sanctioned: As per the MoDWS guidelines, completion of incomplete works was to be given priority over sanctioning new works. However, auditors observed that 3001 new WSS were sanctioned, despite there being a large number of incomplete WSS, at the end of every year during the period (2010-11 to 2014-15). It was seen that despite there being 1778 incomplete WSS as on April 2010, 3001 new WSS were sanctioned during 2010-2015 period, resulting in 2559 WSS remaining incomplete at the end of the year 2014-15. In reply to this audit observation, a strange explanation was offered by PHED that out of these 2559 incomplete WSS, 2101 WSS had been ‘physically completed’ but were ‘financially incomplete and ongoing’ on account of funds constraint. CAG audit observed after taking this reply on record that “No records were, however, submitted in support of this contention”. What is also strange is that audit scrutiny of fund flow and expenditure suggested that despite spending 99 percent of funds received (Rs. 1031.19 crore), 83 percent of the WSS remained incomplete as of March 2015!

Unacceptable reasons: Auditors came across persistent delays in completion of schemes across all nine divisions. None of the WSS were completed within the prescribed time. 19 WSS estimated at Rs. 740 crore and targeted to cover 378 habitations were incomplete as of March 2015 even though time overruns on these ranged between one to seven years and expenditure of Rs. 228.50 crore had been incurred. The balance nine WSS were completed after a delay of one to eleven years.

Replying to audit findings about delays in completion, different executive engineers put forth different arguments. The reasons cited were late/ non-receipt of the pipes, delay in obtaining land, limited working season/ rainfall zone, fund constraints, delay in obtaining forest clearance, change in alignment and construction of PWD road, delay in obtaining trade licence and delay in laying of pipes. Audit found almost all of these reasons advanced by PHED officials as unacceptable.

With respect to four WSS that had experienced delays ranging from 3 to 11 years, concerned Executive Engineers blamed late/non-receipt of the pipes for delay. Audit, however, noticed that Ductile Iron (DI) and Galvanised Iron (GI) pipes worth Rs 67.37 crore were lying idle in three divisions, exposing the department’s complete failure in correctly assessing and scheduling the procurement of pipes and inventory management.

Performance of PHE Electrical Division, Jowai which was created in March 2006 came under scathing criticism in its performance review. Audit observed that since inception, this division had undertaken implementation of 24 WSS, of which 17 were planned by the division and remaining seven were ongoing schemes that were transferred to it. All these schemes were to be completed between March 2005 and March 2015. Audit scrutiny noticed that the division could complete only one scheme (Mynso WSS) and that too after a delay of four years. Audit brought to the attention a glaring fact that the remaining 23 schemes estimated to cost Rs 315.98 crore were incomplete as on 31st March 2015, even after incurring expenditure of Rs 166.45 crore.

Meghalaya WSS 3

Clear signs of corruption: The audit also noticed that pipes were procured without ascertaining the immediate requirement which led to idle investment of Rs 67.37 crore. Auditors found cases of old pipes being used in new scheme, thereby compromising the design period of the WSS. In the case of Augmentation of Bodamgiri WSS, the audit noticed that 7646 running metres were covered with old, rusted and unserviceable pipes which were first used for the old schemes 30 years back! Similarly, the audit noticed that 1345.87 Rm of MS pipes used in Augmentation of Tura Phase I and II WSS were transferred from Tura Phase III WSS and were procured during January 2004. Thus, pipes which had already lost their shelf life were being utilized.

An earlier audit report for the year ended March 31, 2007 had mentioned about the doubtful laying of Mild Steel (MS) pipes in the ongoing Quality improvement of Rongsaigre WSS. On further examination of the work on this scheme, the audit noticed that 11990 Rm of MS pipes (250 mm diameter) and 14890 Rm of GI pipes (150 mm diametre) were required for gravity main and distribution systems and these were procured between August 2003 and August 2004. However, these MS pipes were shown as laid between May 2009 and March 2010 and GI pipes were shown as laid between December 2013 and March 2015. This claim of having used pipes procured more than 6 and 10 years ago and fudging the records that appeared doubtful during earlier audits point at lackadaisical attitude towards the task of internal control and inventory management. The audit had come across such cases of surplus pipes being put to use on other WSS in the case of 24 WSS and remarked that “the usage of old pipes was not only fraught with risk of disrupting the supply of safe drinking water but was likely to result in additional expenditure on repair and maintenance.

Similarly, in the case of Lyngkyrdem Combined WSS, this earlier audit report had pointed out wasteful expenditure of Rs 67.38 lakh and idle investment of Rs 77.81 lakh due to change of water source. On further scrutiny of this work, audit found that 4845.42 Rm of Ms pipes (150 mm diameter) worth Rs 57.72 lakhs procured in November 2004 were transferred in July 2008 to Nongskhen Combined WSS. The pipes however, could not be utilised till March 2015 as the village headman protested against usage of old pipes. Audit points out that such whimsical decision making by PHED would lead to deterioration and eventually wastage of government money.

Audit came across cases of undue financial favour to suppliers by way of granting time extension to supply material, wrong reporting (which is presented in the audit report with photographic evidence) and undue benefit to contractors in granting mobilization advances (which is also presented with photographic evidence from the site showing neither any machinery nor any manpower).

Inattention to Monitoring and Evaluation What auditors found during joint inspection and field visits must have led them to doubt whether PHED was paying any close attention to monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. On a scrutiny of records, auditors found that norms for inspection of WSS by department officers were absent. When asked about the frequency of the inspection records, department failed to furnish any such details and a lackadaisical reply was advanced by PHED stating that “inspections were carried out as and when necessary”. Auditors then focused their attention to examine whether PHED was complying with MoDWS guidelines. As per MoDWS guidelines, the State Level Scheme Sanctioning Committee (SLSSC) should hold meetings at least twice in a year, wherein apart from sanctioning new schemes, progress, completion and commissioning of the schemes approved earlier by the Committee should be reviewed. Audit reports that PHED failed to furnish any records including minutes of the meetings held by SLSSC despite reminders in July and September 2015! In a shameless manner, PHED fielded a reply in January 2016 to this audit finding arguing that six meeting were held during 2010-15! MoDWS guidelines stipulates that all states should set up a Water and Sanitation Support Organisation (WSSO), whose main function would be to take up evaluation studies, impact assessment studies, R&D activities and share the findings with PHED for corrective action. Audit reports that the department failed to furnish any information regarding setting up of WSSO and evaluation studies conducted by it despite reminders on 7th and 22nd September 2015.

The audit found that Meghalaya had designed WSS to supply 40 litre per capita per day (lpcd). This shows that the state had made no efforts so far to comply with Strategic Plan prepared by union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, which asked states to ensure that every rural person has safe drinking water of 70 lpcd throughout the year and set the minimum target for rural households having piped water supply household connections at 35 percent by 2017 and 80 percent by 2022. Audit scrutiny revealed that in none of the nine divisions, were any targets set to achieve the above objective. Moreover, none of the nine divisions could furnish (during July-August 2015) the actual number of rural households covered with household piped water connection. During the survey of 20 rural habitations carried out by the audit during July-August 2015, none of the households had any piped water connection. Replying to this audit finding, PHED stated that efforts had been made to give household piped water connections to rural areas and as of 6thJanuary 2016, 2863 rural households had been provided with connections.

It would have added an interesting angle if CAG auditors would have decided to act as citizens and file Right to Information requests to PIO of PHED and in the event of not getting the minutes of those six meetings, pursue the case further by going for the first and second appeal! The photographs presented in the audit report also makes us appreciate dedication of these auditors in bringing out cases of undue favour granted to contractors in an incontrovertible manner and one would wish that citizens groups in Meghalaya follows those cases with legal actions and public hearings.


Reproduced from SANDRP – South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People



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One Comment

  1. February 22, 2017

    If his technocratic track record is anything to go by then the electorate of Mawphlang are in for an interesting performance.

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