An early photo of the PWD office, Madras
An early photo of the PWD office, Madras

The first half of May was not as hot as it threatened to be when it came to the weather. But as far as the Public Works Department of our State was concerned, a considerable amount of heat and dust was generated. This had to do with the contractors who regularly bid for the PWD’s work threatening to release a list of the ‘most corrupt engineers’ of the Department. The issue has since blown over to an extent, but it has lifted the cover off a deep malaise that everyone knew existed but refused to acknowledge so far.

The modus operandi of the Tamil Nadu Public Works Department Contractors (Engineering) Association in bringing to light this problem had all the trappings of modern day protests. First came a flex banner outside the Chepauk premises of the PWD that said that the list of names of ten ‘most corrupt engineers’ of the Department would soon be released. A couple of days later, the list was put up at the same spot and this was soon removed by the Police, an alacrity that they do not usually show when it comes to dismantling banners of other kinds. The list was, however, soon put up on social media and went viral. Representatives of the Association then met senior officials of the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption and handed over the names. The matter is said to be under investigation.

What ought to be a fight against corruption subsequently descended into bathos. Questioned as to what prompted this drastic action, the Association claimed that it was quite fed up with the evil ways of the Department’s engineers. It transpires that everyone was quite happy with a commission of six per cent that was the norm for all contracts. But a sudden hike in the money demanded made the contractors see red. They also felt that the PWD, when faced with the contractors’ refusal to pay up, had begun breaking up the contracts into small segments that did not have to go through the tendering process. These could be awarded to contractors who would be willing to oblige the Department officials.

The social media release also carried what purported to be an audio recording of an engineer of the PWD speaking to a contractor. In it he admonishes the latter for his lack of ethics in not answering phone calls which, as we all know, is something that all Government departments are experts at. In addition, the caller practically beseeches the contractor to pay up failing which his superiors would harass the caller.

The Association of Engineers and Assistant Engineers of the PWD has roundly condemned all this, and the release of names. This body is of the view that the names could be made public only after an enquiry establishes beyond doubt the complicity of the officials concerned. Meanwhile, schisms have appeared in the Contractors’ Association, a section of which has given the named engineers a clean chit and claimed that there is no such malpractice in the PWD.

There matters rest for the nonce. It is up to the State Government to look into the matter and clear it all up if it is serious about fighting corruption. If there is a political will, even the six per cent that has become standard practice ought to be done away with. But there are good reasons to doubt if such a clean-up will take place. It is not so long ago that a Joint Commissioner of the Corporation of Chennai was transferred when he tried to break the monopoly of cartels and questioned their business practices. That ended all further investigation in the civic body. Will the PWD go the same way? It would be a pity if it did.

This article appeared in Madras Musings dated 1st June 2015