Thousands of people struggling to survive in the face of a natural calamity, while the bureaucrats relishing butter chicken, rasgulla and other delicacies few kilometres away at that point of time with unpardonable nonchalance.
That’s what happened during the 2013 flash floods in Kedarnath — a dark fact that has now been revealed from a reply to an RTI query filed by a Dehradun-based activist, Bhupendra Kumar.
While the rescue operations were controlled by the Army, the state government officers had no sense of urgency.
They whiled away their time in luxe hotels, all expenses paid. They were happy to play routine roles in the operations that aimed at saving the distressed souls.
The babus, however, were allegedly unperturbed.
Yet they later claimed hefty amounts for their time during the rescue operations.
These Uttarakhand bureaucrats stayed at hotel rooms that cost Rs 6,750 per day; the bill for their meals notched up to Rs 900.
In the end, the Rudraprayag district administration had to shell out Rs 25.19 lakh for the food and accommodation of these bureaucrats.
With the RTI reply revealing these facts, the Uttarakhand Information Commission has now recommended a CBI probe into the alleged misuse of funds during the disaster.
In fact, there’s a whiff of financial irregularity in this whole affair that prompted the probe recommendation.
In his final order, State Information Commissioner Anil Kumar Sharma wrote: “The State Information Commission is sending a request of the RTI applicant Bhupendra Kumar for a high level inquiry to the CM to kindly take note and ask for a CBI or independent inquiry into the matter.”
Uttarakhand CM Harish Rawat said, “I have asked Chief Secretary N. Ravi Shanker to conduct an inquiry into the matter.”
Kedarnath was badly hit by June 2013 flash floods.
Over 5,000 pilgrims died; the Indian Air Force, the Army and other forces began a massive rescue operation to save thousands of stranded pilgrims and tourists from Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.
During the rescue operations, the state government officers stayed at three hotels in Narayankoti, five kilometres from Guptkashi.
It was a preferred location for these officials as the helipad was nearby and once the rescue operations were over for the day, they moved into these high-end hotels.
For their lavish jaunt under the garb of being part of the rescue operations, these state government bureaucrats deposited the bills to the Rudraprayag district administration.
Activist Bhupendra Kumar obtained the copies of these bills by filing an RTI query.
Questions have been raised about the tariff that has been mentioned in the bills.
While the current tariff for the rooms at these hotels are around Rs 5,000 per day, the bills submitted by the bureaucrats show the amount paid was over Rs 6,700 per day, besides charges for the meals.
Questions have been asked whether the officers stayed in single rooms or double rooms — something that is not clear.
Moreover, in certain hotels the charges include the cost for daily meals.
Yet, the babus claimed Rs 900 per day for their food.
The RTI reply shows that one of the officers submitted a bill of Rs 194 for half-a-litre of milk.
In Chamoli, four cases were traced in which diesel bills were submitted for use of four wheelers.
Later, an investigation found that the vehicles, whose numbers were mentioned in the bill, were in fact petrol-run motorcycle and scooter.
A bill from Gopeshwar in Chamoli shows the government officers bought 1,800 pieces of raincoat per day, for three consecutive days, from a particular shop.
A private aviation company received Rs 98 lakh, in three days, for fuel.
It has been alleged that the aviation company was preferred over other companies that could have provided the services at a much lower cost.
Locals allege private copters were favoured for rescue ops
Questions have been raised over the use of private helicopters by the Uttarakhand government, for the rescue operations during the 2013 flash floods.
Locals alleged that the government gave undue favours to these companies, belonging to influential people, rather than utilising the Army and IAF helicopters.
The Army was conducting rescue operation on the ground and the rescued tourists were air-lifted to safer location through private choppers.
Though the Army and IAF choppers were also used in rescue and relief, their numbers were small compared to the private helicopters.
Lt-Gen Anil Chait, the then Army commander of the central command, used to constantly face query about the number of choppers required for the relief and rescue operations in Uttarakhand.
On this he was often heard saying, “We need as many choppers as we can get.”
Rather than exploiting links at the central government and using the expertise of the Army and IAF pilots, the Uttarakhand government gave more weightage to private chopper companies.
This gave rise to suspicion as the Army or IAF choppers would have definitely provided economical services.
When questioned on using more Army or IAF choppers, Uttarakhand bureaucrats often said and justified that the landing ground in Kedarnath is occupied and there is little scope for increasing number of Army or IAF helicopters.
The plan of removing private operators and completely using the Army/IAF chopper was never in the agenda of the Uttarakhand government.
Social activist C.P. Lakera said, “I filed an RTI with the state aviation department, to know the details of payment made to private companies during the 2013 disaster.
“But, the information was so technical and confusing that I failed to understand it and peruse further.”
Ironically, all evacuees showered praises on the Army and Indian Air Force but criticised the Uttarakhand government for poor management.
BJP demands CBI probe into alleged loot of relief money
With the state Information Commission finding irregularities in disbursal of funds meant for relief operations in Uttarakhand post the 2013 floods, Opposition BJP on Saturday demanded dissolution of the state government and sought a CBI probe into the alleged loot of aid money.
“Our stand has been vindicated by the findings of the Information Commission in response to an RTI query.
“We have all along been demanding a white paper and a CBI probe into distribution of relief material in the state in the wake of the tragedy,” Leader of Opposition in the state Assembly Ajay Bhatt said.
“We always smelt the rat the way the entire exercise was being carried out,” Bhatt said.
Alleging that the scam was committed by insensitive officials in connivance with government functionaries, Bhatt said huge amounts were received as assistance by the state from all over the world but no one knows where it went.
“We always said that money pouring in from different directions was being pocketed by people involved in distribution of relief but no one paid attention to us,” he added.
Uttarakhand BJP general secretary Naresh Bansal said, “We have constantly raised the issue of misuse of disaster aid and had demanded a CBI probe.
“The funds provided by the Central government, various state governments and social organisations were misused.
“The Uttarakhand government should issue a white paper on the matter.”
The party also demanded that the Uttarakhand government should hold the guilty officers answerable for submitting inflated or forged bills.
“A new scam has now come to light. While people were writhing in pain, there were some people who were making merry on government money.
“BJP demands a thorough inquiry into this and asks the (Uttarakhand) government to hold someone accountable,” BJP national spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain said.
“Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi had recently visited Kedarnath. Did he not see through such a big scam?,” Hussain alleged.