Bengaluru’s Development Minister KJ George announced on November 10, 2017, that global tenders had been issued for the installation of pod taxis in the city, which would be done under the public-private partnership model.
Curiously enough, two months (January 10, 2018) later, the BBMP has received a single bid for the project by a company owned by Minister George’s business associate.
The consortium of companies bidding for the project includes Embassy Property Developments Private Limited. Minister KJ George is a director at Embassy Golf Links, a subsidiary of Embassy Property Developments. His wife is a full-time director.
Documents accessed by TNM from the MInistry of Corporate Affairs, show that Minister George also owns 33% of Embassy Golf Links till the end of financial year 2015-16.
This involvement raises serious questions of a potential conflict of interest on the part of Minister George.
Reacting to this allegation, Embassy Group chairman and managing director Jitu Virwani said, "Mr George being a partner has become a liability to the firm even when they are trying to help the city." Speaking to Times of India, KJ George said that he agrees with Virwani's views.
Later, speaking with news agency ANI, Minister George claimed there is nothing wrong in the process.
“Some firm approached me to get this pod. There is no investment for this from BBMP or state govt. I directed them to BBMP commissioner who sent proposal to verify things and called for a tender. Nothing wrong in it. I have nothing to do with Embassy group,” he told ANI.
Since there is a single bid, according to state law, the bid has to be cancelled and now the BBMP has to re-issue tenders.
“When there is a single bidder for a project, Section 4 of Karnataka Transparency in Public Procurements Act dictates that it has to be sent for re-bidding. If for the second time also, there is a single bidder, the project can go on,” Ashwin Mahesh, former NASA scientist, and urban expert told TNM. The only exception to the rule is if the bidder is a government body.
But he is essentially of the opinion that opposing the project on the issue of a single bidder or Minister George’s potential conflict of interest, is secondary.
“If the bid is re-issued and there is again the same result or a different company, then it will see that there is nothing wrong with the project. But I think this is an unnecessary project which will not add any value for transport and it should not be done. With this money, you can build good footpaths all around the city or buy buses or even expand the metro,” he added.
He called for a mass opposition to the project, on the scale of anti-steel flyover protests.
“I would rather seek better governance framework and policy environment where good decisions are taken. There is an increased focus on infrastructure and insufficient focus on mobility,” he further added.
Another urban mobility expert Sanjeev Dymanavar is also opposed to the project citing its cost-ineffectiveness.
“The government is not focussing on the mass urban transport. The BMTC is not able to procure buses on time as the government is not giving them funds.The basic amenities of public transport, the ability to walk on footpaths is not there in the city. These are the priority. If a private party is doing it (pod taxis), then it’s fine but here the government is providing so much concession,” he said.
“There is also lack of transparency, which suggests that the government is favouring the private company more than the people. If there is a politician involved with the company, the government should make it clear. If the government is keeping quiet, it raises suspicion,” he added.
The cost for building the pod taxi project was pegged at Rs 50 crore for every kilometre. The cost of Phase-1 of Bengaluru's Namma Metro was Rs 340 crore per kilometre. While the metro can transport thousands of people at the same time, pod taxis can only carry six to seven people in one trip.
BJP asks questions
The opposition BJP has attacked the Congress for going ahead with the project just before the elections.
“What is the hurry in pushing this proposal during election time when we know this government can do no more than sign the deal? Are pod taxis the vehicle for election fund for the Congress?” asked BJP spokesperson Malavika Avinash.
“The BJP is not opposed to pod taxis in principle. But aren’t there more pressing issues like pothole-ridden roads to be fixed before we venture into a lofty futuristic project?” she asked.
Malavika also alleged that there was “corruption” on BBMP's part.
“For the minister’s associate company to be the sole bidder, smacks of corruption and is a clear case of conflict of interest,” she said.
Speaking to TNM, Bengaluru Mayor Sampath Raj said that he was not aware of the specifics about the tendering process as he was abroad, but assured that all tender clauses will be followed.