Contractors working on government projects, including those who identify as supporters of the BJP, are on a warpath against the Karnataka government. For several months now, the Karnataka State Contractors Association has been alleging that ministers, MLAs and officials have been asking for 40% of a project’s cost as bribe after BJP came to power in 2019.
The Association, which has over one lakh members from across Karnataka districts, has shot off yet another letter to Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai on March 22 seeking his intervention. But despite multiple complaints made even to the Prime Minister and Governor Thaawar Chand Gehlot over the last year, the contractors allege that no one is willing to change the system.The latest allegation comes from a BJP member, Santhosh Patil, who has accused senior minister Eshwarappa of asking for a bribe worth 40% of the total cost of a road project to give it clearance.
While Santhosh Patil’s allegation is against the minister and officials in the Rural Development and Panchayat Raj (RDPR), the contractors’ association alleges that the practice of having to pay 40% of a project cost as bribe now extends to all departments under the Karnataka government.
Karnataka State Contractors Association’s president Kempanna says that the contractors had to give 2% bribe to local contractors many decades ago. “It stayed that way for a long time. Then during the Congress’s tenure between 2018-19, a minister’s department used to take 10% of the total tender cost,” Kempanna alleges. He has been working on government tenders for over two decades.
“We were very upset with the Congress. During the Assembly election campaign, PM Modi called the then government the ‘10% government’. All of us, en masse, voted for BJP hoping that things will get better. We had immense hopes. But things have only become worse for us,” he adds.
The Association had written to PM Modi in November 2021 after their previous letters to leaders in the state received no response. But much to their disappointment, they got no reply from the PM’s Office either. “There has been no change even after we wrote to Modi,” Kempanna says.
The contractors say that the bribes are referred to as “commission” or “commission rates” by officials and ministers. Kempanna alleges, “The commission rate shot up to 40% when the BJP came to power in 2019 in Karnataka. Ten percent of this bribe goes to the local MLA. Officials in the local bodies have to be given 5-7%. We have to pay another 5% to get our papers processed. The engineers overseeing the project have to be given 10%. Under this government, most times, the bribe becomes 45% of the project cost,” Kempanna explains.
The Karnataka State Contractors Association wrote three letters to Yediyurappa when he was the Chief Minister, asking him for time to meet them. “He did not respond even once. We met the Karnataka Governor around six months ago, he said he will refer our complaint to the state government. But no action has been taken since,” Kempanna states.
The contractors also allege that cumulatively, the state government is yet to release payments worth Rs 22,000 crore. The pending dues are from all departments of Karnataka government but the contractors say that as of November 2021, Rs 10,000 crore is owed by just three departments: Public Works (PWD), Irrigation, and the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP).
One of the contractors who is yet to receive the final installment of his payment from the BBMP is Chikka Thayanna*, who worked with the department for a white topping project. He alleges that despite having already paid close to 28% of the project’s worth as bribes to various people in the government system, officials in the BBMP are asking for more to release the final payment. “Around 40% of our cost is raw material and transport. We end up paying around 20% in various taxes and over this, if we have to pay 40% as bribes, how can we sustain?” he asks. TNM has seen WhatsApp messages purportedly from BBMP officials to Chikka Thayanna, where the officials are saying that till they receive “what they are owed”, they cannot have Thayanna’s files “pushed”. The messages say that the amount being asked for is not just for BBMP officials but also for “senior officers who have to be motivated to take interest in an old file.”
The contractors say that they have even resorted to public shaming the government with the hope that officials will understand their plight. In several districts across the state, the Association members have held public meetings and explained why certain projects are not completed and the public is being inconvenienced as a result.
“People keep complaining about how bad the roads in Bengaluru are and often blame the contractors for doing a shoddy job or of stopping the work in between. But we cannot shoulder the blame completely,” says Sandanappa, proprietor of a construction company that routinely undertakes contracts for road works in the Shantinagar area of Bengaluru.
Many roads in Bengaluru’s Central Business District fall under the Shantinagar Assembly constituency. Sandanappa alleges that BBMP officials stall payments by three to six months on a regular basis if bribes are not paid. “By the time we start work, we would have paid around 14% of the total project worth as commission. The project gets stalled each time when a new officer takes charge and asks for bribes to be given to him as well. We are unable to sustain at these rates and are often forced to stop work midway,” he adds.
“The Health Department has called for tenders worth Rs 2,000 crore. We were told that if 10% is not paid upfront, then even if our tender cost is the lowest and we meet all the requirements, the bid will not be accepted. There are agents who work for ministers and collect bribes on their behalf. And till the amount is paid, they either refuse to process our tender papers or send them back with so-called queries. As soon as the bribe is paid, the pace picks up immediately,” alleges Chandan Reddy*, narrating his experience. His company takes sub-contracts for building government labs.
Meanwhile, Santhosh, a BJP worker and secretary of an organisation called Hindu Vahini, has accused RDPR Minister Eshwarappa of asking for 40% bribe to issue a work order and release payment for a project Santhosh completed in 2019. Santhosh alleges he has met Eshwarappa several times and was told by the minister that he “is their man” so he can start work immediately for a road to be built in Hindalga in Belagavi district. “I did not wait for a work order because Eshwarappa said he is the minister and the final authority on this. So, I started the project. After that, the Model Code of Conduct came into effect because of bye-elections in the district due to which, they said, they couldn’t give me the work order then. But Eshwarappa told me to not worry and continue with the work,” Patil told TNM.
“Because of the pandemic and other political reasons, the process kept getting delayed. I finished the project in 2019 but have not received a single penny for it yet. I have borrowed money heavily for it and am being hounded by loan sharks now,” he adds.
Since this allegation was made public, Eshwarappa has denied the allegation and has said that he does not know Santhosh Patil at all, a claim vehemently refuted by the latter. Eshwarappa has sued Santhosh for defamation and officers from RDPR Department have, on record, said that there has been no work order issued so there is no question of not releasing payment.
“When Congress was in power, we usually did not get any contracts. Since the BJP formed the government, we thought we would get government contracts. Looks like our own people are duping us,” Patil says.
Contractors from the Association say they feel let down by the BJP but still hope that the dues will be paid. One contractor who did not want to be named said that if votes are the only way to send their message across, then they are not opposed to campaigning against the BJP in upcoming elections. “We do not really support any one party, we are not a homogenous group. The Association has people from all castes, religion and ideologies. But our business being blocked affects us all equally and that is most important to us. So, if the BJP came to power on the plank of eradicating corruption but has increased it, we will tell the people what is happening in this government,” he says.
Another contractor who works in Mandya concurs with these views. “For us, Kayakave Kailasa (work is worship). And if our work is getting impacted and our money is getting held up for years, how will we feed our families? If this continues, we may think of teaching the BJP a lesson through elections,” he says.
*Names changed on request