PHED’s own building at Hengrabari in Guwahati, which has around 38,000 sq ft floor area and around 8,000 sq ft parking space.

Ajit Patowary

In a strange development, the State Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) has been shifting its offices to rented accommodations in Guwahati spending lakhs of rupees monthly from the public exchequer, despite having its own multistorey office building at Hengrabari in the city, with a floor area of around 38,000 sq ft and a parking space of around 8,000 sq ft.

Recently, an effort was also made to provide this building an annexe with a floor area of around 25,000 sq ft, having a parking space of around 5,000 sq ft.

According to knowledgeable circles, a powerful coterie in the State government is behind the latest move to shift the department’s Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) directorate to the fifth floor of the Assam Water Centre, popularly known as the FREMA building, near Beltola-Basistha Chariali on the NH-37, taking an area of 9,800 sq ft of the building on lease against a monthly rent of Rs 5,00,000. An advance of Rs 50,00,000 has already been paid for this accommodation.

In July 2019, the Union government had restructured and subsumed the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) into JJM to provide FHTC to each of the rural families by 2024, with a minimum water supply service standard of 55 litres per capita per day (LPCD).

This Mission is launched with the broad objectives like prioritisation of the FHTCs in quality affected areas, villages in drought-prone and desert areas, etc. It has proposed technological interventions for removal of contaminants where water quality is an issue, as one of its main tasks.

Rattan Lal Kataria, Union Minister of State for Jal Shakti, told the Lok Sabha sometime back that the groundwater in 1,247 habitations in 12 districts of Assam contains excess arsenic, while 12 habitations in four districts are affected by the presence of excess fluoride in their groundwater. Allocation of funds to Assam under JJM has been enhanced to Rs 1,407.07 crore in 2020-21 from Rs 694.34 crore in 2019-20, the Minister said.

Earlier, the department had shifted its sanitation wing to another rented accommodation on the GS Road near the Down Town Hospital. It has been paying a monthly rent of Rs 3,50,000 for this accommodation. For the maintenance of this accommodation, the department is to pay an amount of Rs 50,000 per month. The sanitation wing of the department is implementing the Swachh Bharat Mission, Grameen (SBM-G), another Union government scheme, as its Mission Directorate.

Sources allege that all these rented accommodations would be used to conceal the corrupt practice of wealth accumulation by the coterie members in the name of JJM implementation. The coterie is so frenetic in shifting the JJM office that even the Chief Minister’s forbiddance failed to discourage it. It is taking full advantage of the political vacuum caused by the Assembly election process, the sources allege.

The coterie is insisting on hasty shifting of the workplaces of all the higher technical officers, including the Chief Engineer of the department, to the FREMA building. This move is going to severely affect the PHED operations. The coterie is ignoring the operational guidelines as well for JJM implementation, which has made the PHED “the line/nodal department” for JJM implementation in the State.