The Chandigarh civic body often organizes study tours or field trips for its councilors so that they can learn from best practices in other cities across the country. A citizen filed an RTI application in April last year to find out about the study tours conducted from 2006 to 2021. The MC responded on July 12 this year with details of tours undertaken only in 2010-2011. The Indian Express did a ground check to find out about the companies that had managed to get the contract for organizing these trips worth several lakhs and was taken aback to find several anomalies. In four cases, the two companies that organized these major trips never existed on the address to which the MC had sent all its communications.
Chandigarh resident Amit Sharma, in his RTI application, had sought details of the study tours undertaken by the councillors and staff along with cost, dates and reasons from 2006 to 2021. The Indian Express visited the addresses of the travel agencies chosen by the MC for four of their tours. A total of five tours, including a visit to view Parliament session, were undertaken during 2010-11 according to the details. Here is what we found on the ground.
PAYMENTS TO A GHOST ADDRESS
As per the documents, Shree Radhey Tours and Travels, which bagged two big study tours, namely, Kolkata-Gangtok (Oct 2-10, 2010) and Kerala (Oct 18-25, 2010), has given its branch office address as plot number 374, first floor, Industrial Area, Phase II, Chandigarh. The payment of Rs 16 lakh and Rs 13.8 lakh for these two tours and other letters were marked to this address. The Indian Express visited it and found Ess Ess Steel Engg and Fabricators, suppliers of hardware and electronic items. Sumit, the plot owner, told The Indian Express that he has been here for the last 44 years and there has never been any tour or travel company on the plot.
“I am here for the last 44 years. There has never been any such travel firm here. We have never given any part of our plot to any agency on rent, ”he said. When asked whether he had ever received any letters in the name of Radhey Tours and Travels, he said, “No, never… I have been here since childhood. There has never been any such tour and travel company in this entire lane. “
Surprisingly, two other firms, Kanwal Travels Limited and Alpha Tours and Travels,
Sector 17, which had also given quotations for these tours but did not get the contract still exist on the ground.
According to the records given by the MC, the then chief accounts officer sent a letter on the same address asking the company to make “the necessary arrangements” as his quotation dated October 7, 2010, had been found the lowest.
“It is certified that after comparison of the (rates, the) rate quoted by M / S Shree Radhey Tour and Travel Private Limited 374, first floor, phase II Industrial Area Chandigarh is lowest than any other firm. The total expenditure is Rs 13,81,600, ”the letter specified. Following this, the then Commissioner sanctioned the amount to the firm on October 13, 2010.
The same firm organized the study tour to Kolkata and Gangtok too. A letter dated October 1, 2010, by the then chief accounts officer, MC, to Radhey tours on the same address, reads, “You are requested to arrange the facilities as mentioned in your quotation with air fare, hospitality, transportation. Your payment Rs 16,07,791 as proposed by your firm has been approved and you are requested to collect your check. “
Although in one of the travel itineraries given by Shree Radhey Tours and Travels showed their head office in Ambala, the correspondence made by the MC, according to the documents with The Indian Express, was done on its Industrial Area office in Chandigarh.
A PHONE NUMBER
The Indian Express then made a call to a phone number given on the net. A person called Akhilesh answered the call. When asked about the company office in Chandigarh, he said, “We had an office long back but it was in IT Park.” When asked about any office in the Industrial Area, he said, “No, we never had any office in the Industrial Area. We had one in IT Park to cater to firms. “
When told about the two study tours and the Industrial Area address, he said, “Yes, we organized a study tour in 2010-2011… that time we did take an office in Industrial Area, Phase II.” When asked how long they were there, he said, “We were there for five-six years but we used to cater only to IT park firms.”
Asked specifically about the MC study tour, he said, “I was not handling the office at that time, a Chandigarh resident used to do it and she only gave the entire package.”
ROLE OF THE CARETAKER
Advance payments were made to a caretaker of the corporation, Ashwani Kumar who would further make payment to the companies. Told that the company did not exist on the address used by the MC, Ashwani said, “I joined the MC in 2019.” When informed about the sanction accorded to him for the payments, he said, “Yes, I was there for a year from 2010 to 2011.”
Asked about these firms, he said, “They may have changed their location now.” When told that they were never there as confirmed by existing plot occupants, and asked if he could share their present addresses, Ashwani promised to get back but had not done so till the filing of this report.
Another travel company by the name of Inter Continental Tours and Travels bagged two major study tours – Chennai-Pondicherry and Bangalore-Coimbatore – from May 21 to 30, 2011, for Rs 11.04 lakh and Rs 16.39 lakh, respectively.
This company seemed to have disappeared without leaving any trace. The Indian Express visited its address SCO 204, Sector 14, top floor, Panchkula, and found another company by the name of Dolphin Travels on the second floor apart from other agencies like Religare and educational academy.
A phone number given on the net has been switched off for the last one week. The website given on the documents submitted to the corporation said “the site cannot be reached”. An email sent on the email address written on the documents received no response.
A document with just Intercontinental Tours and Travels typed on it stated, “Received Rs 11,04,744 from Ashwani Kumar, caretaker MC Chandigarh, on account of arrangement of study tour of councilors, offices to Chennai and Pondicherry from June 4 to June 12, 2011 . ” There were just random signatures on it with no name or designation.
The documents reveal that the then Commissioner had also accorded sanction for the withdrawal of Rs 11,04,744 for making advance payment in favor of Ashwani
Kumar, caretaker, on account of this study tour to Chennai and Pondicherry.
The then chief accounts officer had written to this travel company on the same address asking them to make necessary arrangements for the Bangalore-Coimbatore trip as well.
The woman sitting at Dolphin Travels office said she had not heard of any such travel company here in the last two decades. An old board hanging outside the SCO mentioned Travellife Holidays in cabin number 3. When a call was made to the phone number given on the address, a person at the other end said it had closed down. He too had no knowledge of the firm called Inter Continental.
Get all firms investigated: Former mayor
Former councilor and two-time former mayor Subhash Chawla alleged this was an old trick. “I have told you … you will not find most firms there. There will be only one or two bona fide firms, others are mostly like this. This was the system… the firm that has to organize the tour would be finalized first with negotiations made by officers and then as a formality, the agency would be told to participate in the quotations. Even a committee was formed as a formality. Get all these firms investigated. “
He alleged that even during his term (2013-14), there was a ruckus in the House when a former councilor’s relative was found organizing the study tours, but the matter died down.