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Karnataka: Stench of corruption in contractor's suicide

Print edition : May 06, 2022 T+T-
Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Minister K.S. Eshwarappa (right) handing over his resignation letter to Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai after he was named as the first accused in the suicide case of contractor and BJP worker Santosh K. Patil, in Bengaluru on April 15.

Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Minister K.S. Eshwarappa (right) handing over his resignation letter to Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai after he was named as the first accused in the suicide case of contractor and BJP worker Santosh K. Patil, in Bengaluru on April 15.

Karnataka Pradesh Congress president D.K. Shivakumar, Congress Legislature Party leader Siddaramaiah and other party leaders staging a protest on the steps of Vidhana Soudha against Eshwarappa.

Karnataka Pradesh Congress president D.K. Shivakumar, Congress Legislature Party leader Siddaramaiah and other party leaders staging a protest on the steps of Vidhana Soudha against Eshwarappa.

A civil works contractor’s suicide after accusing a Minister of demanding commissions has lifted the lid on the serious charges of corruption against the State government.

A FEW weeks before his death on April 12, Santosh K. Patil, a 36-year-old civil works contractor from Hindalga in Belagavi district in north Karnataka, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Giriraj Singh. In the letter, Santosh Patil alleged that K.S. Eshwarappa, Karnataka’s Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, and his associates had demanded a “commission” to clear bills due to him that had been pending for more than a year. Santosh Patil, the letter stated, had met Eshwarappa on February 12, 2021, and sought funds to complete road works in the Hindalga gram panchayat’s jurisdiction ahead of a temple fair. The Minister, who is also one of the most senior Ministers in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) State unit, asked Santosh Patil to begin work and assured him that he would issue a work order (W.O.) later.

In the letter, Santosh Patil said, “We believe his [Eshwarappa’s] thought and we completed more than 108 work cost of estimate 4 crore. More than one year has been passed. But still today we have not received any work order nor single rupees from him or from the concern authorities” (sic). (In statements to the media, Hindalga gram panchayat president, who is a BJP member, corroborated Patil’s account that the work had been completed.) Patil stated in the letter that he was “suffering [from a] financial crisis” and that he was in great tension and under tremendous pressure from creditors who had lent him money on interest.

Had the State or Union governments taken the following sentence in the letter seriously, it could have prevented the young man’s death: “If the payment and work order not given me on immediate basis then unwillingly I do not have any option for myself except suicide” (sic). Patil signed off the letter by stating his organisational affiliation and designation: national secretary of the Hindu Yuva Vahini.

‘40 per cent commission’

Speaking to a Kannada news channel in Delhi on March 9, Santosh Patil alleged that Eshwarappa’s associates had demanded a 40 per cent commission for clearing the bills due to him. “I have reached a situation where there is no option left for me but to die. As a member of the Hindu Yuva Vahini [a right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation], if my situation is like this with the BJP in power, imagine the plight of other contractors. I am reaching out to the media as a last resort as even Sangh Parivar leaders are not helping me. I have paid a bribe of close to Rs.15 lakh until now to Eshwarappa’s associates,” said Santosh Patil, while displaying a sheaf of photographs showing the road works he had completed in Hindalga.

Santosh Patil was in Delhi on March 9 to apprise senior BJP leaders, including Arun Singh, the party’s national general secretary in charge of Karnataka, on how he had been “cheated”. According to Santosh Patil, he had also reached out to Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai. Throughout March, in interviews he gave several Kannada news channels he reiterated that he would be forced to die by consuming poison if his bills were not cleared.

Also read: Contractor who accused Karnataka Minister of Rural Development K.S. Eshwarappa of demanding 40 per cent commission found dead

It became clear that Santosh Patil’s threat about dying by suicide was not mere bluster when a manhunt was launched by the Belagavi district police on April 12 after he went missing. The provocation for the hunt was a WhatsApp message Santosh Patil had sent to his friends and mediapersons in Karnataka late on April 11. In this short and terse message in Kannada, Santosh Patil stated, “RDPR Minister K.S. Eshwarappa is directly responsible for my death. He should get the punishment that he deserves for this. I have set aside all my desires and decided to take this extreme step. I request with folded hands that the government, meaning the Prime Minister and honourable Chief Minister and our senior Lingayat leader B.S. Yediyurappa, should extend all help to my wife and child without considering them as strangers. My grateful thanks to my media friends.”

Santosh Patil’s phone was traced to Udupi in coastal Karnataka later that day where the local police discovered his body in a hotel. In a statement a day later, the police confirmed that Santosh Patil had died by suicide by consuming poison. Family members of Santosh Patil held Eshwarappa directly responsible for his death.

Opposition’s demand

Santosh Patil’s death sparked outrage in Karnataka as it lifted the lid on the serious charges of corruption against the State government. Opposition politicians belonging to the Congress demanded that Eshwarappa be expelled from the Cabinet and arrested as he had been named as the first accused in the first information report (FIR) for abetting suicide (Indian Penal Code Section 306 read with Section 34). Eshwarappa refused to resign immediately and tried to brazen it out by claiming that he never knew Santosh Patil and that he had filed a defamation case against him in March. This despite photographs showing Santosh Patil meeting the Minister shared on social media.

“I suspect Patil might have taken the extreme step out of fear,” said Eshwarappa, referring to his defamation case. Eshwarappa also stated that no W.O. had been issued from his department in Santosh Patil’s favour. “How can we make payment for works that were not approved?” Eshwarappa asked while defending himself.

Responding to this, Brijesh Kalappa, Congress spokesperson, said, “Having been part of the government, I know that 90 per cent of civil works commence without a W.O. If work has to begin only after the issuance of a W.O., 50 per cent of the contractors will commit suicide.”

Contractors’ allegations

Santosh Patil’s allegation of graft against Eshwarappa is not the first time a contractor has accused members of the BJP government of unscrupulous dealings. In an unprecedented press conference in November last year, D. Kempanna, president of the Karnataka State Contractors’ Association (KSCA), accused the State government departments of demanding 30 per cent cut in the cost of tenders awarded in addition to 5 per cent to 7 per cent to clear the bills. “We are facing harassment from Ministers, elected representatives, officials and others, starting from the junior engineer to the Minister,” Kempanna said at the time while informing mediapersons that he had written to the Prime Minister, Chief Minister and other senior leaders apprising them of massive corruption in Karnataka. It is a widely accepted fact that some percentage of commission has to be paid for securing contracts, but with the KSCA going public with its accusations, it showed that the ‘demands’ had become too much.

Reiterating his claims on April 13 in Bengaluru, a day after Santosh Patil’s death, Kempanna said that his death proved the allegations of the KSCA to be true. He said: “There is no limit on the corruption and commissions being sought in various important departments of the government. The State government is directly responsible for Santosh Patil’s death as we had made the Chief Minister aware of the massive corruption in awarding contracts. When he spoke to me two weeks ago, Santosh Patil had made me aware of how rowdies sent by politicians were threatening him. Even now, more than Rs.25,000 crore is pending to contractors all over the State and if we give 40 per cent as commission, how can anyone expect us to do quality work?”

Also read: Judicial letdown

He went on to say that the current Karnataka government was “the most corrupt government”. He specifically marked out the departments of Health and Family Welfare, Irrigation, Public Works, Rural Development and Panchayati Raj and the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) as being “the most corrupt”.

Singling out Health Minister K. Sudhakar, Kempanna said that he “would not approve a tender if 5 per cent of the project cost was not paid as bribe in advance”. Kempanna also stated that most projects were approved orally with a W.O. issued only later, thus giving credence to Santosh Patil’s claim that he had commenced the road works in Hindalga after getting Eshwarappa’s nod.

K.T. Manjunath, president, BBMP Contractors’ Association, made similar allegations of corruption, adding that a commission needed to be paid at different stages of the tender awarding process: “15 per cent must be given when the contract is given. When the bills are submitted, a further 10-12 per cent commission, and finally, when the payment is made, another 10 per cent bribe needs to be paid.”

Eshwarappa’s resignation

Eshwarappa, who initially remained defiant and refused to step down, submitted his resignation on April 15 after pressure from the BJP high command. When Eshwarappa stubbornly refused to resign, he had forgotten his own demand from five years ago. In 2016, M.K. Ganapathy Bhat, a Deputy Superintendent of Police, died by suicide after naming K.J. George, the then Congress Home Minister of Karnataka, for his death. Speaking in the Legislative Assembly at the time, Eshwarappa insisted on George’s resignation on the grounds that his continued occupation of a ministerial post would impede an impartial investigation into Ganapathy’s death. George resigned and was reinstated after a few months on being given a clean chit.

Santosh Patil’s death has opened a can of worms in Karnataka’s political circles, drawing attention away from a series of Islamophobic incidents in the State. This has led political observers to speculate that the BJP was continuously keeping the communal pot simmering to divert attention from the serious allegations of corruption against the government. Eshwarappa himself, who is a Member of the Legislative Assembly from Shivamogga Urban, has been at the forefront of the communal campaigns in the State. During the hijab controversy early this year, he infamously stated that the saffron flag could replace the national flag at some point in the future. Eshwarappa was also criticised for blaming “Muslim” goondas for the murder of Bajrang Dal activist ‘Hindu’ Harsha in Shivamogga.

Also read: Theatre of the absurd

The charges of corruption against the BJP government by the KSCA and the death of Santosh Patil have come in handy for the Congress, which spearheaded the demand for Eshwarappa’s resignation. The party in the State had been ineffectual in countering the narrative of communal polarisation set by the BJP over the past few months, but it seems to be more eager to challenge the saffron party on the issue of corruption.

In statements to the media, Bommai promised that there would be “no interference” in the investigation into Santosh Patil’s death, but the suicide and the allegations by the KSCA against BJP Ministers have ensured that there is a stench of corruption now pervading the corridors of the Vidhana Soudha that will not go away merely with Eshwarappa’s resignation.

When Prime Minister Modi came to campaign in Karnataka before the 2018 Assembly elections, he accused the then Congress government of being a “10 per cent government”. But with Assembly elections a year away, the BJP will have a tough task to rid itself of the tag of being the “40 per cent commission sarkara [government]”.