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Political Economy

In Silvassa, Modi Aide's Infra Gambit Follows a Familiar and Questionable Playbook

To understand UT administrator Praful Patel's strategy – and the processes shaping India’s urbanisation – Gujarat politics is one place to start.

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Silvassa: The news leaked late on the night of August 19 this year.

A slab had collapsed at the Namo Medical Education and Research Centre, a medical college and hostel being built at Silvassa by Praful Patel, administrator of the combined Union territory of Dadra & Nagar Haveli and Daman & Diu.

Word had taken time to trickle out. “The slab fell around three in the morning,” a local reporter told The Wire. “No one was told. And then, a local leader of the LJP (Lok Janashakti Party) went there and got a photo.”

By the next morning, pictures of the site were in wider circulation

It was a puzzling event. Barring strikingly bad design or construction, as a bureaucrat in the Union Territory administration told this reporter, slabs do not fall during construction. 

Making things odder yet, the slab had fallen in a UT whose administrator has a background in civil construction and, furthermore, is known for pushing projects. As an IAS officer in Diu had told The Wire in May, “The first thing he does on reaching a new place is to ask, ‘What are the pending construction projects?’”

A key aide of Narendra Modi when he was chief minister, Praful Patel was made Daman & Diu administrator when Modi became prime minister in 2014 and heads the joint UT. He was also placed in charge of Lakshadweep last year.

There were other aspects about the Silvassa collapse that were even odder. For a government project, the local Public Works Department did not have much of a role. The Namo Medical Education and Research Centre had been designed by none other than HCP Design, Planning and Management, the architectural firm owned by Bimal Patel, who has worked on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship architectural projects like the Sabarmati riverfront and the Vishwanath Dham redevelopment at Varanasi, and now the controversial redevelopment of the Central Vista in New Delhi.

Project construction was being monitored by Torsion Engineers & Consultants, an Ahmedabad-based firm. Construction had been entrusted to Shanti Construction, also headquartered in Ahmedabad. Both Shanti and Torsion had incorporated themselves into LLPs in the same year after winning their respective tenders. The first became Shanti Procon LLP on April 27, 2020. The second on November 5, 2020.

Why did the slab fall? 

The short structure whose slab fell stands at the centre of a warren of taller buildings.

It faces a sandstone-tiled office block, and is flanked by multi-storeyed hostel blocks. On September 10, when The Wire visited, the collapsed slab had been removed. The building itself stood shrouded in green cloth.

From the office block, the shrouded building whose slab fell.

It’s yet unclear why the slab fell. On September 10, two PWD officials visiting the site told The Wire an inquiry has been set up. Its results, said one of them, need not be made public. “Everybody doesn’t need to know what happened,” he said.

In the days that followed, The Wire asked the three companies involved as well. 

On September 27, Hirenbhai, Shanti Construction’s engineer at the site, told The Wire on the phone that “an inquiry is underway but the design might have been faulty.” 

On September 30, Mansukh Devani, the founder and managing director of Shanti Construction, also told this reporter the slab fell due to bad design. “We built the project as per specifications but the gap between the pillars was too long.”

At HCP Design, Bimal Patel disputed those statements. “Investigation is ongoing. At this stage, we can’t say what caused the collapse of the slab,” he wrote in an email to The Wire on October 25, but added: “The structural design was also vetted and approved by IIT Mumbai, an independent third party agency appointed by PWD (client).”

He added: “M/s Torsion are the third party inspection (TPI) agency appointed by PWD. They are responsible for quality assurance on site.”

On September 11, however, when this reporter met Dhruv Soni, a partner at Torsion Engineers and Consultants, at the firm’s office, he said Torsion’s work did not pertain to such aspects of construction. “We do not know why the slab fell. You should ask the architect.”

On September 30, The Wire sent questions to Praful Patel repeating Devani’s charges, and asking if that was the stance of the administration as well. There was no reply.

On December 11, this reporter contacted one of the two PWD officials he met on September 10. He did not respond. When Mansukh Devani was asked if the inquiry report was out, he replied saying: “Pata nahin (No idea).”

“There is no report out yet,” said a Silvassa-based activist. “Praful Patel doesn’t want anything to stain his reputation.”  

Why the cause matters

Even as these firms and the administrator stay quiet, it’s important to understand why the slab fell.

If it had fallen after classes had started there – the students are currently studying at Silvassa’s SSR college – innocent lives might have been lost. “What happened with the college is a shock,” said Abhinav Delkar, the son of former MP Mohan Delkar. “Those students are studying in our SSR college right now. They will have to shift to that building. There is a lot of fear and worry about safety right now.”

Also read: How Govt Land Meant for the Needy Found Its Way to Firm Linked to Assam CM’s Family

If the slab fell due to bad design, questions need to be asked about HCP’s competence to design the new  parliament building where the country’s elected representatives will convene. “How can HCP design a parliament when it cannot design a building where students are sitting,” asked the bureaucrat in the UT administration, requesting that he not be identified.

Alternatively, if poor construction resulted in the collapse, then the use of poor construction material or the administration’s decision to give the tender to an unprepared firm has to be the cause.

Either way, a serious and thorough-going enquiry is needed.

Why did the slab fall?

That night, cracks did not appear just in the slab.

For five years now, administrator Patel has ruled the merged UTs of Daman & Diu and Dadra & Nagar Haveli with an iron hand. 

Before his arrival, as The Wire has reported, the UTs were a crime-ridden space. Patel brought the local muscle under control but, instead of bringing in the rule of law, became its new satrap. He took over administrative powers given to elected bodies, axed government staff, stamped down on civil liberties and jailed critics. A former MP, Mohan Delkar, even committed suicide. His family blamed Patel alleging, among other charges, that the administrator wanted control over Delkar’s medical college. Last month, his widow, Kalaben Delkar, won the by-election on a Shiv Sena ticket, an indication of the trust the electorate had in her late husband.

In 2019, the Election Commission reprimanded Patel for interfering with the work of IAS officer Kannan Gopinathan in the run up to the general election. In interviews, Gopinathan, who has since quit the service, has painted an unflattering picture of the administrator.

Patel’s actions in the UTs have spawned a familiar split in public opinion. Some praise his authoritarianism. “A lot of good things are happening here. Local ganglords are gone.” said a medical officer at the government hospital in Marwad. “I have never seen any government move with such speed,” he said.

Others are more critical. Patel has also imposed his sensibilities on the local population. In Lakshadweep, he has tried to interfere with the menu of school meals. He also pushed civil construction projects, many of which have come in for criticism. Some were not needed. Others were awarded well above the tender rates – and subsequently missed their deadlines

Even the Namo Medical Education and Research Centre is running late. Commissioned in 2018, it was to start functioning from the academic year 2019-20 – well before COVID-19.

Most tenders, locals add, go to firms from Gujarat. “There is no local agency doing any of this work,” said a local reporter, on the condition of anonymity. “Be it a JCB or a tempo, everything comes from outside.” 

They also complain about unaccountability. RTI applications go unanswered, said Delkar. “There is no platform here where people can complain,” the reporter said. “The highest point is the administrator.” This is new. In the past, mid-level IAS officials were posted as administrators. “At the most, they were at the level of an additional secretary,” said the UT bureaucrat quoted above. “There was always a higher bureaucracy above them. Not so with Patel. He finds himself the unquestioned king of this area.”

As The Wire has reported, Patel is repeating these patterns at Lakshadweep. When challenged, he has defended his actions as developmentalist – and blamed all criticism on vested interests.  

By falling, the slab created a crack through which a deeper look at this claim can be taken.

The chronology of a capture

Before 2016, not only did Silvassa’s Public Works Department design and build structures, it had its own project cell to oversee project construction. Most of the tenders it posted were relatively small, limited by both the UT’s modest civil construction budget and small balance sheets of local contractors.

Not any more. After taking charge, Patel has pushed through three large changes at the PWD.

First, he brought his own people – like BC Warli and superintendent engineer HC Modi – to the local PWD. This was an odd thing to do. “If Patel was dissatisfied with the quality of officials at the local PWD department,” said the bureaucrat, “He should have asked for PWD officials from the Central Public Works Department. What he did instead was get officials from the Gujarat administration.” Warli, for instance, hails from the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation.

Local officials had to take orders from them. Two of them, S.S. Bhoya and Jignesh Patel, died by suicide. According to locals, Bhoya was under pressure from higher authorities over a Rs 200 crore PWD tender. 

Some of these officials have travelled with Patel to Lakshadweep as well.

Second, even as Patel pushed civil construction projects, he increased the size of those tenders. 

“Firms here can bid for projects of one, two or three crore rupees,” said a sand supplier in Silvassa on the condition of anonymity. “The projects bidded out now are much bigger.” The Centre supported Patel, giving grants for large projects like the Rs 189 crore Namo Medical Education and Research Centre. Projects began going to firms from outside.

Third, arguing that the PWD lacked the capacity to manage large projects, he took away all three functions – design, monitoring and construction – and gave them to private firms. As the bureaucrat told The Wire, private firms were “brought in as ‘professional’ – the only teams which can deliver in a short time.” 

This is not simply a question of the PWD tendering out each stage. A parallel system was created. The UT administration empaneled architectural consultants. “From these firms, the administration can choose an architect – without having to post a fresh tender – for each of its projects,” said the bureaucrat. 

EOI for empanelment of architect consultants by The Wire on Scribd

The architect, in line with industry practice, draws up the qualifying parameters for the building contractor. 

In came, too, the notion of the third party inspector (TPI). It monitors construction work. Between these three – architect, TPI and contractor – “the role of the PWD shrank to just clearing bills,” said the bureaucrat.

The Namo Medical Education And Research Centre follows this outsourced model. HCP Design took care of design and drew up the bid document. Structural design was handled by Parvati Techno Consultants – “a specialized structural engineering firm appointed by HCP,” as Bimal Patel told The Wire. Shanti Construction erected the complex. Monitoring was by Torsion.

As it fell, the slab took with it claims that this outsourced model of civil construction yields better outcomes than the previous one. As things stand, said the local reporter, complaints about poor quality have dogged Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana houses in Silvassa as well. 

And so, the question. Why does the administration follow this model?

The companies that won the tenders

One way to answer that question is to study the three companies that gained from this model.

The first is HCP Design Planning and Management. It is controlled by Bimal Patel and his family members. 

The second is Torsion Engineers and Consultants. It used to work out of a residential building (called Supath) in Ahmedabad but has now moved to a swankier office in a office complex. It’s run by Vasant Soni.

The third is Shanti Construction, which is also expanding the government hospital at Marwad. It’s an offshoot of the Jamnagar-based Shanti Construction (Guj) Private Limited. When that firm, promoted by Dhansukh Devani and Mansukh Devani, split, the latter took charge of Shanti Construction Co.

A letter from the UT PWD to Shanti Construction (for the Marwad hospital) takes us to the Jamnagar address and the URL of shanticonstruction.co.in.

Construction of 300 Bedded Hospital at Marwad Hospital by The Wire on Scribd

That website, however, takes us to Shanti Procon LLP. The firm has five partners. Of them, Mansukh Devani is founder and managing director.

Of these three firms, only HCP is widely known in the architectural circles of Ahmedabad. Even in the political circles of Saurashtra and Gujarat, Shanti Construction and Torsion are not known. The Wire asked Congress leaders Arjun Modhwadia, Shaktisinh Gohil and leader of opposition Paresh Dhanani (who, like Shanti Construction, hails from Saurashtra) if they had heard of these firms. Each said he hadn’t.

Some of this is a larger trend. The owner of a mid-size architectural firm says a clutch of relatively unknown firms are bagging civil construction contracts in Gujarat.  “Most of these are firms we have not even heard of,” he told The Wire. “There is a firm called Vama which redid Jallianwala Bagh. We had not heard of that either.” A lot of these promoters, he said, are “friends of BJP and RSS”.

That assertion is borne out by numbers. Shanti Construction Co donated Rs 20 lakh to the BJP in 2019-20. So did another company winning contracts in the UT, RKC Infrabuilt. In 2019-20, it donated Rs 2 crore to the BJP. Vama Communications chipped in as well.

A similar search for the Congress did not throw up their names.

The frames of Gujarat and national politics

To understand why these firms bag contracts – and the processes shaping India’s urbanisation –  Gujarat politics is one place to start.

Even as leaders in the Gujarat BJP battle rural disenchantment like the Patidar protests, their intermeshing with urban Patels in sectors like real estate is deepening. These are symbiotic arrangements. For politicians, said Sharik Laliwala, an independent scholar studying contemporary Gujarat, such arrangements strengthen their position within the community. 

They make sense for builders too.  “If you do not have any political connections, you will not get any work in this business,” said an Ahmedabad-based editor. “These builders may not have political aims but such ties help them gain stature within their community as well.”

Devani of Shanti Construction, for instance, is active in the Leuva Patel business community. His social media pages have his photos with Modi, former Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel, and Union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya.

That said, the rationale for this intermeshing extends beyond political influence. Across India, politicians use real estate to park money. When handing out contracts – or favourable decisions like approvals or zoning permissions – they extract rents.

Over the years, Indian politicians have become better at covering their traces. They no longer take direct equity in companies. Even the use of proxies – like Nitin Gadkari appointing his staff to companies or Karti Chidambaram handing over control of firms to friends – is outmoded. The current model involves ‘sleeping partners’. “They do not show up in the company’s shareholdings,” said the Silvassa-based activist. “The company pays them their share through other means, like payments for services provided, etc.”

Firms, knowing their fortunes depend on the politician, are unlikely to renege on these commitments. “In the Gujarat tendering model, everyone knows who the preferred contractor is,” said the IAS officer. “A hardcore RSS supporter once explained to me how this works: ‘We are told not to bid above (a particular sum) for a project. We will get 4-5 smaller projects and that is it.’”

It’s not easy to spot such flows. Most of these smaller firms operate as partnership firms or LLPs – and standards of financial disclosure are lower for these than for private limited companies or listed firms.

Another question on money flows

In addition to tendering, Praful Patel favours Gujarat in one more way. 

While talking to a sand supplier in Silvassa, The Wire learnt large construction projects in the UTs get their sand from Gujarat. 

The ostensible reason for this is the Supreme Court’s order against sand mining. Like other parts of India, said the bureaucrat, the UT could have resumed sand mining after creating a fresh policy for the minor mineral. That was not done. 

The fallout? Sand has to be trucked in from outside. “I had once gone to Shanti Construction’s site to ask the executive engineer if there is any work for us (‘Hamarey liye koi kaam hain kya?’),” said the sand supplier. “He said no. That their sand comes from outside.” Indeed, when asked by The Wire, Devani said the sand comes from near Surat. Hirenbhai said it comes from near Bodeli. Both places are in Gujarat.

Sufiyan Durvesh, a sand supplier in Bodeli this reporter spoke to, was surprised. “It will add Rs 700 to the cost of a ton of sand if you ship it from Bodeli. Even if you get sand from Surat, it will add another Rs 500.”

These costs are borne, ultimately, by the public exchequer.

That old calculus of winners and losers

In Silvassa, between Praful Patel’s construction push and most tenders going to outsiders, the UT is seeing a familiar old calculus of winners and losers. 

Firms bagging the contracts gain. Take Shanti Procon LLP. After splitting from Shanti Construction (Guj) Private Limited, it worked as a partnership firm before becoming an LLP. On being asked about this transition, Devani had said: “We were a partnership firm. There were problems with that arrangement – we couldn’t borrow enough money from banks. At the same time, it’s easier to borrow money as an LLP than as a private limited company.” 

The firm’s financial records as a partnership firm are not in the public domain. Perhaps because the firm became an LLP only in 2020, a search for its annual report and balance sheet for 2020 and 2021 draws a blank as well. Torsion’s financial details are not yet in the public domain either. 

Crisil’s credit rating reports, however, provide a sense of Shanti’s aggregate financials. 

Turnover

2016: Rs 245 crore

2017: Rs 171 crore

2018: Rs 255 crore

2019: Rs 230 crore

2020: Rs 309 crore

Sources: FY2016-2017, FY2018-19, FY2019-20.

The firm continues to grow. It has just bagged a work order to build the “Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Military Academy Project” in Lakshadweep. 

There too, locals say they didn’t know such a project was coming. 

The Gujarat BJP gains as well. Praful Patel gains too. Handing out projects – and making their promoters richer – is one way to consolidate support within the community. At this time, as Laliwala said, he is a peripheral figure in Gujarat politics. “He might not be wooing anybody, except for social network perspective and to stay relevant in Gujarat politics to re-enter at some point.”

The losers are just as easy to identify. Buildings made in this outsourced manner need not be safer. As The Wire reported earlier, some of the projects might not even be needed. 

With most contracts going to outsiders, local contractors are suffering. “There is no work here for us now,” said the sand supplier. “I now do my work in Gujarat. Other sand suppliers work in Maharashtra. “It is the same story for class one contractors. They are all sitting idle. Or they are looking for work outside,” said the local reporter. 

In effect, money that used to circulate locally now goes to Gujarat.

The emphasis on fresh construction projects also diverts funds (and attention) from other heads. The UT fares worse than the rest of india on HDI indices like education. Here is Daman and Diu. And here is Dadra and Nagar Haveli

Or take the road sector itself. Travelling in the UT, the poor state of smaller roads is striking. “They say roads being built in DNH add up to Rs 600 crore but if you move around, you will not see that,” said Delkar. “It is all messed up.”

M. Rajshekhar is an independent reporter studying corruption, oligarchy and the political economy of India’s environment. He is also the author of Despite the State: Why India Lets Its People Down and How They Cope.


The Wire sent a questionnaires to Praful Patel, a copy of which is appended below. No response has been received at the time of publication.

1) Why did the slab fall? According to Shanti Procon LLP, poor design is to blame. Is that the official stance of the administration as well?

2) Why were design, monitoring and construction taken away from the PWD and given to private players?

3) Given the slab’s collapse, does the new system work?

4) Why does the administration give contracts to partnership firms and LLPs – despite their lower standard of financial disclosures?

5) Your comments on the UT administration building flyovers for state roads over the national highway. 

6) Your comments on the perception that “friends of BJP and RSS” are bagging most contracts; that contracts are given at high rates; that some tenders are opened for short durations or not even made public.

7) Why is sand brought in from outside?

8) Consolidate small tenders into larger ones also means local firms cannot participate. Your comments.

9) There is a criticism that your administration asks empanelled architectural consultants to suggest fresh building projects. Logically, the administration should be better able to answer this question than an architect based in another city. Your comments.

We are also told that a host of DANICS AND DANIPS officers are working in DDDNH for close to six years when the norm is three years or lesser. Your comments.


Note: To give readers a better sense of the size of the slab, an image of the building with the collapsed slab has been added to this report.