India

Modi Government forced state companies to fund publicity exercise

Public Sector Undertakings, including Navaratna ones, had to shell out at least ₹80 crore for Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas Sammelan, which was more of a Bharatiya Janata Party campaign

Tathagata Bhattacharya

Nobody can accuse the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre of being publicity-shy. In four years, it has spent ₹4,343 crore for advertisements and publicity in various media, a Right to Information enquiry revealed in May this year. But documents accessed by a citizen Neeraj Sharma, again through the RTI route, show that the figure could be higher. The documents show how Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs), including Navaratna companies, were forced to cough up at least ₹80 crore for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas Sammelan campaign at the end of the government’s three-year tenure.

Documents accessed by National Herald show that PSUs like Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL), NBCC India Limited, Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL), Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL), National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL), Rural Electrification Corporation Limited (REC), National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (PGCIL) and others organised approximately between 550 and 575 events throughout the country for the Modi government’s three-year celebrations named Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas Sammelan.

While the PSUs initially dithered to part with the information, they relented after the applicant moved the Central Information Commission and the Commission directed them to comply. The documents reveal that the average cost of an event was ₹15 lakh. For 550 events, thus, the cost comes to ₹82 crore. The Commission has, in fact, issued show cause notices to GAIL and IOCL for denying the information under RTI. In some cases, cost of events ran upwards of ₹30 lakh.

Public Sector Undertakings belong to the people of the country. The Modi Government needs to explain why their coffers were raided to benefit a particular party

GAIL has spent ₹1.27 crore to hold 8 programmes. Oil India Limited has spent ₹3.55 crore to hold 10 programmes. HPCL, in its reply, stated that it spent about ₹6.25 crore for 44 programmes. NBCC spent around ₹1.5 crore to hold 21 programmes. While NTPC did not part with information on the money spent after the 48 programmes it organised, it said it spent ₹13.8 lakh plus taxes to produce a film on the Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas theme.

ONGC spent close to ₹3.2 crore for 18 programmes. PGCIL spent close to ₹1.55 crore for 9 programmes. REC spent close to ₹1 crore and organised 9 programmes. IOCL spent ₹10.15 crore and held 88 programmes. Interestingly, a circular calling upon all ministries to liaise with PSUs under them was sent out by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. It is signed by the Secretary of the ministry. In another letter, also signed by the Secretary in the ministry, chief secretaries of various state governments are intimated about the events and locations chosen in their states and are asked to extend all cooperation and help

All these events were coordinated by a central team of bureaucrats and, surprisingly, all the information was uploaded on a portal (sssvs.in) which was registered in the name of one Abhinav Jerath. National Herald contacted Mr Jerath and he said he was a web developer and developed the website at the request of a client whose name he could not divulge.

The portal, which is now inactive, had the State Emblem of India, the Prime Minister’s photograph and that of Deen Dayal Upadhyay on its homepage. If this was a government initiative, why was the domain in the name of an individual and a private web developer? What was Bharatiya Jan Sangh founder Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s picture doing on the homepage of a sarkari website? If this was not a government initiative, what was India’s State Emblem doing on the website’s homepage? These are some of the questions the government ought to answer.

That this had less to do with the government and more to do with the party becomes apparent from the RTI reply of NBCC, which mentions BJP party functionaries and those of associated organisations like Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha who were to be contacted and coordinated with for holding the programmes. One has to keep in mind that these costs are exclusive of Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity expenses and other publicity expenses.

At a time when manufacturing was down, exports had fallen from its March 2014 high and the economy was reeling under the effects of demonetisation, the Modi government did not bat an eyelid to force PSUs to shell out money to garner publicity for political gain. PSUs belong to the people of the country. The government needs to explain why their coffers were raided to benefit a particular party.

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