Aryabhatta Vigyan Kendra: Major jolt to Khattar govt as Centre withholds sanction for innovation hub

In a major embarrassment to the Haryana government, the Union Ministry of Culture has withheld sanction for setting up a prestigious innovation hub at the under-construction Aryabhatta Vigyan Kendra (AVK) at Ambala, a multi-core project that has been stalled after serious structural discrepancies were detected in the building.

“Ministry of Culture, GoI, has also pointed out that such projects are time bound and any delay may result in cost escalation. Further, the said ministry has also withheld the sanctioning of the proposal of this office for setting up of Innovation Hub in AVK Ambala till all the hurdles to restart the construction work at site are resolved. This has put the state in an embarrassing position,” the science and technology department said in a letter to the state government on December 14, 2022.

Stalled since January 2022, the project has been plagued with allegations of corruption, leaving the National Council of Science Museum (NCSM), which is implementing the project through the National Science Centre (NSC), Delhi, upset over the state government’s inability to resolve the issues. Even as the state government is scrambling to find a solution, the contractor has moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court, which is scheduled to hear the matter on May 24, 2023.

Last year, Haryana’s former additional chief secretary (science and technology) Ashok Khemka had repeatedly hinted at “corruption” in the project and alerted the government, saying “top heads must roll”. In December, he had even pointed out that it was a clear corruption offence and sought that the “matter be referred to the Vigilance Bureau” but to no avail.

The Central Building Research Institute (CBRI) too had refused to take up the project after conducting a structural audit of the building on October 29. “The building is partially constructed and disputes are going on with the agency, therefore, it is difficult to take up such project,” Dr S K Singh, chief scientist, CBRI, had informed the state government via an email dated December 8.

The government is now contemplating that “since CBRI is reluctant to take up the work now, the matter of structural audit may simultaneously be taken up with IIT Roorkee, IIT Delhi and IIT Ropar and whichever is ready to do it early may be finalised”. Though the government has approached the IITs, the audit is yet to begin.

With the government struggling to identify the officials responsible for the poor quality of construction, non-adherence to norms and use of inadequate materials, the project is stuck in limbo.

Issues flagged by former additional chief secretary Ashok Khemka

Last year, in November, Haryana’s former additional chief secretary (science and technology) Ashok Khemka had hinted at “corruption” in the project and flagged the issue to Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar and the then science and technology minister Anil Vij.

“This is a corruption matter within the PWD (B&R). Min (S&T)/CM may kindly see for appropriate orders. In my view, the top heads must roll. Corruption, if unpunished, is the worst sin in public service. AG (Advocate General) has been apprised,” Khemka wrote on November 15, 2022.

On Khemka’s assertions, Khattar directed the administrative secretaries of the science and technology department and the public works department (buildings and roads) to sit together to “take next steps for restarting the work in conformity with the approved structural drawing and steps to ensure the same” and to “identify the officials for the poor quality of work and deviations from the approved structural damage”.

On December 14, Khemka once again wrote to the state government. “I am told several other works running into several hundreds of crores have been awarded to Contractor M/s Garg and Co by the PWD (B&R) and have been put on hold, because of severe quality defects in construction work. I am also informed that excess money has been released to the contractor without commensurate work on site. In our case, Rs 21.63 crore has been released to the PWD (B&R),” he said.

“Empanelment of contractor, award of work, contract execution, conformity to structural design, ensuring construction quality, optimising costs and time deadlines is the sole responsibility of the executing agency PWD (B&R). Involving the Indenting Department over which it has no expertise or control may let the corrupt off the hook. This is a clear corruption offence u/s 381, 385, 405, 409, 418, 420 IPC and Sections 7 and 13 PC Act. The matter may be referred to the Vigilance Bureau for investigating the crime,” Khemka wrote.

However, brushing off Khemka’s assertions, the principal secretary to the CM, V Umashankar, reiterated that the causes of non-execution of work should be identified in the meeting between the two administrative secretaries of science and technology and PWD (B&R) and “whether the matter needs to be referred to Vigilance Bureau or not can emanate post-discussions at the administrative secretaries level unless the feeling is that the ACS (B&R) is also in some way involved in it”.

Letters were exchanged between the two departments for holding a meeting between the two administrative secretaries, but nothing moved forward.
Khemka was eventually transferred out of the science and technology department to the archives department on January 9, 2023.

The Aryabhatta Vigyan Kendra project

The Aryabhatta Vigyan Kendra is a science centre that was to be built at a cost of Rs 36.05 crore on a five-acre plot near the Ambala-Delhi national highway in Ambala Cantonment, the constituency of Home Minister Anil Vij, who also held the science and technology portfolio. The department has now been merged into the department of higher education. This science centre was expected to display facts and information on different subjects, including space and agricultural technology. The state was looking to get the building ready by June 2022.

The structural discrepancies found

The site inspection report of Aryabhatta Vigyan Kendra from the National Science Centre director addressed to chief engineer (buildings) in January 2022 had highlighted “serious concerns” with respect to structural works, expansion joint, casting of lift lobby slab with construction of supporting brick wall and removal of shuttering before specified time. Overall quality of construction and workmanship was stated to be ‘much below par’, the chief engineer wrote.

Two NSC officers had inspected the site in December 2021 and the progress of work was found “far from satisfactory”. “Marked deviations” were noticed in the “column reinforcement and placement of reinforcement” as compared to the approved structural drawings vetted by NIT, Kurukshetra. The officers also found “shortcomings in the quality of construction and non-adherence of standard procedures” in the construction.

In November 2021, too, the NSC team had highlighted similar structural discrepancies to the Haryana government. “It appears there is no serious on-site technical supervision at every stage of the work on part of the PWD, which has given the leverage to the contractor for taking things lightly and leaving things in the hands of sub-contractors and labourers,” the NSC wrote to Haryana government.

The inspection report suggested to re-do various aspects of the building. “The reinforcement provided in the column in ground floor level was not found in accordance with the structural drawings…Most of the columns were found under-reinforced at ground floor and first floor level. The authorities of PWD were asked to dismantle all such columns and re-do the same after necessary alterations,” it mentioned.

Highlighting other discrepancies, it added, “In several places, it was found that lap length of column reinforcement left above slab level is insufficient to accommodate the requirement of minimum lap length as prescribed. Dowels left for beams in some places were not found in accordance with the structural drawing. Placement of stirrups in beams was not found in order. In one of the beam, requisite stirrups were found missing in the shear zone of the beam. Stirrups are not even tied with main bars properly in most of the places. Tie bar/stirrups of column reinforcement is still not found to be in order as directed by the structure consultant during his last visit. In some of the columns, the lap length was not found staggered as advised.”

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