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Another Indian in UN graft

New York, Sept. 1: The dust has barely settled over the involvement of former external affairs minister Natwar Singh in the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal and the UN is being rocked by allegations of corruption by an officer of the Indian Defence Accounts Service (IDAS), who rose to be chief of commodity procurement for the world body.

The UN has suspended Sanjaya Bahel, who has been on deputation from the Indian government for 11 years, following a report by a procurement task force, set up earlier this year by the world body to investigate allegations of misdeeds in its huge procurement department.

The task force is a fallout of probes by the Volcker Committee, which found malpractices on a global scale in the administration of the oil-for-food programme for Iraq created by the UN during the presidency of Saddam Hussein.

Bahel, who joined the IDAS in 1973 and was posted as a diplomat in charge of the “supply wing” of the Indian embassy in Washington for nearly four years from 1980 to 1984, has been charged with impropriety in the UN’s internal investigations on two counts.

First, he allegedly violated an oath taken by UN officials on secondment from governments to “act with complete independence” from their home country. That oath “prohibits (UN) staff members from accepting any instructions from any government”.

Bahel is alleged to have steered UN contracts worth more than $100 million to Telecommunications Consultants India Ltd (TCIL), a public sector enterprise under the department of telecommunications (DoT), between 1999 and 2004.

The more serious allegations against Bahel, however, are that he received favours from a father-son team of businessmen, who represented TCIL in some of the company’s contracts with the UN.

The businessmen duo, identified as Nanak Kohli and his son Nishan, allegedly rented two adjacent apartments in New York city to Bahel at rates way below the market rates and later sold these apartments to the Indian official at very low prices.

The UN, which is paranoid about any charges of misconduct or corruption by its staff in the wake of the oil-for-food scandal and biased reporting in the US about secretary-general Kofi Annan’s son’s employment by a company that did business with the UN, has also handed over Bahel’s case to prosecutors in New York, who have been investigating allegations of fraud in UN procurement.

It is likely that Bahel’s case attracted attention because there were allegations last year from those in Washington who have been targeting Annan for not supporting the US invasion of Iraq that the Indian official had contacts with Annan’s son, Kojo, when Kojo was working for Cotecna, a company doing business with the UN.

Bahel, 55, has denied he had contact with Kojo Annan and the other allegations. The UN has given him an opportunity to respond to the charges.

There is speculation here that the scandal may have much to do with a larger crusade by neo-conservatives in Washington against the UN, which is unwilling to bend to the Bush administration’s dictates.

The inquiry against Bahel and several others has been led by Christopher Burnham, a former under-secretary for management in the US state department, who is now the UN’s under-secretary general for management.

A PTI report quoted a TCIL official as saying: “Whatever tenders we have quoted to the UN or whatever orders have been awarded to TCIL, it was always based on our position as the No. 1 bidder. We deny everything that has been said about TCIL in the report about someone steering huge contracts to the company.”

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