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Ghatak bid to clear air amid signs of Cong rift

- SMC councillor releases documents on Reliance transaction, followers see poll pot boiling

Siliguri, May 13: Siliguri Congress councillor Sujoy Ghatak, charged by a section of his party of taking a bribe from a Reliance Industries subsidiary, today tried to clear the air amid murmurs of a faction feud ahead of the municipal polls.

Ghatak, in his mid-forties, is the Congress’s Darjeeling Lok Sabha candidate and the member mayor-in-council, PWD, in the Siliguri Municipal Corporation (SMC), which is headed by Ghatak’s party.

The councillor is not a favourite in the Lok Sabha race, but his campaign for the general election has made him a more recognisable face in the town months before the municipal corporation polls scheduled for September.

A section of leaders perceived to be close to Darjeeling district Congress chief Shankar Malakar has alleged that Ghatak took a bribe from Reliance Jio Infocomm, which is digging roads to lay cables before launching its 4G network across the country.

Reliance Jio paid a compensation to the SMC as the corporation would repair the roads the company digs to lay the cables.

Some Left councillors on April 29 had told mayor Gangotri Datta that Reliance Jio had started digging roads in Siliguri before getting the SMC’s nod. It was this allegation that first brought the project to the attention of a section of Congress leaders.

A Reliance official told The Telegraph tonight: “We have been working across the state in consultation with civic bodies and complying with all norms and guidelines.” The official did not want to be named.

Giving details of the transactions with Reliance Jio today, Ghatak said that last year, “the firm had sought permission to dig around 8km of roads, and this year it asked permission to dig another 117km”.

He said for last year’s digging to set up the 4G network, “the firm paid Rs 1.33 crore and was granted permission to dig 8km”.

Ghatak said that for the 117km, Reliance Jio deposited “Rs 6.74 crore, as per the government rate of Rs 1,150 per square metre on 117km of roads…. From our side, the permission could not be granted as the (election) model code of conduct came into force. It was decided that permission would be granted after revocation of the model code.”

The model code of conduct for the Lok Sabha polls came into force on March 5. Reliance Jio made its payment on April 8.

Leaders close to Ghatak in the SMC said he was being targeted by Malakar’s faction because the councillor was being seen as a probable Congress face in the running for mayor in the civic elections. That Ghatak and Malakar do not see eye to eye is not new.

A Congress leader said: “It is evident that Sujoy Ghatak would play a key role in the SMC polls scheduled for later this year. A section of party leaders wants to prevent him from contesting the polls and has brought the fake charges.”

The 117km of roads cover 58,670 square metres. When multiplied by 1,150, the compensation rate, the figure works out to Rs 6.74 crore.

“We keep a copy of all documents at the SMC and anybody willing to check the facts can verify them,” Ghatak told a news conference today. But till late tonight, Datta claimed she did not have any of the project’s documents.

Datta and Ghatak have their offices on two different floors of the same building.

When Malakar was asked about the bribe charge against Ghatak today, he refused to comment. He said he would speak after the Congress held its meeting, the date for which has not been announced.

The Congress faction close to Malakar has alleged that Ghatak, who is in charge of roads, took a portion of the money as bribe and gave the civic body an amount which is lower than what would be the total if the compensation is calculated according to the official rate per square metre.

On May 6, Abhijit Roy Choudhury, the Darjeeling youth Congress chief, submitted a memorandum to mayor Datta, alleging that “because of an unholy alliance between an MMIC and the concerned private firm”, the SMC had “lost crores of rupees”.

Ghatak was not named in the letter but few in the SMC had any doubt who the MMIC mentioned in the letter was.

Ghatak today refused to speak when asked about Malakar’s possible involvement in bringing the bribe charge against him.

He blamed Datta, saying that he failed “to understand why she did not clarify the facts before the media and to those who have raised such motivated allegations”.

The mayor, when told about the clarification issued by Ghatak to journalists, said: “I was not present at the meetings held with representatives of the private firm. It was Sujoy Ghatak who held the meetings. I did not have the relevant documents which he furnished to the media today.”

When asked if she had seen the documents today, Datta said she “does not have the documents till now”.

The Congress leader close to Ghatak said: “We are surprised that the mayor has remained silent all these days, while knowing that the allegation of corruption (against Ghatak) is baseless. At the monthly board meeting in April, she feigned ignorance about the matter, even though she had information. It raises questions about the mayor’s competence.”

The Reliance official said: “The work is being done in phases, and accordingly, we have been working in cities and towns. Nothing has been done by the company so far without complying with the rules.”