Bengaluru: The recent spat between two IPS officers in Karnataka, which resulted in both their transfers, is rooted in a much-delayed women’s safety project called ‘Safe City’, under the central government’s Nirbhaya Fund.
D. Roopa was shunted out as secretary (home), and has now been posted as managing director of the Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation. The other IPS officer embroiled in the controversy, Hemant Nimbalkar, has been moved from the post of additional commissioner (administration) to the internal security department.
ThePrint explains what the project is, and why it’s mired in controversy.
The Safe City project
It’s been eight years since the gruesome gang rape of a young woman in Delhi, who came to be commonly known as ‘Nirbhaya (fearless)’, which resulted in the central government introducing a slew of safety measures for women across the country.
The Safe City project was drawn up by the Delhi Police in 2013, and received approval from the Union Home Ministry in 2018. Eight cities have qualified to receive funding under the Safe City project — Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Ahmedabad and Kolkata.
The Karnataka government was allocated Rs 667 crore for the first phase of the scheme, which is to be implemented in phases over three years. The authorities propose to install over 16,000 cameras, including those for day/night surveillance, automated number plate recognition, facial recognition, as well as cameras installed on drones and worn on the body.
According to the project proposal, Bengaluru is to be equipped with 7,500 surveillance cameras, 5,000 fixed cameras, 1,000 pan-tilt-zoom cameras, 1,000 automated number-plate recognition cameras, 500 facial recognition cameras, 20 drone-based surveillance cameras and 1,100 body-worn cameras. There will also be artificial intelligence and machine learning-powered video monitoring systems that will help in crime detection.
Apart from monitoring and tracking, the project also involves establishing 50 ‘safety islands’ at isolated spots across the city. This was a unique concept that allowed any woman in danger to press a buzzer and get into a telephone booth-like island until the police arrives on the spot. A new integrated women’s helpline number, a distress centre and a counselling centre are also part of the project.
The Karnataka government took an additional year to approve the project after central government approval, finalising it in October 2019. But since then, tenders have been floated twice and then cancelled.
The third attempt to float a tender was what led to the controversy between the IPS officers. Now the project is at risk of “being derailed” if matters are not sorted out immediately, said a senior official in the Chief Minister’s Office.
According to documents accessed by ThePrint, the first two tenders were floated on 16 January and 20 June 2020. The first one was cancelled after companies participating in the tender failed to pass the pre-qualitative criteria. The second time, one of the bidders had promised to deliver products from the Chinese electronics major Huawei, but the procurement of Chinese products was restricted by India in July, in the wake of the 15 June Galwan Valley clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in eastern Ladakh.
Now, in the third attempt, four bids have been accepted after due scrutiny — from Larsen and Toubro, Matrix Security and Surveillance, NCC Ltd, and Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL). But the last date for submitting bids is 8 January 2021, and the process is yet to be completed, Nimbalkar told the media on 27 December. He hasn’t spoken to any journalists since then, and ThePrint’s repeated attempts to reach him for a comment through calls and text messages did not elicit a response.
Bias, corruption, interference, impersonation
Roopa had accused Nimbalkar of irregularities and bias during the tender process for the Safe City project, while he alleged she was interfering with the process without jurisdiction.
According to Roopa, as the head of the tender inviting committee, Nimbalkar favoured certain interested players in clear violation of norms. Calling herself a whistleblower, Roopa claimed she had brought the irregularities in the tendering process to the notice of the chief secretary like any ‘bonafide’ public servant should do.
Nimbalkar, in a letter to Karnataka Chief Secretary T.M. Vijay Bhaskar (who retired on 31 December 2020), alleged that some officer had been “impersonating” as the home secretary and collecting classified information regarding the tenders. Roopa responded to that charge claiming that Vijay Bhaskar had asked her to look into the case.
Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Rajneesh Goel, in a note dated 26 December, posed several questions to Roopa on whether she was ever entrusted with any responsibilities pertaining to the implementation of the Nirbhaya Safe City Project, or whether a file was ever marked to her.
The file did not contain any observations or comments by her, said Goel, demanding an explanation. Roopa responded with a seven-page letter on 28 December, stating she did not leave any comments in the file because it was not officially marked to her, but was personally handed to her by Goel himself.
Roopa told ThePrint that she noticed several irregularities in the tender process, and a letter sent by BEL to the Prime Minister’s Office had also alleged discrepancies in the process.
BEL’s letter, accessed by ThePrint, stated that of the four bidders — BEL, Larsen and Toubro, Matrix Security and Surveillance Pvt Ltd, and NCC Ltd — the last two companies share the same directors.
“This is a clear indication of conflict of interest… It is evident that Matrix Security and Surveillance Pvt Ltd and NCC Ltd connived and submitted the proposals which are a clear violation of the RFP (request for proposal) conditions,” said the letter, a copy of which is with ThePrint.
BEL also requested the central Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla to direct the tendering authority to disqualify the proposals submitted by the two companies to ensure transparency and fairness in evaluation.