The Madras High Court today ordered the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC) to file within four weeks a status report on the probe into alleged irregularities in the purchase of bitumen for road laying and maintenance works in Tamil Nadu.  A division bench comprising justices M M Sundaresh and M Sundar gave the direction on a public interest litigation seeking a CBI probe after the state government informed that already the DVAC had been ordered to investigate the matter based on a representation by the petitioner.

In his PIL, G Balaji, an RTI activist, alleged that state highways department officials in collusion with contractors had "cashed out" Rs 800 crore to 1,000 crore during 2014-16 in the procurement of bitumen by taking advantage of variations in its price.

The petitioner charged that bitumen, a major road construction constituent, had become a primary source for the officials to siphon off public funds and sought a CBI probe into the alleged irregularities. Earlier, when the matter came up for hearing, the petitioner's counsel submitted that bitumen prices fluctuate on a monthly basis as fixed by the oil marketing companies.

He claimed that the department had to bear additional cost of bitumen if the price goes up above the amount sanctioned. Similarly, if the price falls, the difference should be recovered from the contractors.  However, the counsel alleged, the officials collude with the contractors and divert the difference amount to their pockets.

Citing some examples, he said in September 2014, price of bitumen was Rs 41,360 per tonne when the estimates were sanctioned for the road works. The price stood at Rs 30,260 in March 2015, when the works were executed and billed, which worked out to a difference of Rs 11,000 per tonne.  Submitting some documents, which he claimed, were proof he gathered through RTI applications from the department, the petitioner wanted the court to order a probe by the CBI or any other independent agency.

Countering the charge, state Advocate General Vijay Narayan submitted that the entire plea was based on wrong information. Usually the variation in price would be only upward. But by the end of 2015, the bitumen prices slid in tune with the fall in crude prices globally. He said it took two to three months for the government to realise the scenario.

By the end of 2015, authorities issued notices to the contractors concerned for recovery of the difference amount and as on August 31 this year, Rs 431 crore had been recovered, the A-G said.

He said the state government had ordered the DVAC to probe the allegations of irregularities.