Allegations leave Biennale in the soup

Contractor serves legal notice, warns of criminal proceedings for pending bills

March 20, 2019 10:56 pm | Updated March 21, 2019 08:52 am IST - KOCHI

The contractor company claims to have quoted ₹1.5 crore for carrying out structural, design and painting works at Cabral Yard, one of two main venues of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

The contractor company claims to have quoted ₹1.5 crore for carrying out structural, design and painting works at Cabral Yard, one of two main venues of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

With just over a week for the ongoing edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB) to draw to a close, the cash-strapped Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) is in a sticky situation resulting from award of work worth crores of rupees without a contract document and is staring at the prospect of legal action by a contractor, who was accused by it of overcharging on work executed by his firm.

Legal notice

A legal notice dated March 18 sent to the KBF on behalf of Appu Thomas of Thomas Clery Infrastructures and Developers Pvt Ltd, which carried out a slew of structural, design and painting works at Aspinwall House and Cabral Yard -- the main venues of the biennale -- warns of criminal and civil proceedings against the foundation if an outstanding amount of ₹77,59,277 is not paid towards pending bills.

The notice also claims that the KBF owes other vendors a total of ₹45,75,315.

An independent, government-approved valuer engaged by the KBF in January to verify the bills had recommended a little over half of the amount claimed by the contractor.

A part of the bill verification report dated February 9, which has been accessed by The Hindu , shows that in place of bills worth ₹1,75,52,165 submitted by the contractor, the recommended amount was ₹92,45,108. He recommended paying just 45% of the labour bills standing at a staggering ₹70,70,161.

“In my opinion, [the] labour bill amount from various vendors claimed by the contractor is exorbitant, hence recommended only 45% of the total (sic),” the valuer remarked.

The valuer also cast aspersions on the way the bills were prepared.

“No measurement books, trip sheet, materials stock register, mustering register, etc. are produced by the contractor for verification. Supporting documents are not produced for verifying labour bills, materials purchase bill, machine hiring bill, scaffoldings, etc. No proper supporting documents made available by the contractor for material reconciliation. Proper drawing, specification, agreements, tender documents, etc. are not there for verification (sic),” he noted.

It was on June 23, 2018 that the KBF contacted Mr. Thomas, who had worked for the biennale in 2016 and 2017, for setting up major infrastructure for the edition getting under way in December, 2018. There was no tender, agreement or work order. As the legal notice claims, on July 3, Anagram Architects, Delhi, which was engaged for designing the biennale pavilion, sent across the initial concept models.

“Since preparatory works such as load bearing test and soil investigation were required to be done immediately, both our client and the architect contacted you multiple times about this, including through emails on 14-07-2018, 06-08-2018, and 27-08-2018. It was specifically brought to your attention that these steps needed to be taken promptly in order to avoid the cost escalations that would be inevitable if there was going to be only a shorter window of time for construction. Despite all this, there was no prompt response or action from your end,” the notice alleged.

It also claims to have quoted ₹1.5 crore for the biennale pavilion at Cabral Yard at a meeting in September. While there was suggestion for an alternative design, eventually, a decision was taken in September-end to proceed with the original design, claimed the notice. It also accuses the KBF of having no integrated plan and making frequent changes in requirements. The notice stated that the works were completed on time and the bills were submitted in hard copy on December 20, a week after the biennale got under way.

However, five days later, a biennale administrator raised an alarm about the absence of a proper estimate, quote or work order. It was in this backdrop that the foundation engaged a valuer.

Mr. Thomas told The Hindu that the valuer was incompetent to assess the complex, experimental work done for the biennale. He accused the biennale of changing the mandate of the quantity valuator, getting him to do cost evaluation instead. He said the firm was ready to take on the complex work using assorted material as its previous experience with the foundation was encouraging.

The work, done using assorted material and in a short span of time forcing augmentation of resources, could not be assessed using PWD standards, he maintained, adding the firm was still open to a re-evaluation of the works in collaboration with the architect. “But these are temporary structures which will be dismantled once the biennale is over on March 29. So, something has to be done before that,” he said.

When contacted, KBF president Bose Krishnamachari said the foundation relied on public funds – the government had pledged ₹7 crore for the ongoing edition from which ₹5.6 crore has been disbursed – and donations and therefore could not agree to overcharging. “We will respond to the notice very soon. Everything is in order,” he said.

However, an administrator of the biennale admitted that there was no proper contract or work order for a share of works awarded for the biennale. “We got the venues pretty late and had to do a rush job of preparing them for the event,” he said, adding the biennale was taking legal advice on the development.

The KBF, with government nominees and noted personalities on its board, has been without a chief financial officer and a chief executive for two years now.

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