Indian official drops phone while taking ‘wefie’, drains reservoir to recover it
NEW DELHI — As far as instances of bureaucrats abusing their power in India go, this latest incident may have plumbed a new depth.
A government official in Chhattisgarh, a central Indian state, had millions of liters of water drained from a reservoir over four consecutive days amid a scorching summer just so that he could retrieve his expensive phone, sparking off a public furore over the bureaucrat’s abuse of power.
Mr Rajesh Vishwas dropped his Samsung smartphone, reportedly worth about 100,000 rupees ($1,220), into a 4.5m-deep overflow tank attached to the Paralkot dam’s reservoir on May 21 in Chhattisgarh’s Kanker district while taking a “wefie” with his friends during an outing at the site.
After local divers failed to retrieve his phone, Mr Vishwas, a food inspector and a junior-level officer in the state bureaucracy, deployed two diesel pumps to drain around 2.1 million liters of water from the tank, reportedly enough to irrigate around 607ha of farmland.
He was suspended on Friday for abusing his position, his “unbecoming behavior” and wasting water during the extreme summer heat, the local administration said.
In his defense, Mr Vishwas described the water as “unusable” because it was stored in the dead storage section of the tank and was not accessible under normal circumstances. Water in this lowest section of the reservoir lies below the dam’s discharge outlet level and does not get released unless pumped out.
But Dr Priyanka Shukla, the top government officer for Kanker district, refuted this interpretation.
“It is summer here, and we need a lot of water for various reasons, so I think it is a criminal waste of water,” she told The Sunday Times, suggesting that the water could have been used by animals for drinking if not to irrigate parched fields.
According to Mr Vishwas, the divers were unable to recover his phone as the water was too deep for them at a level of around 10 feet or 3m. “They said that if the level of the water could be reduced by around two to three feet, they could surely take out the phone,” he told news channel NDTV 24X7.
He claimed he then got verbal permission from Mr R.C. Dhivar, the local sub-divisional officer (SDO), to reduce the water level in the tank by around four feet and drain it into a canal as it would also “benefit local farmers”.
But local farmers claimed they were not informed beforehand and they could not channel the water pumped out to their fields.
A local village representative told the TV channel that the water discharged was a “loss to farmers”.
The drainage was stopped when an official from the water resource department visited the site following a complaint. Mr Vishwas’ phone was eventually found, but not in working condition.
An inquiry has been ordered into the incident, during which time he will serve at the district head office of the food department on a “survival allowance”.
The SDO who allegedly gave Mr Vishwas the go-ahead has also been asked to explain his action, and a government order has posited that he should cough up the cost of the wasted water.
Indian bureaucrats can be notorious for abusing their power. In 2022, a Delhi-based senior bureaucrat couple Sanjeev Khirwar and his wife Rinku Dugga had a stadium in the city emptied of practicing athletes earlier than usual in the evenings just so that they could walk their dog on the racing tracks.
This went on for a few months at the Thyagraj Stadium – a multidiscipline facility built for the 2010 Commonwealth Games – until The Indian Express reported about it in May 2022, prompting widespread outrage. Mr Khirwar and Ms Dugga were later transferred to two different locations in the country.