Activists, policy makers, civil society groups and environmentalists have demanded a probe into the Maharashtra irrigation scam by an independent credible agency in a letter to the Prime Minister on Thursday. The Water Resources Department (WRD) in Maharashtra is facing a crisis, the letter said, calling on the Prime Minister to intervene in the matter.

The letter signed by former union secretary Ramaswamy R Iyer, environmentalists and water experts is also addressed to Maharashtra chief minister, several Union ministries, the Central Vigilance Commission, Central Water Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.

The signatories demanded an independent scrutiny of all major and medium projects in Maharashtra since the last 17 years (the scam has origins going back at least to 1995) and immediately stop work on and use of projects whose safety is questioned by the official agencies. The letter mentioned the exposes by chief engineer Vijay Pandhre and the issues he raised of poor quality control and scams in the irrigation sector.

In addition it pointed to Maharashtra’s poor track record of major and medium projects though it has the highest number of dams in the country --1821 as per the latest issue of Register of Large Dams from the Central Water Commission. However, the performance of these dams is very poor even as per official documents. The Economic Survey of the state for the year 2011-12 said, “The ratio of gross irrigated area to gross cropped area for 2008-09 in the State was 17.7 per cent, which was much below the National level ratio of 45.3 per cent.” The survey goes on to say that 65.1 per cent of the net irrigation in Maharashtra is based on groundwater.

While an expenditure of Rs 72 000 crores have been incurred from 2000 to 2010, there has been hardly 0.1 per cent increase in irrigated area for the state as even the Maharashtra government has said. In just five out of this ten year period (i.e. 2005-06 to 2010-11), the same economic survey says, subsidies have been doled out to provide drip irrigation in 1.95 lakh ha and for sprinkler irrigation in 4.17 lakh ha, thus covering a total area of 6.12 lakh ha in these five years at an expense of Rs 1134.82 crores. But even the huge expense involved in this water saving technique has not lead to commensurate increase in irrigation in Maharashtra.

It is not that the lack of progress in irrigation is due to lack of funds, the letter said. On the contrary, as the Governor of Maharashtra in his address in March 2012 said, “The WRD has communicated that the unspent balance with the Corporations was Rs. 2438 crore at the end of the 2009-10 and Rs. 3496 crore at the end of 2010-11. These balances are of the tune of 35 per cent and 45 per cent of the total plan size of the respective years.” The Governor expressed concern that “the balance cost of ongoing projects being executed by the Irrigation Corporations in the State as on 1.4.2011 is Rs. 75,366 crore”.

This makes it clear that Maharashtra has not faced paucity of funds for water resources development and has spent a huge amount and yet, the actual picture on ground is dismal. More than 747 irrigation projects are incomplete. One of these projects, Gosi Khurd is a national project (which means 90 per cent of the money would come from the centre), but has been described as a white elephant. Maharashtra has also been getting large sums under Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Scheme from the centre. All this highlights the need for an independent scrutiny of the entire sector, the letter said.

It also pointed out that while a White Paper on Irrigation sector in the state by itself will not solve almost any of these serious problems, but even to bring out a white paper, there has been huge delay, possibly because some people are not happy to see that real facts come out. The chief minister had made the announcement in May but now the white paper was scheduled for the winter session of the state legislature in December.

The letter has been signed by Bharat Jhunjhunwala, Suhas Paranjpe, K J Joy, Sujit Patwardhan, Debi Goenka, Shripad Dharmadhikary, Samir Mehta, Ramaswamy R Iyer, Himanshu Thakkar, Shramik Adivasi Sanghatana, Vijay Diwan, Eshwer Kale , Jai Krishna from Greenpeace and others.