It has not gone into reasons for poor irrigation cover and the huge costs

If chief engineer Vijay Pandhre is unhappy with the Maharashtra government’s voluminous two-part White Paper on irrigation, which was made public on Friday, there is a good reason for it. Mr. Pandhre wrote three letters to the Chief Minister on February — two of them highlighting the sorry state of affairs in the water resources department.

In his letter, Mr. Pandhre referred to cost escalations and corruption, which could have led to losses of Rs. 30,000-40,000 crore for the government. He followed this up with a detailed letter in May that gave many instances of wastage of public funds. He said 99 per cent of lift irrigation schemes were not functioning and he calculated a loss of Rs. 15,000 crore.

Before Mr. Pandhre’s letters, the State government appointed the retired Principal Secretary of the Water Resources Department, Nandkumar Vadnere, who submitted two reports on the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC)’s performance from 2006-2007 to 2009-2010. One part of his report highlighted several irregularities in the prestigious Gosikhurd project in Bhandhara district, which the State government has defended stoically in its White Paper. Mr. Vadnere’s report in June, 2010 said that in the four financial years, there were 195 tenders — 50 of them were approved at 5 per cent lower than the actual cost. In the remaining 145, 37 tenders were awarded at a higher cost. Some of these violated government conditions as well.

The Gosikhurd Irrigation project across the Wainganga river is funded to the tune of 90 per cent by the Centre since it’s a National Irrigation Project. A writ petition filed by Mohan Karemore in the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court said the Union Ministry of Water Resources had constituted a seven-member expert member committee to monitor and check the quality of various components of the Gosikhurd Project. The committee studied the quality control aspects and noticed cracks in the Left Bank main canal concrete lining work. After this, the government appointed Chief Engineer H.T Mendigiri, whose report in 2010 was damning on the poor quality of concrete lining in the canal and other issues.

The Vadnere Committee found rates were arbitrarily increased in 90 major tenders pertaining to the Gosikhurd project. Mr. Karemore’s petition demanded an enquiry into the cost overruns, especially in the Gosikhurd project in Vidarbha and the siphoning off of public funds. In addition, the petition said: “Within a span of seven months in 2009, the cost of 38 irrigation projects under the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) escalated by a whopping Rs. 20,050.06 crore — from Rs. 6,672.27 crore to Rs. 26,722.33 crore.”

Cost escalation and sub-standard work

Thirty out of the 38 projects were granted hurried approvals in just four days — costs of these projects went up by six times of the original cost to 33 times with the revised administrative approval granted by VIDC. In the case of 12 projects, the cost shot up by more than twice the original estimates.

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), in a Special Performance Review of the VIDC, also pointed to the sub-standard work executed in the Gosikhurd Left Bank Canal.

Under the Prime Minister’s Special Rehabilitation Package, in respect of 12 out of 27 selected projects, distribution network, including canal works and field channel works, were not started, with the result that the objective of the PM’s package of mitigating the distress of farmers was not achieved, the CAG report said. The petition said the cost of irrigation per hectare incurred by the State was as high as Rs. 9.81 lakh compared to the Rs. 1.5 lakh-Rs. 2.5 lakh limit mandated by the Central Water Commission.

The Maharashtra government in 2010 knew of the gross irregularities in the Vidarbha irrigation projects after Mr. Vadnere’s second report, which examined 11 major dams, 27 medium and 53 small projects. The government chose to ignore the two reports of Mr. Vadnere, and earlier reports as well. Since the backlog is high in the suicide-prone Vidarbha region, the irregularities pointed out by Mr. Vadnere were all the more damning. The White Paper does give detailed explanations for cost overruns for various projects, some of which are mind boggling but all of it cannot be due to land acquisition or rehabilitation costs. Huge mobilisation advances were given to contractors in violation of the law.

The devil is in the detail and the sweeping White Paper has not gone into the real reasons for the poor irrigation cover in the State and the huge costs.