Congress unhappy with Bill that seeks to divert water meant for agriculture

The hasty passing of The Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (amendment) Bill, 2011 late last Wednesday in the State assembly has given rise to fresh animosity between the ruling coalition partners, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

On Monday, the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) president Manikrao Thakre will meet the Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan to apprise him of the discontent in the party after the NCP steamrolled the Bill well after midnight when a handful of MLAs were present, according to Congress spokesperson Sanjay Dutt. The party will formulate its view on a course of action after the meeting.

The controversial Bill was put on hold in the Nagpur winter session of the legislature last year since there was no consensus. Congress legislators have expressed their concern at the passing of such a Bill which seeks to divert water meant for agriculture to industries.

A lot is stake for the Congress, especially in Vidarbha where it won 24 of the 62 assembly seats. The NCP with four seats has very little presence there. Though the Centre and the State have packages for farmers in the region, suicides continue unabated. In this scenario, and when the irrigation potential is not fully realised in Vidarbha, Congress MLAs are aghast that such a bill should be passed.

Mr. Dutt said that out of 65 applications for diversion of water from irrigation projects to industries, 51 were for Vidarbha. The Congress MLAs are demanding that the Bill be sent to a select committee of legislators from all parties for a discussion. The Bill vests power in a high-power committee (HPC) headed by the State Irrigation Minister. Sunil Tatkare from the NCP holds the portfolio now. The Congress is demanding that the HPC be headed by the Chief Minister in the interests of fairness. The NCP also holds the power portfolio. The Minister is Ajit Pawar, Deputy Chief Minister.

Last year, an ordinance was passed seeking to divert water to industries and this Bill will further legitimise that move. The Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority Act was passed in 2005 to regulate water resources within Maharashtra; facilitate and ensure judicious, equitable and sustainable management, allocation and utilisation of water resources; and fix the rates for the use of water for agriculture, industrial, drinking and other purposes. This new amendment seeks to take away the existing provisions of public hearing and equitable aspects, according to Dr. Bharat Patankar of the Lokabhimukh Pani Dhoran Sangharsha Manch, a coalition of NGOs.

Dr. Patankar told The-Hindu that since 2005, 53 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of water had been diverted to industries till date and it was an illegal activity. The law in 2005 clearly said that farmers must be consulted at public hearings on diverting water and their objections should be seriously considered. “By passing this recent Bill, you are flouting the law and giving water to the industries and going against the interest of farmers,” he said.

Farmers deprived of water would sell their land to these same industries and that was the real aim of this Bill, he feared. “The government is legalising this criminal activity by passing a new Bill and using democratic means to legalise a criminal act.”

Last year in Nagpur the government had assured Dr. Patankar and others who were protesting against the Bill that it will send it to a joint select committee of the legislature. Two days before the Bill was passed, a delegation met Mr. Tatkare who agreed to send the Bill to a joint select committee.

From May 1, several groups across the State will protest against the Bill and its implications, Dr. Patankar said.

Vilas Bhongade of the Ghosikhurd Prakalpgrast Sangharsh Samiti told TheHindu over the phone from Nagpur that there was much opposition to the Bill from farmers in Vidarbha. A court case was pending against the diversion of water from the Upper Wardha project to a thermal power project in Amravati. He said farmers had protested against this Bill fearing diversion of water meant for irrigation to industries, especially thermal power projects. Mr. Bhongade said nearly 85 power projects were proposed in the suicide-prone Vidarbha region which had very little irrigation as it is. Water from most of the irrigation projects along the Wardha and Wainganga rivers would now be diverted for industrial use. He said industries were eyeing the water from these dams under construction and the Bill would intensify the water politics in the region.

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