For a year or so, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has been feeling the heat over alleged irregularities in the irrigation sector, the reason ostensibly behind Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar’s sudden resignation on Tuesday.
Mr. Pawar held the portfolio in the previous Ministry from 2004 to 2009, and in the past two days, media reports have been targeting his involvement in decisions made during that period. With tenacity, the NCP has been clinging on to the Irrigation portfolio, now called Water Resources Ministry, and when the State’s latest economic survey mentioned that the irrigation potential had grown a minuscule 0.1 per cent in the past decade, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, egged on by a combative Opposition, agreed to a White Paper on irrigation.
What was worse was the explosive information from a chief engineer of the Irrigation Department itself: Vijay Pandhre wrote a letter to the authorities in February, pointing to gross irregularities. When Mr. Pandhre was asked to give details, he produced a 15-page letter in May, citing many instances of how public money was wasted because of corruption and nepotism. He said 99 per cent of the lift irrigation schemes were not functioning, resulting in a loss of Rs. 15,000 crore. An inquiry in the Vidarbha region alone pointed to losses of Rs. 4,400 crore.
Mr. Pandhre said losses for the past 15 years could be in the range of Rs. 20,000 crore in the irrigation sector. There was no analysis of the benefit-cost ratio for projects.
Jan Manch, a voluntary organisation, filed a writ petition in the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court in August, demanding an inquiry into the cost overruns, especially in the Ghosikhurd project in Vidarbha and the alleged siphoning off of public funds. The court has sent notice to the government.
The writ 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.”
Thirty of these projects were granted approvals in just four days — August 14, 2009 (11 projects); June 24, 2009 (10 projects); July 7, 2009 (5 projects); and August 18, 2009 (4 projects). The cost of these projects went up by six times the original cost to 33 times with the revised administrative approval granted by the VIDC. In the case of 12 projects, the cost shot up by more than twice the original estimates.
The estimated cost of the Human Nadi project in Sindewahi tehsil in Chandrapur district was Rs.33,67,74. On June 24, 2009, the first revision to administrative approval was done, and the estimated cost was increased to Rs. 1,016.486 crore. It was over 29 times the initial estimated cost. Many revised administrative approvals were granted the same day.
In 10 cases, administrative approvals were revised on June 24 2009. As many complaints came in, the government appointed retired bureaucrat Nandkumar Vadnare in March 2010 to probe the functioning of the VIDC. The one-man committee was asked to investigate various matters relating to the financial years 2006-07, 2008-09, and 2009-2010.
The petitioner said the committee’s report was released in two parts; one part which he accessed concerned the Gosikhurd project. The project cost, as on March 1982, was Rs. 372 crores. It was revised frequently and the latest revised cost, in February 2008, stands at Rs. 7,777.85 crore.
The Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG), in a special performance review of the VIDC, has pointed to sub-standard work done on the Gosikhurd Left Bank Canal, among many instances of shoddy work.
Of the 27 projects selected under the Prime Minister’s Special Rehabilitation Package, the distribution network, including canal works and field channel works, was not started in respect of 12 projects. The CAG report said this negated the objective of the package: to mitigate the distress of farmers.
The petition said the cost of irrigation of one hectare incurred by the State was as high as Rs. 9.81 lakh, against the limit of Rs.1.5 lakh-Rs. 2.5 lakh mandated by the Central Water Commission.
Corruption under the present Water Resources Minister, Sunil Tatkare, has been exposed by the India Against Corruption; at least one dam plan was scrapped after complaints to the Governor, and another has been stayed by the High Court. Many dams have come up without proper permission around Mumbai with huge cost overruns and much in the manner of what happened in Vidarbha. They have all been awarded to the same contractor.
Mr. Tatkare is another NCP Minister against whom the Bharatiya Janata Party has filed a petition in the High Court for his alleged involvement in land scams. Mr Tatkare has been asked to file an affidavit.