The Maharashtra government and the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) have suffered a major setback with the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court ruling that the public interest litigation (PIL) against the multi-crore irrigation scam in the Vidarbha region is maintainable. The hearing will be conducted based on merit of the case.
With high court’s order, delivered on April 24, the ruling Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which is in charge of water resources ministry, expects more trouble during the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. The high court has asked VIDC to file its reply by June 19.
The scams involves 38 irrigation projects undertaken between 1999 and 2010 when NCP’s high-profile leader and deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar was holding charge of the water resources ministry. Later, Pawar picked up his close confidant Sunil Tatkare as his successor to head the ministry.
In its PIL, Nagpur-based NGO Jan Manch said that within seven months in 2009, the cost of 38 irrigation projects escalated by Rs 20,050.06 crore -- from Rs 6,672.27 crore to Rs 26,722.33 crore. Thirty out of the 38 projects were granted hurried approvals in just four days. Cost of these projects went up with the revised administrative approval granted at the level of VIDC. Cost of six projects rose by six times to 33 times of their original cost. In case of 12 projects, the cost shot up by more than twice the original estimates.
Jan Manch has made a strong plea for a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the scam. However, VIDC has questioned the maintainability of the NGO’s petition and opposed CBI probe.
An NCP minister, who did not want to be identified, feared that the court proceedings into the alleged irrigation scam may go the 2G Spectrum scam way.
He told Business Standard, “Already, NCP in particular has put up a brave front and denied all charges.
Last week, water resources minister Sunil Tatkare during debate in the state assembly informed that so far, a total of Rs 73,000 crore has been spent on irrigation since 1960 onwards and thereby questioned opposition’s claim of scam involving Rs 70,000 crore. So far, Rs 45,000 crore has been spent on various irrigation projects.”
However, the minister admitted that it is difficult to predict what will happen in the courts. He conceded that the issue may come up for discussion during a two-day party meeting slated for April 26 and 27 in the presence of NCP chief Sharad Pawar. At the meeting, the party may decide the future course of action in this regard.
On the other hand, Jan Manch counsel Anil Kilor said, “Technical hurdles are removed by which the state government and VIDC tried to stall the court proceedings by making a prayer to throw away the petition at the threshold even without looking into the merits. We have full confidence in the court and also the documentary evidence provided before the court is quite sufficient to show a large scale misappropriation.”
The high court’s decision comes close on the heels of scathing observations made last week by the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) against the Maharashtra government on the incomplete irrigation projects, which commenced anytime from five to 45 years ago.
CAG in its report for the year ended March 2012, said a whopping Rs 43,270.01 crore was spent by the Water Resources Department in respect of 426 incomplete projects. The time overruns were up to 40 years.
In its 2011 report, CAG had pointed out several irregularities in the irrigation projects undertaken by the state government in the last decade or so. According to the auditor, observations made in the report are based on information given by Konkan Irrigation Development Corp (KIDC) and Water Resources Department while performing the audit between March 2010 and June 2010. The information relied upon was for the period 2005-06 to 2009-10.