Residents of Pahur, a small village with a population of about 6,000, have fond memories of the Keshavraj Maharaj (Lord Vishnu) temple, submerged following construction at the Bembla river irrigation project site in Yavatmal district. Though the temple has been rebuilt in an adjoining area, villagers say the submergence of the temple, along with that of a huge track of agricultural land, could have been averted, had the state government and the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corpo-ration (VIDC) not insisted on developing the Bembla project.
Madhav Nerkar, former sarpanch of Kadas Savanga gram panchayat, about five km from Babulgaon (through which the dam line passes), says the project turned out to be a curse, as the cotton mill set up two decades earlier with the state government’s help was hit by insufficient supply. Nerkar argues the state government’s claim that the project would have total command area of 53,968 hectares across 16 villages and boost agriculture, industry and allied businesses there is false. Despite much publicity and fanfare, Yavatmal district still tops the list of farmer suicides, he says.
The Bembla project is part of 38 irrigation projects in the Vidarbha region that have come under the government’s scanner.
A probe has already been initiated against 45 VIDC officials for alleged irregularities in various irrigation projects, including the Bembla project.
The Bembla project is mired in controversies over the award of tenders at exorbitant rates, inordinate delays leading to escalation in costs and the size of contracts and the government’s alleged apathy towards rehabilitation of the people affected by the project. VIDC officials admit contractors-turned-politicians affiliated to various political parties have bagged major contracts. A company promoted by Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) legislator Sandeep Bajoria has been a major beneficiary.
In January 1992, the cost of the project was estimated at a paltry Rs 190 crore. As on August 14, 2009, this rose to Rs 2,176 crore. A VIDC official says till March this year, Rs 1,334 crore had been spent on developing a command area of 34,519 hectares. And, an additional Rs 841 crore is still required to complete the project. The Bembla dam, built on the Bembla river at Khadaksawanga, is 7,650 metres long and 29.15 metres high, with a capacity of 322,068,000 cubic metres.
The VIDC official says, “For this financial year, a budgetary allocation of Rs 155 crore had been made towards the project. The rise in cost is attributed to a 23 per cent rise in DSR (project works), a 10 per cent rise in the cost of land acquisition and rehabilitation, an 18 per cent rise due to changes in designs, a record 45 per cent rise in changes in the scope (lining of the main canal) and the automation of the Dehni lift irrigation scheme.”
A Mumbai-based contractor, whose firm was one of the beneficiaries of the contracts in the Bebmla project and other irrigation projects in the state, admits his contacts with “higher-ups” helped secure a few contracts. “The modus operandi was simple: assure the higher-ups of a rise of at least 20 per cent in project costs, and there is every possibility to get the contract,” he says.
On condition of anonymity, a former Congress minister blames VIDC and the state’s water resources department for lack of transparency in the selection of contractors. “Besides, there are contentious issues of rehabilitation, as residents of the 16 project-affected villages have received inadequate compensation, while some of them are struggling to get compensation. The construction of canals is incomplete, and its quality is poor,” he says. He adds he has already asked the chief minister to initiate a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation or a special investigation team.
However, NCP has rebutted these allegations, saying these were part of campaign to malign the party and its leader Ajit Pawar, the water resources minister during 1999-2009.
Manoj Pachghare, a resident of Pahur village, expresses anguish over the alleged irrigation scam. Water released from the canal is yet to reach the “tail-end”, as construction was incomplete, he says.
“No political party is keen to solve our issues pertaining to rehabilitation. We were initially paid a compensation of Rs 7,000-9,000 per hectare and later, an improved package of Rs 1 lakh per hectare. This, too, is inadequate compared to the current land rates of about Rs 5 lakh per acre,” rue Pachghare and Nerkar.
This is the fourth of a five-part series on what went wrong in Maharashtra