The Rs 35,000-crore irrigation scam in Maharashtra came to light after the Economic Survey’s observation that though Rs 70,000 crore had been spent on various projects in the last decade, the state’s irrigation potential had increased only 0.1%.
That was enough for Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan to announce that the government would bring out a white paper on irrigation projects undertaken in the state. Apparently, the Chief Minister did not consult the departments concerned before making the announcement.
The irrigation portfolio has been held by the NCP since 1999, by Ajit Pawar till 2009 and after that by Sunil Tatkare.
The proposal for the white paper coincided with the exposé in a section of the media about Tatkare’s alleged involvement in irregularities and the floating of more than 140 companies by his relatives.
NCP Chief Sharad Pawar and his party immediately countered that this increase was only in “well irrigation” and did not take into account other projects; if other projects were included the increase was 12%.
The scam involves 32 projects in the under-developed Vidarbha region alone while the rest are in Konkan and north Maharashtra.
Incidentally, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has already begin a probe into the decisions taken by the irrigation ministry and questioned some employees from the department on September 24.
It has been alleged that the scam involves inviting tenders at higher cost and involves many political bosses, irrigation officials and contractors.
The cost of 38 irrigation projects in Vidarbha was increased by over 300% from Rs 6,672 crore to Rs 26,722 crore by the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) and this was approved in a short span of three months between June and August 2009.
The VIDC, however, argued that the costs were revised because of the change in price levels, higher quotes by contractors, increase in the cost of land acquisition, engineering changes and other reasons.
In yet another case, revised administrative approval for the Lower Wardha project was granted on the Independence Day, a national holiday. Interestingly, the cost was revised to Rs 2,356 crore from Rs 950 crore by VIDC executive director on that day.
The cost of the Upper Wardha project in Amravati was revised to Rs 1,376 crore from Rs 661 crore.
Another case is that of the Bembala river project in Yavatmal district of Vidarbha. Its cost was revised from Rs 1,278 crore to Rs 2,176 crore on August 14, 2009. Bembala was one of the 10 projects which got approvals in a hurry.
On June 24, 2009, VIDC issued 10 revised administrative approvals for Vaisawali, Lonwadi, Dagadparwa and Dava minor irrigation schemes, and larger projects such as Human Nadi, Kharbadi K T Weir, Jigaon, Khadak Purna, Pentakali and Chandrabhaga. Once these revised administrative approvals were granted, the VIDC hurriedly invited tenders for all the 38 projects. These approvals were given by the then executive director Devendra Shirke.
Ajit Pawar has categorically denied corruption charges and said the decisions were taken while keeping the state cabinet in the loop. Also, he said these decisions were taken well within the power vested with him as the irrigation minister.
Earlier, the state government was forced to scrap work on the Kondhana dam in the Konkan region in June after the project cost was increased to Rs 435 crore from Rs 80 crore without any assessment.
The scam in a nutshell
·In 2009, when Ajit Pawar was state irrigation minister, he cleared 32 irrigation projects worth Rs 20,000 – Rs 25,000 crore without allegedly going through the procedures
·Clearances to projects include Krishna Valley Development Corporation in Western Maharashtra with seven dams
·After the sanctioning, the cost of projects were increased and received approvals. Just in Vidharba, the cost of 38 projects were increased by 300% between June and August
·In 2012, chief engineer in Irrigation Department Vijay Pandhare wrote a letter to Secretary, Irrigation where he alleged that the modus operandi included sanctioning projects at lower cost and then escalating it systematically under pretext of increase in height or widening of reservoir