By Sanjay Jog
To avoid scathing criticism from Opposition parties and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the Maharashtra government quietly released the terms of reference and the list of members of a special investigation team (SIT), headed by water expert Madhav Chitale, to probe the multi-crore irrigation scam in the state.
The SIT comprises retired bureaucrat A K D Jadhav, former irrigation secretary V M Ranade and former agriculture commissioner Krishna Lavekar. The SIT, which will be headquartered at Aurangabad, has been asked to give its report within six months. Water Resources Minister Sunil Tatkare had on December 17 made the announcement in the legislature on the formation of the SIT and said the terms of reference and its members would be filled by December 31.
However, the release, hurriedly issued by Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan’s public relations office, has not mentioned the time period to be covered by the SIT during its investigations. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), partner in the ruling coalition, which has been under attack for the irrigation scam, wanted that the probe should also cover the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance rule during 1995-1999 and not just 1999-2009 when Ajit Pawar was the water resources minister. While the ruling Congress had argued a mere 0.1 per cent of irrigation potential was added during the decade despite expenditure of Rs 70,000 crore, its co-partner, NCP claimed the actual rise was 27 per cent.
According to the terms of reference, the SIT has been asked to fix the responsibility for irregularities, if found, during investigations and suggest action.
The SIT has been mandated to probe the leading reasons for low level of irrigated area, the actual rise in irrigation potential and irrigated area, use of water for non-irrigation purposes. The SIT would inquire into the cost and time overrun of various projects after they received revised administrative approvals from irrigation corporations. It will examine whether the rise in cost was in tune with the norms and rules and will also look into delays in project implementation.
The SIT is expected to make suggestions to step up irrigation potential, irrigated area and increase merit of the works undertaken by the water resources department and also about the necessity of lift irrigation projects.
Within seven months in 2009, the cost of 38 irrigation projects being implemented by the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) escalated by a whopping Rs 20,050 crore, from Rs 6,672 crore to Rs 26,722 crore.
Thirty out of the 38 projects were granted hurried approvals in just four days, including 11 projects on August 14, 2009; 10 projects in June 2009; five projects on July 7, 2009; and four projects on August 18, 2009. The Vadnere committee observed the cost updating of 37 of 137 major tenders were according to government norms. The Opposition parties wanted punitive action and expected the SIT to recommend it.
The 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 the 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 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.
However, VIDC in its affidavit filed on December 20, 2012, before the Nagpur bench of the high court had argued the approvals granted with due process of law and with all requisite aspects and have not been granted hurriedly as alleged by petitioners.
VIDC said, “The cost escalations have not accrued in a span of seven months in 2009, nor such increased expenditure was made within these seven months. However, merely approvals to the revised cost were granted within these seven months, considering the period of several years from the previous sanctioned costs.”