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 per cent.
That was enough for Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan to announce 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.
It so happens that 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 the 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 per cent.
The scam involves 32 projects in the underdeveloped Vidarbha region alone, while the rest are in Konkan and north Maharashtra.
Incidentally, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has begun 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 per cent 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.
VIDC, however, argued 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 another instance, revised administrative approval for the Lower Wardha project was granted on 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 that 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, VIDC hurriedly invited tenders for 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. He said these decisions were taken well within the power vested in him as the irrigation minister.
Earlier, the state 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.