The statue of Rani Laxmi Bai, the fiery Queen of Jhansi, atop the Datodi gram panchayat building in Yavatmal district, is an inspiration for villagers to spearhead the agitation against the Lower Painganga irrigation project.
The inter-state project between Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, which is supposed to irrigate 1,60,050 hectares, is in the spotlight for cost escalation, alleged irregularities in awarding tenders and corruption in land acquisition.
The Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) had awarded tenders worth Rs 2,581 crore during 2007-12 after the project received an in-principle clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).
However, following the recent expose of irregularities in the project, VIDC cancelled tenders worth Rs 2,200 crore. Although tenders to the tune of Rs 500 crore were already in place, no work could be initiated due to protests by villagers. The project still awaits MoEF’s final approval, and VIDC discontinued the work at the project site in May following protests from the locals.
The project was originally proposed in July 1982 at a cost of Rs 1,042 crore. However, the cost shot up 10-fold to Rs 10,429.3 crore in 2008-09. According to villagers, the cost would increase further to touch Rs 13,000 crore due to delays and inflation. For example, VIDC granted administrative approval for the project only in August 2009.
A VIDC official says, “The cost has increased following a 67 per cent rise in project works, nine per cent hike due to change in scope and two per cent rise due to change in design. Further, land acquisition and rehabilitation costs rose by 16 per cent and there was a six per cent hike in establishment costs.”
Datodi sarpanch Prahlad Patil Jagtap questions the government’s intent to pursue the project at the cost of submergence of farm and forest lands.
Patil Jagtap clarifies villagers are protesting spontaneously and there is no politics behind it.
“I must tell you the Panchayat Extension to Schedule Areas Act prohibits any alienation of land in the scheduled areas, and it is mandatory to obtain the permission of the gram sabha before acquiring land in such areas. However, VIDC initiated the project activity without consulting the gram sabha and, therefore, it is illegal.” Jagtap adds the permission was awaited even under the Environment Protection Act and Forests Right Act. Besides, VIDC and several government departments have not done adequate scientific research about the site selected for constructing the dam.
Villagers suspect that tenders were awarded above cost and there was widespread corruption during the acquisition of 700 hectares of the total 20,000 hectares. Balaji Yerawar, an advocate and a petitioner in the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court against the project, alleges VIDC’s Rs 50 crore land acquisition deal lacks transparency and it was a scam of Rs 10 crore, which needs to be probed.
“First of all, why has VIDC shown haste in awarding tenders above cost and cancelled some of them in January this year?” asks Yerawar. Construction of a bridge connecting the Khambala village in Nanded district and Khadka in Yavatmal district over Lower Painganga was started, but now it is left unfinished even though VIDC had mobilised machinery to do the filling work. “The entire model is wrong. Instead of a big project like this, the government should consider construction of a series of barrages, which will avoid submergence and also benefit agricultural lands,” he suggests.
Notwithstanding the protests, VIDC makes a strong case for the project, as it will create water storage of 3,305.42 million cubic feet to provide irrigation to 16,650 hectares.
A VIDC official says the project will solve water problem of 50 villages and will benefit the coming cement units in Chandrapur and Yavatmal districts.
VIDC’s argument finds few takers. Pralhad Gawande, a retired school teacher, says, “According to the norms, only 20 per cent land is irrigated by any project of such magnitude. The Lower Painganga project will irrigate 32,000 hectares, not 1,60,050 hectares. Already, over 30,000 hectares of land is irrigated in the villages to be submerged. Besides, the cost will be Rs 6.5 to Rs 30 lakh per hectare to irrigate 20 per cent land.” Villagers are banking on the outcome of the legal case, as they have little hope from the government’s much-debated ‘white paper’ and probe against VIDC’s 45 officials.
This is the third of a five-part series on what went wrong in Maharashtra