The State water resources department, which has claimed to have retained its workers in the wake of the migrant exodus, is now worried that financial constraints could slacken the progress of critical irrigation projects.
The department’s ambitious plan to mobilise funds through market bonds to expedite mega irrigation projects will have to be put on hold. Apart from this, the state finance ministry’s decision to curtail budget expenditure will also impact ongoing irrigation projects.
State Water Resources Minister Jayant Patil told The Indian Express, “The irrigation project works were never stopped even during lockdown. All our 22,000 labourers are in 537 irrigation camps. We took concrete measures to ensure they don’t leave the camp; we provided all facilities, including foodgrains, healthcare, etc.”
Maintaining that financial needs to take all pending projects to their logical end remain a challenge, Patil said, “Mobilising massive funds for completing the projects is a real task.” The curtailment of expenditure would also impact the speed of work, he added.
However, the minister has ruled out bringing irrigation projects under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). “The irrigation projects require skilled work. Since a huge component comes under skill category, we have not considered MGNREGS.”
Earlier, there were suggestions that irrigation projects should be covered under MGNREGS as it would help ensure daily wage for workers and also help the state government to create a permanent asset. In the absence of consensus among the three-party coalition, the government has decided to drop the proposal citing it was not practical.
The 2020-21 budget allocation for water resources department is Rs. 10, 235 crore. The total number of ongoing irrigation projects in the state are 313 and the funds required to complete them are Rs 1.09 lakh crore.
The projects are critical as the state irrigation potential stands at 18.9 per cent. It is much below the national average of 47 per cent. The state, with two-third rain shadow area, has been grappling with recurring drought and vast non-irrigated stretches of land. There are 123 projects in Vidarbha, which require Rs. 43,560 crore. In drought-hit Marathwada, there are 55 projects worth Rs. 16,385 crore. In the rest the state, 135 irrigation projects will require Rs. 49,445 crore.
According to a senior secretary in the water resources department, “Irrigation projects are worst-hit whenever there is financial crisis as it often leads to stalling the progress of ongoing projects.”
The official said the lockdown enforced in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak was a reason for financial problems within the government as well as the private sector, but even the annual budget allocation for 2020-21 did not commensurate to the department’s requirements. So, the focus will be on shortlisting projects on priority, where 75 per cent of the work had been completed, and the rest will be kept on hold leading to 80 per cent cost escalation, the official added.
The department has already issued directives against taking up any new irrigation project in the state.
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