A high-level inquiry committee has exposed how crores in welfare funds meant for irrigating farm land belonging to poor tribal households across Maharashtra was systematically siphoned off. Contracts for lift irrigation schemes in tribal areas were awarded to a select coterie of contractors without following the tendering process, the inquiry has revealed. In a majority of the cases, the committee has found, these schemes were either never implemented or were left incomplete. “The poor tribal farmers did not benefit at all from these irrigation schemes. Most of the contracts were nothing but a fraud,” said inquiry panel’s chief Justice (Retd) M G Gaikwad.
The committee found that a large chunk of the contract amount had been paid to the contractor as advance payments before the start of the work.
While the investigation pertains to the period of 2004-2009 when former Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) minister Dr Vijaykumar Gavit was heading the tribal development department, activists have alleged that the same corrupt practice has been continuing, and have demanded an investigation.
The five-member Gaikwad committee was appointed by the Maharashtra government on April 15, 2014, following directives of the Bombay High Court (HC), which is hearing a public interest litigation that has alleged that there was rampant corruption in various tribal welfare schemes when Dr Gavit was at the helm. The former minister is now a BJP legislator from Nandurbar.
While the committee submitted its report about three months ago, the 3,000-page report was eventually out in public domain after the HC chief justice stepped in. Starting May 5, The Indian Express has published a series of reports on various revelations made by the inquiry panel.
“The advance payments made to the contractor was an act of collusion,” the committee’s report observes. While the lift irrigation projects are small in scale when compared to dam projects (each project costs Rs 1 lakh), the committee has found that 50 to 100 projects were allotted to one contractor at one go, without following any tendering process. “The project officials, when cross-examined, could not explain why tendering process wasn’t followed,” states the report.
The committee has also raised a red flag over the allotment of the work to same contractors repeatedly over five years. “This trend was visible across the state. The transactions seem suspicious,” said Justice (Retd) Gaikwad.
For instance, the committee’s probe found that a Nandurbar-based contractor, Akashdeep Society, and another Jalgaon-based contractor, the Annadata Krushi Sansodhan Sanstha, bagged a majority of the projects in North Maharashtra. In Nashik, several lift irrigation contracts were also bagged by an educational institute, Late Amruta Wakhchoure Trust (Akole). “The constitution of the educational institution does not show them as being involved in any construction activity. Even so, they were allotted the contracts without any tendering,” the committee has observed. The Akashdeep Society has also bagged contracts in Dahanu and Jawahar tribal belts of Mumbai Metropolitan Region. In Vidarbha, companies such as Godavari Polymers, Green Gold Irrigation, Maru Chemicals had dominated tribal irrigation-related projects.
In Nandurbar, the committee found, one contract was allotted to two contractors in 2008. When the officer concerned was cross-examined, she alleged that “one of them had been allotted on the oral instructions of Dr Gavit, the then minister”. The contractor in question had issued the supply order, even as it had not been empanelled as a rate contractor on the government’s list.
While the order came to be cancelled later, the committee has ruled that the “transaction with the contractor was suspicious since the company wasn’t even entitled to enter the race for the contract”.
In his written submission, Dr Gavit, who appeared before the inquiry committee, has however denied any role in the allotment of the contracts. “The officers had been careless and did not maintain proper records, did not follow procedures. Now to avoid consequences, they are making false statements that they had acted on my oral instructions,” Dr Gavit has said.
The committee said it came across several cases where payments were released to contractors using bogus receipts and fake records.
Further, across Maharashtra, polyethylene pipes worth Rs 20 crore, meant to be supplied for such irrigation systems, were found illegally disposed of. The inquiry also revealed that public money was misappropriated in the name of construction of new wells in such belts. The committee has recommended prosecution against all errant officials and contractors in these frauds.