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Explained: Maharashtra’s irrigation scam, and how NCP leader Ajit Pawar figures in it

Ajit Pawar, a BJP ally for three and a half days, was Water Resources Minister in previous Congress-NCP governments during the time allegations of irregularities surfaced in irrigation projects in Maharashtra.

Written by Kavitha Iyer | Mumbai | Updated: November 28, 2019 9:52:16 am
Explained: ajit pawar and Maharashtra’s irrigation scam Ajit Pawar leaves from his residence in Churchgate on November 24, 2019. (Express Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

On Monday, the day before NCP leader Ajit Pawar resigned as Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister, the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) said it had closed nine “open enquiries” in connection with the alleged multi-crore irrigation scam.

The ACB denied this was done to give a “clean chit” to Ajit Pawar whose support had enabled the swearing-in of a BJP-led government (which has now resigned).

Where does Ajit Pawar figure in this?

Ajit Pawar was Water Resources Minister in previous Congress-NCP governments during the time allegations of irregularities surfaced in irrigation projects, including in Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) of which he was chairman. Maharashtra has five region-specific Irrigation Development Corporations.

While Ajit Pawar has not been named in any of the FIRs, then ACB Director-General Sanjay Barve had told the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court in November 2018 that Ajit Pawar had intervened in the process of award of contracts for irrigation projects. The nine enquiries closed were out of open enquiries into 2,654 tenders for 45 VIDC projects. The ACB said it had completed open enquiries into 212 tenders, registered 24 FIRs and filed chargesheets in five cases.

Explained: ajit pawar and Maharashtra’s irrigation scam The ACB press note on the issue clarifies: “None of these 9 enquiries is in respect of Shri Ajit Pawar”.

What was the nature of the allegations?

As of June 2011, irrigation potential of 48.26 lakh hectares had been created by the Maharashtra Water Resources Department through 3,712 completed and ongoing projects, while the irrigation potential utilised as of June 2012 was only 32.51 lakh hectares, or 67.36%.

Between 2001-02 and 2011-12, various reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India on Water Resources Department projects highlighted the absence of long-term plans, non-prioritisation of projects, delays in completion, commencement of work without forest/ environmental clearances, etc.

Read | Dy CM Ajit Pawar was BJP target in irrigation, other ‘scams’

How did the allegations first surface?

In 2012, then chief engineer of the Maharashtra Engineering Training Academy and former Irrigation Department engineer Vijay Pandhare wrote to Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and Governor K Sankaranarayanan recommending CBI investigations into inflated cost estimates and other alleged irregularities in dam-building contracts handed out by different Irrigation Development Corporations. The first whistle-blower in the case, Pandhare had to be given police protection after then Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar resigned as details emerged of irregularities in multiple contracts. Pandhare later unsuccessfully contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections on an AAP ticket. Other activists who flagged irregularities included Anjali Damania (she too contested unsuccessfully as an AAP candidate) and Pravin Wategaonkar.

How did the then government respond?

Early details of the alleged scam came in Pandhare’s first letter in February 2012. In March 2012, the annual Economic Survey report tabled in the Assembly said the department had spent about Rs 70,000 crore over a decade on dam projects that had added a mere 0.1% to area under irrigation.

For over a decade until then, the NCP had controlled the water resources department, with Ajit Pawar as minister for a good part of that period. The NCP contested the data, but Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan appeared to favour the Opposition’s demand for a probe. (In subsequent years’ Economic Survey reports, the increase in area under irrigation was simply dropped.) In August 2012, Chavan ordered a white paper be prepared; in September, Ajit Pawar quit the Cabinet, returning in December after the white paper was presented. The Opposition insisted on an impartial probe, following which on December 31, 2012, the Congress-NCP government constituted a Special Investigation Team chaired by Dr Madhav Chitale, former Union Water Resources Secretary. In June 2014, the Chitale committee report was tabled in the Assembly. It gave a clean chit to Ajit Pawar and then Water Resources Minister Sunil Tatkare and instead blamed top officials. It said the irrigation potential in the state had grown by 20%, not 0.1%, over 10 years. The state government also tabled an action taken report.

Have there been other reports?

In 2014, the CAG undertook a performance audit on ‘Management of Irrigation Projects’ between 2007 and 2013. It confirmed some of the allegations made by activists since 2012. Among its findings: The Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority cleared 189 projects during 2007-13 even though there was no State Water Resource Plan based on which the projects were required to be cleared. Absence of prioritisation meant new projects were taken up in non-backlog districts, resulting in thin spreading of resources. It said the Water Resources Department was “saddled with 601 projects which were under execution as on June 2013 with an estimated balance cost of Rs 82,609.64 crore”. The balance cost was nine times the capital grant to the department for 2012-13. In many cases, land acquisition was not completed before work began, leading to stalled works and delays. In other cases, improper surveys before works resulted in cost escalations. The Irrigation Development Corporations also violated provisions of the Maharashtra Public Works Manual, allowing expenditure more than 10% in excess of administrative approvals and even over and above the revised administrative approvals, all without approval of the competent authority.

How did the last government follow up on these allegations?

While in Opposition, BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis had been at the forefront in demanding a probe. In December 2014, just a month since he assumed charge as Chief Minister, Fadnavis gave his nod to opening inquiries by the anti-corruption bureau into the role of Ajit Pawar and Tatkare in the irrigation scam. The probe would also extend to the roles of contractors and officials, the government said. The government also suspended four four engineers with an alleged role in the financial irregularities of the Kondane dam project in Raigad district of Konkan, executed during Tatkare’s tenure as minister. The charges against the officials were related to cost escalation of the project from Rs 80.35 crore to Rs 327.62 crore, and a decision to raise the dam height to 32.30 metres taken without seeking approval from the competent authorities. Nearly 45 more officials were facing departmental inquiries.

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