In an affidavit filed before the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court just a day before the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government was sworn in on November 28, Maharashtra’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) exonerated former Water Resources Development Minister Ajit Pawar of the allegations he had been facing for the multi-crore irrigation scam that rocked the state about a decade ago.
In the 16-page November 27 affidavit, Rashmi Nandedkar, ACB SP, Nagpur, stated, “The Chairman of the VIDC/ Minister of WRD cannot be held responsible for the acts of executing agencies, as there is no legal duty on his part.” Nandedkar was referring to Ajit Pawar’s tenure as Chairman, Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation and the Minister of Water Resources Department during the Congress-NCP government in the state.
This assumes significance because on November 25, a day before Fadnavis and Pawar resigned as Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister, respectively, following a Supreme Court order for a floor test in the state Assembly, the ACB had closed nine “open enquiries” initiated into the alleged irrigation scam. On November 28, the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government under Uddhav Thackeray was sworn in.
Ajit Pawar’s exoneration was a result of enquiry processes that took place during the term of Fadnavis-led BJP-Sena government. In his election campaign though, Fadnavis had raised the issue of irrigation scam and Pawar’s involvement in it.
Although he was never named by the ACB, its then chief Sanjay Barve, in an affidavit filed on November 26, 2018, had told the Nagpur Bench that Pawar had intervened in the process of award of contracts for irrigation projects.
While clearing Pawar, the affidavit put the blame for the two key alleged irregularities – approval to updated tender cost and release of Mobilization Advance (MA) to contractors – on the WRD Principal Secretary and Executive Director of VIDC.
The affidavit states, “There are two allegations against the Chairman of the VIDC viz. (A) Regarding grant of sanction to the liability of the tender cost including that of updated cost and (B) grant of Mobilization Advance to the contractor despite there was no mention of the same in the tender booklet. Detailed enquiries/ investigations have been conducted in this regard. Opinion of the expert committee members appointed by the Government for advice during the course of enquiry on technical issues have been obtained. Similarly, queries were referred to the government also. The Rules of Business of Government of Maharashtra, opinion given by the above authorities and the clarification given by the then Minister of Water Resources Department, the ex-officio Chairman of the VIDC, were taken into consideration along with the other evidence collected during the course of enquiry/ investigations. So also the reports of Nandkumar Wadnere Committee, H T Mendhegiri Committee and Dr Madhavrao Chitale Committee are referred for the allegations in the PILs, etc.”
It further says, “As regards grant of sanctions to the liability of the tender cost, including that of updated cost, it is revealed during the course of enquiry/ investigation that I) only note-sheets for grant of liability of the tender cost were sent to the Chairman of the Corporation by the Executive Director of the VIDC. In most of the cases, the Executive Director has accorded permission to the updated cost of the tender work, being within 5% of updated tender cost, as he is empowered to accept the tender up to 5% above the cost. The proposals for acceptance of the liability for the entire tender cost were being submitted to the Chairman with the recommendation of the Executive Director. In some cases, the recommendations were also given by the Principal Secretary of the Water Resources Department, who is ex-officio Managing Director of the Corporation. But neither the Executive Director nor the Managing Director have ever given negative remarks on note-sheets for the same. There is no evidence on record to say that the Secretary of the Department had briefed the Minister of Water Resources Department about not accepting the liability of the tender work.”
“As regard grant of Mobilization Advance to the contractor despite there was no mention of the same in the tender booklet, it is revealed that i) Mobilization Advance is different from the tendering process. It is granted to the contractor of the VIDC under Section 19(2) (i) of the VIDC Act, 1997. The section empowers the corporation to grant advances to the contractors in the interest of work, on the request of contractors, under separate agreement, with interest, with proper security of re-payment, etc. The contractors have repaid all the amounts of Mobilization Advance with interest. As such, there is no financial loss caused to the Government and since the contractor has repaid the entire amount of Mobilization Advance with interest at the rate of Prime Lending Rate + 0.2%, it cannot be said that the contractor was benefited.”
Holding the departmental Secretary responsible for “careful observance of these rules”, the affidavit stated, “when he considers that there has been any material departure from them, he shall personally bring the matter to the notice of the Minister in charge and the Chief Secretary.”
“Similarly, the Water Resources Department through its letters dated 10.9.2018 and 11.6.2019 had clarified that there is no loss to the Government due to grant of Mobilization Advance. It has also pointed out that since the Mobilization Advance is not connected with the tendering process, three is no mention in the tender booklet about ‘Mobilization Advance’ whether it will be granted or will not be granted. It is revealed during the enquiry that the Central Vigilance Compression has prohibited from mentioning about the grant of Mobilization Advance. The Chairman of the VIDC has acted in line with the then prevailing policy of the Corporation and in accordance with the proposals put up before him by the Executive Directors or Managing Directors of the VIDC.”
“It is further submitted that the Government of Maharashtra vide its letter dated 10.9.2018 has clarified that it cannot be said that there was any irregularity in the grant of Revised Administrative Approvals (RAA),” the affidavit said. “Nothing adverse regarding money trail linkages had been noticed so far, neither documentary evidence nor oral evidence could be gathered during the course of enquiry so far in this regard,” it stated.
The affidavit also said that none of the enquiry committees appointed by the government earlier had held the Chairman responsible for the irregularities. It mentioned the progress in investigation into 17 irrigation projects and 302 tenders from the Nagpur division and requested the court to dispose the petitions since the issues raised had been addressed.
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