M'rashtra irrigation scam: The chilling script remains same

M'rashtra irrigation scam: The chilling script remains same

In the age of scams the only thing that does not change are the handful of tightly drafted scripts even though actors do change with the shift in locales. Multi-crore Maharashtra irrigation scam is no different from the ‘somebody carting away money,’ episodes grabbing the news radar every week.

The irrigation scam has so far taken the scalp of Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, while the ‘nerves’ that transmitted the tainted monies, like the companies and contractors involved in irrigation projects, as well as engineers who headed the irrigation and public works departments, continue to enjoy the cool breeze of their air-conditioned offices.

The scam, currently estimated at around Rs 30,000 crore and growing bigger by the day, was there for all to see but no one took any action. Local media abounded with small stories of brazen irregularities and manipulation of accounts, to ‘in-depth’ news reports of money flowing into ‘dubious development projects’ in drought-hit hinterlands.

Several socially active groups from the dry and arid Vidarbha region had brought to light the malpractices and siphoning of money taking place in the name of irrigation development for several years now, but, voices from the cotton belt failed to make themselves heard in the country’s market capital --Mumbai.

However, last week, a woman with grit managed to expose and puncture the inflamed wart full of pus waiting to explode. When it finally opened, it revealed the hideous face of water politics and politics of land usurpation hiding behind the mask of development.

The woman activist, Anjali Damania, a volunteer of India Against Corruption (IAC), took up the cudgels when the government last year began bearing down on her and coaxing her to hand over a plot of her land in Raigad district for ‘development.’ As this upper middle class woman decided to come out and fight the land grab, she found that there were many more poor farmers and villagers being similarly harassed.

She used the RTI to find out details of the projects being undertaken and it opened a Pandora’s Box. The documents revealed undue escalation of costs, rampant irregularities and siphoning of funds marked for development. The projects taken up by the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) alone, for instance, showed that the costs had shot up from Rs 6,672.27 crore to Rs 20,050.06 crore, while in Raigad, the expenditure had sky-rocketed by 500 per cent.

While moving the court against the irregularities, Anjali kept the media abreast of her findings. Vijay Pandhare, an upright engineer from the irrigation department, helped her cause by writing a letter citing not just the shoddy work, but even pointing out cases where money had been spent on phantom projects.

Seeking a probe

In Vidarbha, Jan Manch, a voluntary organisation, moved a public interest litigation in court seeking a probe into VIDC projects; Ms Damania also moved the court demanding a special investigation team to be set up to look into Konkan Irrigation Development Corporation (KIDC) projects.

The script, the activists found, was the same in all irrigation projects with just a change in the ‘cast’ on the stage depending on the region where it was being played.
A rough estimate of dam construction projects in the coastal belt Raigad indicate post-haste clearance for one particular beneficiary may have touched the mark of Rs 15,000 crore. A case in point is that of Kondhane Dam Project. The project snugly nestles in the beautiful pastoral village Kondhane, in Karjat (taluka) of the coastal Raigad district. RTI enquires into the murky past of the project reveals that it was passed without any impact viability report and the contract was doled out in violation of laid down norms of KIDC as well as that of Central Vigilance Commission (CVC.)

According to details made available to the media by Damania, the entire period between the mooting and sanctioning of the Kondhane Dam Project spanned just six month; a month after the awarding of the contract the value sky-rocketed by six times. Interestingly, the technical sanction for project was also cleared within 24 hours. The project was granted cabinet approval on May 19, 2011; on May 26, 2011 technical sanctions were sought and the next day technical sanction was granted with a budgetary approval of Rs 56 crore for a 39-metre height dam.

The story does not end here. On May 29, 2011, the executive engineer wrote to the irrigation department in Mumbai to advertise tenders in national, state and local newspapers; in a couple of days the advertisements appeared in neighbourhood newspapers, seeking submission of tenders in a week’s time. In July, three bids were short-listed with two of them sharing a same director. The company that had scored 23 out of 30 in equipment evaluation test was rejected while the firm scoring barely 12 managed to add one more project to its total list of 13 large projects running in the same district.

In August, the budgetary approval was quietly pushed up from Rs 56 crore to Rs 328 crore along with the raising of the dam height from 39 metres to 71 metres. The reason: local representatives wanted the dam height to be raised. Today, the cost of the project has touched Rs 614.45 crore.

All along the state government did not deem it necessary to intimate any farmer about the project nor did it bother to initiate land acquisition process till 40 per cent of the work was completed.

Ironically, the state did not even bother to inform railways (the project runs parallel to the rail tracks on Mumbai-Pune line) or the forest department, even though trees were merrily hacked, or the Archaeology Survey of India (ASI), which oversees the historical sites --Kondhane Caves and Rajmachi Fort located in the vicinity of the project. Kondhane Dam is just one such project.

The script is being staged with impunity in every part of the state and possibly, in other parts of the country as well.