MUMBAI ~ Many parts of Maharashtra are reeling under severe drought this year. This, in spite of the fact that the state was the first to implement a programme for drought relief, back in the 1970s. Over the past decade, the state has spent Rs 70,000 crore on various irrigation projects. But in roughly the same period, the number of drought-hit talukas has more than doubled. So, where has all this money gone? That is what Congress Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan has demanded of his party’s ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which has held the irrigation portfolio since 1999. Under pressure from the Centre and the opposition, the CM
was virtually forced to direct the ministry to put out a white paper on irrigation projects.
In the last decade, since the NCP was given charge of the department, there have been numerous complaints of corruption in various projects. However, former CMs Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushilkumar Shinde and Ashok Chavan took no action. Perhaps they did not want to irk the Congress’ coalition partner in the state. There have also been loud protests over the proliferation of ‘unauthorised’ dams, but the state paid little heed. Until now. The current CM’s call for a clean-up has caught wide attention, not least for its possible fallout on the NCP-Congress alliance.
The rot runs deep. Maharashtra’s recent Economic Survey report reveals that the state’s ‘irrigation potential’ has grown at a dismal 0.1 per cent in the decade since 2000. This growth is shockingly low, given the scale of spending by the department. Corrupt deals struck through a dubious tendering process, particularly for dams, have come under public scrutiny for the first time, thanks to RTI queries.
Though there are an estimated 700 projects yet to be completed by the irrigation department, each year the cash-strapped state allocates more funds for newer projects. The department routinely calls for new tenders and hands over projects to contractors who happen to be relatives or cronies of NCP leaders. These contractors, according to Mantralaya sources, pocket most of the money and leave the projects half-finished, citing cost escalation as an excuse.
When India Against Corruption activist Anjali Damania filed an RTI query about the under-construction Kondane Dam in Karjat, near Pune, she was shocked to find that it did not have the mandatory clearances by other ministries. This dam started out with an initial construction cost of Rs 57 crore, a figure that has since shot up to Rs 435 crore, and it is not even half finished yet. Interestingly, only 25 per cent of the water from this dam will be ‘potable water’, the rest will be supplied to Special Economic Zones for industrial purposes and to large housing projects being undertaken by influential developers. Sources say that similar allocations of water resources have been charted out for most other dams under construction.
In another instance, the under-construction Balganga Dam in Pen taluka of Raigad district started out with a budget of Rs 488 crore; it has now risen to Rs 1,120 crore. The contractor has not met the deadline. Despite such a poor track record, he has been awarded 10 more dam projects in the state. In the Vidarbha region, which has been making headlines for farmer suicides for years now, one irrigation project has stayed incomplete for almost 30 years. The cost of this project has risen from Rs 370 crore to Rs 7,770 crore.
RTI replies reveal that even land acquisition is not being done properly in these places. In the Balganga Dam project, for example, people from 13 villages whose lives have been disrupted have got a ‘stay order’ from a court on the construction, but work continues in blatant violation of this order. In another case, the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) is building dams across two rivers in Murbad taluka of Thane district, as a result of which 52 villages and 3,040 hectares of land will be submerged. The MMRDA has abandoned all rehabilitation efforts, citing the high cost of resettling those displaced.
As of now, after some bickering, the NCP has agreed to publish a white paper on irrigation. Maharashtra’s Water Resources Minister Sunil Tatkare has said that for the completion of 199 ‘almost ready’ projects, his ministry requires Rs 4,128 crore, and he hopes that the Centre would grant permission to secure a loan for the same. On his part, Chavan seems keen to portray himself as a leader ready to crack down on corruption. But will he match his posturing with action? It was only last week that he led a delegation to the Prime Minister, seeking extra funds for the state’s drought hit areas. Project cost overruns, meanwhile, remain as “mindboggling”—to use the word of a BJP legislator—as ever.