Vidarbha: Insatiable and Corrupt

While farmers suffer and their parched land craves water, most irrigation projects in Vidarbha worth thousands of crores of rupees have turned into gigantic scams

It is telling when thousands of crores of rupees are spent on irrigation projects and yet the irrigation potential of a region increases by only 0.1 per cent in a decade. In Vidarbha, a criminal nexus of certain elected representatives and officials is siphoning off money that is meant to protect farmers from committing suicide. Many others who saw this as a lucrative opportunity and entered the arena as petty contractors are also at the receiving end with debts that have turned their lives upside down. “In other departments there are contractors of projects, but in the irrigation department there are projects of big contractors,” says Wamanrao Kasawar, Congress MLA of Wani.

Many in Vidarbha believe that it is a criminal conspiracy by the power centres in Western Maharashtra to keep the region in a perennial state of distress. This is a violation of the ‘Nagpur Pact’ which paved the way for Vidarbha’s inclusion into Maharashtra.

The dubious dealings of Ajit Pawar

Mobilisation/machinery advance refers to any payment made in advance to contractors to help start their work. The central government’s PWD manual says that mobilisation advance should be given under special circumstances and the contractors should be charged interest for the advance. However, the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) ignored all these provisions and went ahead with providing mobilisation advances worth crores to rupees to a few contractors. Despite the fact that official circular in March 2000 prohibited any kind of advances in the tender documents, the VIDC gave mobilisation advance to the tune of Rs 614.46 crore to a handful of contractors.

 The Wadnere Committee and CAG report of 2012 on irrigation projects highlighted the fact that undue benefit was given to contractors in the garb of mobilisation advance. The Wadnere Committee also mentioned that the approval for these advances came from AjitPawar and the ex-officio chairman of VIDC between 2007 and 2009. The contractors who benefited from these advances were all politically connected and considered close to Pawar. These include SMS Infrastructure Limited, owned by relatives of BJP MP Ajay Sancheti (apparently a close aide of NitinGadkari), and its joint ventures, and the Bajoria Construction Company of SandeepBajoria, among others. Sancheti was the biggest beneficiary, receiving advances to the tune of Rs 815.0298 crore for six different projects under VIDC, as per
official reports.

The central PWD manual prohibits payment of any advance in most cases, but allows it to the extent of 5 per cent under extraordinary circumstances. No such rule was followed and advances were paid to the tune of 20 per cent to certain contractors. The rate of interest was way too low. When the CAG raised the issue with the Maharashtra government, the audit body was informed that considering the initial investment and purchase of material/machinery, huge advances were paid to the contractors in the interest of projects. Ironically, there have been many projects where the contractors availed of the mobilisation fund but did not start any work. This is a clear violation of rules and regulations.

The VIDC granted these advances at the behest of the then executive director, DP Shirke. He reportedly acted under the orders of Pawar. After the official circular of March 2000, no advance was paid till 2007. It all gathered momentum post-2007. Citing these irregularities, an upright BT Redkar, Deputy Secretary, Irrigation Ministry, issued a circular on April 16, 2008, mentioning that the clause of mobilisation advance should not be included in the tender document. It also mentioned that disciplinary action would be taken against those who choose to indulge in such misappropriation.

Later, Pawar was made aware of circular and, on May 14, 2008, his private secretary wrote a scathing letter to Redkar, asking him to withdraw it. In his letter, the secretary wrote, “As per the directions of honourable minister, his permission must be taken before issuing any such circular. The minister has directed to scrap the circular.” Even the Wadnere Committee revealed that there was no clause for grant of mobilisation fund in the tender document and mentioned that the contractors got the advance at the behest of the VIDC chairman.

Meanwhile, under tremendous pressure, the state government has initiated an inquiry and suspended 45 VIDC officials, including Shirke. However, there is no clarity on how the government will deal with what locals say are the brazenly dubious dealings of Pawar. 

Take the case of the Aakpuri Project in Yavatmal district wherein the irrigation department wasn’t even aware of where Aaakpuri was. NCP MLC Sandeep Bajoria, one of the prosperous and influential contractors of Vidarbha, did a survey, zeroed in the site and then named it Aakpuri. “Some of the people whose land was to be acquired for the project did a study of the project and realised that the land being acquired for the project was more than the area that would be irrigated by the project,” says Kasawar.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2012