MUMBAI: Even as Maharashtra is facing one of the worst droughts in recent times, the state government is inundated with controversies related to irrigation dam projects. Though the Water Resources Department (WRD)—formerly irrigation department—has vehemently denied the allegations of what social activists and Opposition parties claim a massive scam running into thousands of crores, the department has not been able to provide a convincing reply to the alarming cost escalation in the projects.
Project costs of dams jump to alarming proportions after the tenders are allotted. What starts as a small scale irrigation project ends up being a massive dam. According to Vinod Tawde, BJP MLC and Leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra Legislative Council, cost escalation has become a norm in dam projects. The Jigaon dam project in Nandura Taluka of Buldana district, which was originally costing Rs 396 crore, is now costing Rs 4,044 crore; the cost of constructing the Ghosikhurd dam in Chandrapur district was pegged at Rs 330 crore whereas now it is Rs 7,700 crore; the minor irrigation project on the river Nani in Sangli district started off from Rs 34 crore and is now costing Rs 1,567 crore. Tawde has estimated the loss to the state exchequer to the tune of Rs 26,000 crore. The figure is arrived at from the unplanned expenditure over and above the allocated funds in the budget of the WRD.
According to a principal secretary, the fact that the finance department is also under the control of the NCP has helped the WRD with unlimited access to funds.
If Tawde alone would be targeting the WRD, which has been the fiefdom of the NCP since 1999, the party would have tackled it politically. However, social activists raising war cry over the massive financial irregularity of the WRD is giving the NCP sleepless nights.
Anjali Damania, an activist of the Indian Against Corruption, had sought information through RTI after coming to know that her land at Karjat in Raigad district would be submerged under the water from the under-construction Kondhane dam project. Damania was shell-shocked when she received the information. “Besides the lack of vital clearances and approvals from forest and environment department, there has been no technical study done on the impact of constructing the dam. Moreover, the height and cost of the dam escalated merely a month after the contract was awarded,” said Damania. The official reason for the raising the dam height was that it was done based on the recommendations of an elected representative.
What started as Rs 46-crore project at Kondhane became a Rs 328-crore project in a month’s time and according to sources in WRD, the cost almost doubled in less than a year’s time. There are more such instances. The initial estimate of Balganga dam at Pen in Raigad district being funded by the City Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) for supplying drinking water was Rs 353.89 crore and the contract was awarded at 40 per cent above this estimate for Rs 488 crore. However, the revised cost of constructing the dam is Rs 1,220 crore. The Kalu dam in Thane district has gone from Rs 380 to Rs 1,320 crore and the dam on the river Shahi, also in Thane, shot to Rs 1,600 crore from Rs 421 crore.
Damania has now filed a Public Interest Litigation before the Bombay High Court regarding the ‘dam scams’ in Maharashtra seeking appropriate orders from the court to put a stop to “looting of public money by constructing dams”. The high court on May 11 had issued notices to all the parties concerned to file a reply.
The woes of the WRD seems to be overflowing from all directions as it is also facing flak from Governor K Sankaranarayanan for ignoring the guidelines issued by his office with regard to taking up new dam projects. For the period 2009 to 2012, the Raj Bhavan had issued guidelines to the WRD to focus on pending projects and not take up new projects. The Governor had made exception for drought-prone districts such as Amravati, Akola, Buldana and Washim. However, despite the restriction imposed by the Governor, the WRD went ahead in taking up new projects even in districts that are not prone to drought such as Thane and Raigad. In Thane, 26 new small and big dam projects are coming up while neighbouring Raigad has 28 dam projects. Sankaranarayanan has demanded an explanation from the WRD for overstepping the guidelines.
Meanwhile, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan tried to make the most of the controversies related to the irrigation projects by seeking a white paper on the projects undertaken in the last 10 years. Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar was the irrigation minister from 1999 to 2009 and since then his NCP brethren Sunil Tatkare is in-charge of the department that was renamed in 2004 as WRD.
Till now only the Congress ministers have been facing allegations of corruption in the state. If NCP ministers also suffer similar fate, it would help Chavan strip its ally of holier-than-thou attitude.