Activists, citizens groups enraged by silence on hyped water availability estimates, bad construction and corruption
Maharashtra government’s much-hyped white paper on the irrigation scam in the state was met with loud protests from people and citizens’ groups. They accused the state of evading basic issues raised by them. The paper makes no attempts whatsoever to explore the irregularities pointed out in the Wadnere and Mendhegiri Committee reports and the numerous public interest petitions filed in courts across the state.
Instead, the report spread over 800-odd pages presents old secondary data, citing oft-repeated excuses for delays and cost escalations that have already been rejected by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). Key points of investigation like accuracy of water-availability reports and violations of Maharashtra Public Manual (MPM), have not been addressed at all. Also, no cost-benefit analysis, for which demands were raised vehemently, has been done.
“The first feature of a white paper, even if you go by the Wikipedia definition,” says Vishwambhar Chaudhary, Pune-based EIA expert and environment activist, “is that it is a democratic process, involving public consultations. But in this case, no consultation has been done, and no irregularity has been directly addressed. The paper reads more like a routine status report.” Chaudhary is currently studying the scam in the Marathwada region, and hopes to publish a detailed study in a few months.
“We had expected that at least a few sample projects will be taken up and studied for irregularities and cost-benefit analysis would be done,” says Indavi Tulpule of non-profit Shramik Mukti Sanghatana, who has filed a public interest petition on cost escalation and MPM violations in the Kalu dam in Konkan.
Why dams failed
The highly technical question of water availability and fake water discharge estimates used to increase the size of dams and raise dewatering costs has been sidelined completely by the paper. “All over Maharashtra, dams have failed due to hyped water availability estimates, which fact has been brought to the notice of government repeatedly,” says Chaudhary, “But the report is completely silent on the issue. All that you find is old official data that can be found in any irrigation document.”
Instead, says Chaudhary, the paper should have given the list of projects where fake water discharge reports have been given, the amount of public money wasted because of these reports, and what action is being taken against officials responsible for the situation. Faulty project implementation to benefit contractors is also an area of pointed silence. Chaudhary gives the example of the Seena-Koregaon project in Usmanabad district where 100 km of distributary canals have been dug for 21 TMC water to be received from the Krishna river, without raising the capacity of the 5.3 TMC project to receive the water in the first place.
Omissions are even more glaring in the case of more publicised projects like Gosekhurd in Vidarbha, where reports of the Wadnere and Mendhegiri committee have pointedly mentioned poor construction of canals. The paper is silent on these issues.
The paper blames problems with land acquisition, rehabilitation and forest clearances for delay in completion of projects and cost escalation. This, despite the fact that the Maharashtra Public Manual clearly forbids the undertaking of any development project without clearing these hurdles. “The paper skirts the crucial question as to why the projects were started in violation of MPM,” says Tulpule, “It is a serious issue, and a large amount of public money is locked up in such projects. The modus operandi of the department is that they start a project, spend money on it, and then wait for someone to stop is so that cost escalations can be justified.”
The paper is also silent on how many projects are held up for want of these clearances and what amount of money has been spent on them. According to various sources, 37 dams in Vidarbha and a similar number in Konkan are stalled due to lack of clearances. “At the very least we would expect a list of such projects, but there is none,” says Tulpule.
The paper claims that between 2001-02 and 2010-11, the irrigated area in the state has gone up by 28 per cent from 3.77 million ha to 4.23 million ha, as opposed to the CAG’s report which says that irrigation capacity has increased by just 0.1 per cent in the same period. However, it does not substantiate its claim with any concrete study or figures.
“It is not clear which areas have been taken as irrigated, and how government is claiming that irrigated area has gone up due to projects,” says Tulpule. “In the last ten years, farmers all over the state have dug wells and tubewells in large numbers due to the water scarcity situation. Technically speaking, the lands of all these farmers will now be regarded as irrigated. Have these lands also been included in the estimates of irrigated land? How exactly have the figures provided been arrived at? The paper does not answer such questions.”
Much of this claim could actually consist of trumped up figures, says advocate Anil Kilor of Nagpur-based citizen’s organization Jan Manch, which has filed a petition in the high court, demanding a CBI inquiry into the scam in the Gosekhurd dam cost escalation. “The paper claims that the irrigation potential of the dam is more than 5,000 ha, whereas earlier estimates by the Irrigation Department put it at no more than 1,500 ha.”
Recommendations too late, too little
As a remedy to the irrigation mess, the paper suggests measures like suspending all projects where less than 25 per cent of project cost has been spent, not undertaking new large and medium projects, and completing nearly completed projects on priority. However, it neglects to mention the fact that such recommendations had earlier been given by various bodies but were ignored by the irrigation department. In Vidarbha, for instance, money sanctioned for 45 high-priority projects in 2001 was spent on all 96 projects under the VIDC, resulting in both delays and cost escalation, a fact that the paper does not mention.
“Measures like suspending low completion projects are foolish in view of the fact that no investigation has been undertaken regarding the exact status of projects and on what kind of work the expenses have been made,” said Chaudhary, “The canals of the Seena-Koregaon project, for instance, are a wasted expense—the work will have to be done again when the project is taken up. Hence more than suspension of projects, investigation is needed, which the paper has not done.”