As the new chief minister of Maharashtra wins the trust vote in the state Assembly, these are a few things that need his urgent attention
As the new chief minister of Maharashtra wins the trust vote in the state Assembly, these are a few things that need his urgent attention
Dear chief minister of Maharashtra,
You have a great public image as a proactive, scholarly leader with integrity and intelligence. The crucial qualities the state seeks right now as it stands on the crossroad of political upheaval and natural calamities are: honesty, forthrightness, commitment to democratic governance and, more importantly, an independent and clear judgement which is not swayed by the orders of higher ups.
The last CM we had also had a scholarly and clean image, but after resigning from the CM’s post, which he held for more than four years, he admits to his mea culpa that he did not take the firm action in the irrigation scam because he wanted to save his government from collapsing. Maharashtra’s people, besides his own party, paid the price for this.
Natural calamities made worse by government’s mismanagement and inaction have racked Maharashtra in the past few years. Right on the heels of the dam scam, came the 2012-13 drought, dubbed by some as the worst drought in past forty years. After this came the delayed rains, droughts and excessive rainfall in Vidarbha, the hailstorms of February and March 2014, several agricultural diseases, crash of market prices of agricultural produce and fruits. In July 2014, the Malin Tragedy underlined how vulnerable, unprepared and fragile is our Western Ghats Region. Even now, Vidarbha region is reeling from late rains and extremely poor yield of soybean.
The calamities have affected the social and political milieu of the state; they have also literally broken the backs of its farmer. You have experience in disaster management and can appreciate how meagre our response has been to the natural calamities. To the manmade calamities, too, our response has been far from satisfactory. After more than two years after the so called exposé of the irrigation scam, we still have not brought a single irrigation official or politician or contractor to book. This scam and the sheer callousness of Congress-NCP government in handling the issue was one of the main factors behind its collapse. BJP did play an important role in following up with the issue in several parliament sessions and also with the media, but its actions and demands lacked conviction and seemed to save some of the culprits that were close to the BJP.
Logical conclusion to scam of scams
Isn’t it surprising that being an opposition for 15 years, the BJP played such little real role in unearthing the scam? In fact, it was reported that when some people approached Nitin Gadkari with evidence of illegalities and irregularities, they were told that he is unable to take action against Congress–NCP as "Woh hamare char kaam karte hai, aur hum unke char kaam karte hai”.
The scam came into focus due to efforts of the then-serving chief engineer of Maharashtra Engineering Training Academy (META), Vijay Pandhare, media reports, CAG, courts, civil society and activists of the then-India Against Corruption (later renamed Aam Aadmi Party or AAP)—Anjali Damaniya, Mayank Gandhi, and others. The sheer extent and the impact of the unprecedented scam shocked the nation, after spending more than Rs 70,000 crore for over 10 years there was practically no increase in area under irrigation in Maharashtra. It needs to be remembered here that the scores of mega irrigation projects which were sanctioned and received their first administrative approval even without requisite water availability studies were initiated in the period when Sena-BJP was in power.
It needs to be acknowledged that Eknath Khadse, as the leader of opposition, and you, played a significant role in following up on the scam and pressurising the government.
At the same time, there were some notable contractors, close to BJP or even MPs and MLAs of BJP who were reportedly involved in the scam. Notable examples include Ajay Sancheti of SMS Infrastructure who is also the permanent National Executive Committee Member of the BJP. Media reports showed that Sancheti was not only implicated in Irrigation Scam, but in coal block allocation scam and Adarsh scam, too!
Damaniya, member of AAP, showed through RTI that Sancheti bagged 10 contracts from VIDC worth more than Rs 3,000 crore between his older company, new company and joint ventures with others (in 2005, Sancheti’s firm, Shaktikumar M Sancheti Ltd, changed its name to SMS Infrastructure Ltd and got a fresh certificate of incorporation, Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation was informed of this name change. But the two companies continued to exist together, bagging contractor between them and also additionally). These include almost all big projects in Vidarbha, including Gosi Khurd, Lower Penganga, Purna Barrage, Wardha Barrage, and Pedhi Project. This was when awarding more than three contracts to one contractor was illegal. Rules were bent, huge mobilisation advances were given, scope of work was increased and cost escalations were approved to help contractors. But BJP did not seem to take any action about this.
In case of BJP MLC Mitesh Bangadia, it was his company MG Bangadiya Infrastructure which constructed the hugely flawed 23 left bank canal section of Gosi Khurd Project, which was recommended for complete demolition by Mendhegiri Committee in their report, as reported by Tehelka.
It is unfortunate that BJP took no action in this regard. It is also reported that in the midst of these exposures, it was Gadkari who specifically wrote to the water resources ministry at the Centre and sought early release of funds for these very contractors. It was stated that when BJP submitted “bullock cart full of evidence” to the Special Investigation Team headed by Madhav Rao Chitale to investigate the scam, incriminating evidence against these two groups were left out.
- We hope that once in power, you will immediately order a judicial or CBI probe into the scam and full enquiry into the contractors who benefitted out of it, including the ones close to BJP, as also demanded by others.
There was a need to reject the SIT Committee Report under the chairpersonship of Chitale as it was not an SIT—it had diluted TORs and Chitale is known to biased in favour of such projects, the department bureaucracy and status quo. The constitution of the committee was only a ploy to buy more time and show a semblance of taking action on the scam. We hope that you do order an immediate CBI probe into this or a judicially appointed SIT with independent members having track record of being able to take on issues upfront, with clear TORs and with power to summon and question.
The white paper brought out by the Water Resources Department (WRD) was also a shield for guilty to hide behind, and, unfortunately, other political parties, including BJP, failed to critically analyse it.
- We hope that after coming to power, you will hold public consultations on the irrigation scam, white paper, at the dams in question to understand the local issues and real situation. There is also a need to include several dams left out of the white paper.
- Post facto analysis of the performance and impacts of large dams is a need for the state as we continue to hanker behind more such projects for political and contractor benefit. Maharashtra, with the largest number of big dams in the country, has one of the lowest areas under irrigation.
- We hope that you will take action against those involved in the projects named in the SIT Report (like Gosikhurd), responsible officials, ministers and contractors who benefitted unduly from the scam. Work on all such projects should be suspended till there is logical end to scam issue.
Equity in water distribution
Maharashtra has the nation’s largest water infrastructure in terms of projects completed. There is a need to use this existing infrastructure in an optimum way for the benefit of the poorest, neediest, farmers and in a sustainable, equitable and democratic way.
- We hope the new government will support equitable, sustainable cropping pattern, scrap secretive diversions to urban areas, industries and unplanned water intensive crops from dams meant for agriculture, and dismantle bodies like High Powered Committee immediately.
CAG report on irrigation projects in Maharashtra 2013-14 has exposed that works of more than Rs 7,000 crore were initiated by the WRD on nearly 249 projects without requisite forest and environmental clearances. Not only did it result in locking thousands of crores of public funds, it also damaged the meagre forest cover and environment of the state without justification or informed decision making process.
Implement Gadgil report on Western Ghats
The Coalition’s stand on Western Ghats report under the leadership of Madhav Gadgil was escapist. The misinformation spread about Eco Sensitive Zone and the push for self-benefitting industries in the Konkan region seems to be one of the primary reasons for Narayan Rane’s defeat.
- We hope the new government accepts the Gadgil report without losing more time and takes steps as per the report to democratise environmental governance in the Western Ghats. As Gadgil has reiterated many a time, the report is not a blueprint but a framework which can be modified by the people themselves.
Water politics of Maharashtra is linked to the sugar politics. We grow sugarcane in the most drought affected regions, benefitting generations of political masters of NCP and Congress.
Maharashtra’s sugar crop is most inefficient user of water as per a study of Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP). Although the sugar barons make the right noises about working for farmers’ benefit, that is a lame argument when you take into account thousands of poor farmers who are deprived of ANY irrigation benefits because of concentration of water in the hands of the sugar lobby. Apart from creating deep schisms in the social fabric of the state, it is also making the cane farmer vulnerable to climate change and the whims and fancies of sugar barons. Per tonne rates of cane are not commensurate with the cost of water, labour and fertilisers. Significant to note here that factories in Vidarbha belonging to politicians like Gadkari reportedly offer the lowest cane rates in the state to the farmer at around Rs 1,650 tonne when the average rate are about Rs 2,200 tonne.
- There is a need to break the sugar shackles chaining the water and agriculture sector, to give more autonomy to the proposed Sugar Development Board, with more farmers on board, not sugar barons. There is also need to stop new licences of sugar industries in the drought belt; at present, the Sugar Commissioner has no such powers. Flow irrigation to sugarcane needs to be stopped, audit of sewage treatment of sugar factories needs to be carried out and the factories have to be made zero discharge, full water reuse models. SANDRP has witnessed that even factories of powerful politicians do not have functioning effluent treatment plants despite sugar industry being in the grossly polluting category (GPI).
There was a time when the people concerned turned a blind eye towards ills of sugar factories as they were the engines of cooperative movement in Maharashtra. That is nearly in the past now. More and more cooperative sugar factories, set up with money from government, farmers and shareholders became dens of political manipulation and are being converted into private mills at a price which is a joke of their valuation. We have 168 cooperative sugar factories, but about 36 are being liquidated, 26 have been converted from cooperative to private entities and here too there is a strong political presence.
- We hope that once in power, BJP conducts an audit of sugar industry including water efficiency of sugarcane in Maharashtra with respect to water use, release of water for sugarcane by dams, especially in drought affected Marathwada and western Maharashtra like Ujani, Lower Terna, Manjara, Mazalgao, lift irrigation schemes on Ujani and other scarcity-hit rivers, etc.
Climate action plan
While disasters like the February 2014 hailstorms affected more than 10,000 farmers in vulnerable Marathwada and Vidarbha, we still do not have a State Action Plan on Climate Change which should have been ready years ago through people’s participation.
- We look forward to your government to complete work on State Action Plan for Climate Change in a community driven, bottom-up, transparent and democratic manner.
The problems of climate becoming more uncertain, extreme weather events increasing in frequency and rainfall failing when due, protective irrigation is becoming a dire need. Despite absence of irrigation, dryland farming and horticulture in limited water is thriving in Maharashtra. The recent example is of the phenomenal success of pomegranate cultivation which is nearly completely on drip and is grown in some of the driest regions of the state. However, the famers still suffer losses in the absence of processing plants and state support, which is skewed in favor of sugarcane. Same is the case with oilseeds like groundnuts, coarse millets like jowar and bajra which offer livelihood and nutritional security.
- We look to the new government in supporting marginal farmers and other farmers who grow such crops as ambassadors of climate change adaptation. We also hope your government will encourage system of rice intensification for various crops.
Urban areas continue to guzzle more water, polluting and killing rivers in their wake. Unfortunately, State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) does not have a single success story to its credit. It has not cleaned a single river since its inception although receiving hundreds of crores every year from state as well as the Centre.
- We expect the new government to conduct an immediate and open audit of the work of Maharashtra SPCB and fix responsibility for this resounding failure, order complete change of the functioning of the SPCB to make its governance directly accountable to the victims of pollution and also involving participation of the vulnerable communities and independent groups.
In your city, Nagpur, too, the Nag River is chronically polluted and reduced to an open drain. It could not be rejuvenated although you were a Mayor of the city twice. Now there is a move to denotify the river, which will aid setting up category red industries at its very origin, killing the river. We don’t see any political party talking about this issue.
- We hope you will stop this killing of rivers as your government at the Centre has been saying that river rejuvenation is their priority, we hope it is yours too.
Incidentally, Nagpur is one of the very few cities in the state with an operational PPP water supply model. There have been too many problems and protests on this issue, we will not go into the details here, but it is again notable that the Orange City Water Supply Limited is a joint venture between Veolia and Vishvaraj Infrastructure, which is closely linked to BJP leadership. There have been no post facto studies of the efficacy of this model and the way through which tendering was done was suspicious.
- We hope the BJP Government will democratise the governance of water supply and waste water department of the municipal bodies rather than pushing for water privatisation.
The 2012 and 2014 drought saw some inspiring local initiatives from famers across the state in terms of working on new watershed structures, desilting older structures and improving distribution systems. These emerged as more equitable and even efficient solutions than larger dams. A compilation of success stories with a clear view to support local led water conservation efforts will be a shot in the arm for the water sector in Maharashtra. Although the past government tried to support smaller structures by passing government resolutions (GRs) and building strings of cement nalla bunds, watershed management is more than just a quick fix solution.
There are several other issues ailing the water-environment-agriculture milieu of the state. The Congress-NCP alliance in power earlier was lampooned because of the absolute autocracy practised in the party, insulting public opinion and public concerns, the leaders of the coalition proving too weak to steer the state into secure and transparent governance.
We hope that through you, Maharashtra will be astride on this path. We hope that together we can work towards equitable, sustainable, corruption-free, pro-people development and governance of Maharashtra.
All the very best.
Parineeta Dandekar works for non-profit South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP)
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.