Divided colours of Maharashtra irrigation scam papers

Truth behind irrigation mess yet to unravel

By Aparna Pallavi
Published: Monday 17 December 2012

Irrigation papers in an impressive array of colours are raining down on the winter session of Maharashtra Assembly in Nagpur, and the downpour is showing no sign of ceasing in the remaining days of the session. However, chances of the irrigation mess in the state showing its true colours in the near future appear dim.

Following the uproar of disappointment over state government’s white paper, which was rightly dubbed more of a white wash on paper, BJP MLA Devendra Fadnavis retaliated with a ‘black paper’ containing details of how the scam was pulled off, on December 10, the first day of the Assembly session. Two days later, septuagenarian Madhukar Kimmatkar, former state cabinet minister and currently expert member of the Vidarbha Statutory Development Board, brought out a 'yellow paper', stating the dire consequences to Vidarbha if the recommendations of the white paper, including stopping work on projects on which less than 25 per cent funds have been spent, were implemented.

In self defence, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Madhukar Pichad announced the publication of a 'truth paper' (colours had become passé by this time), written by MLA Shashikant Shinde, which achieved little apart from claiming that the state’s irrigation potential had increased by 5.71 per cent, and repeating the government’s eternal pet peeve that forest clearances and relocation blues are the reasons behind projects lagging behind. But before the paper could be published on December 14, BJP stole NCP’s thunder by leaking its contents to the press and, for a good measure, adding one more paper (colour unspecified) to the growing stockpile. This was followed, on the same day, by yet another paper by the NCP. Peppered with colourful Marathi sarcasm, interesting speculations as to where the opponents had found their facts and creative suggestions about what they should do with them, the colour of this spicy concoction is best left to imagination.

One would have thought that the worst was over. But much to the glee of the Opposition, on December 14, the state agriculture department, headed by its Congress minister Ramakrishna Vikhe Patil, dropped yet another paper bomb, pooh-poohing NCP's (Congress' partner in UPA alliance) claim and reiterating its stand that the rise in irrigation potential was only 0.01 per cent, as stated in the state economic survey 2010-11.

Startling revelations, but no insight

The entire exercise, however, has not been wholly futile—the multi-coloured array of papers do reveal some valuable facts. What is astounding, however, is the extent to which the writers of the papers are blind to their implications.

The NCP’s second paper, for instance, makes the startling statement that the declared irrigation potential takes 40-50 years to materialise on the ground, on the basis of which it seeks to discount BJP’s argument that there is a suspiciously wide gap between irrigation potential and actual irrigated area. It even gives the examples of the Nira dam in Mahad in Raigad district, which was completed in 1923, but achieved 100 per cent irrigation potential as late as in 1995.

Another strange fact admitted under the same head is that the cost of tilling, seed, fertiliser and pesticides in irrigated land is much higher than that in rainfed land, and that a long process of land levelling and construction of canals is required of a farmer before he can avail of irrigation benefits. It states that actual irrigated area remains low because farmers, due to their many problems, have been unable to carry out these infrastructural activities.

Admitting the fact that cost escalation has been higher in Maharashtra than elsewhere, the paper states that Maharashtra’s hilly terrain makes dam construction difficult and sends costs shooting. One of the examples given is that of the Konkan region where the steep incline of terrain necessitates construction of higher and stronger dams, thereby entailing steeper costs.

However, the paper does not see it fit to question the rationality of constructing dams that have such a high gestation period, put farmers to expenses beyond their capacity, raise farming costs and are unsuitable to the terrain. Nor does it talk about looking for more sustainable and realistic solutions.

Kimmatkar’s 'yellow paper' reveals that the cost of dam construction is higher in Vidarbha because projects involve immersion of large tracts of forests, and not only do projects get held up due to clearance issues, but costs also go up, queering the cost-benefit ratio. Having pointed out this vital fact, however, all that the paper has to suggest is that afforestation costs be excluded from project cost calculation so that the cost-benefit ratio might be more rational.

Kimmatkar’s stance, especially, comes as a surprise, because just a few months back he had, through a study, drawn attention to the 7,000 malgujari tanks in Vidarbha which have a potential to irrigate around 150,000 ha of farms. He had also pointed out that the cost of restoring those tanks, Rs 2,000 crore, amounts to just Rs 1.3 lakh (approx) per ha, as compared to the high Rs 4 to Rs 6 lakh per ha in dam projects. Kimmatkar would have been in an excellent position to initiate a debate on sustainability in irrigation. However, he simply chooses to slip into the aggressive and highly politicised jargon of regional imbalance and injustice.

And finally, all the papers floating around, including Fadnavis’ 'black paper', which is by far the most to the point and fact-filled, steer clear of the one issue which could stimulate a debate on the sustainability of the irrigation solutions currently being pushed all over the country—cost benefit analysis. Corruption, delay in completion of projects and non-achievement of targets are consequently, the only focus of debate.

Other vital issues like relocation, diversion of irrigation water to industries and environmental consequences, have been conveniently swept under the carpet.

At this point, the irrigation debate appears to be focused around two things—rising demand for an inquiry by a special investigation team into the corruption aspect; an aggressive demand for expediting irrigation projects in the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions in the name of regional imbalance. A valuable opportunity is being lost right before everyone’s eyes.

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