Maharashtra farmers allege large-scale corruption in World Bank-funded irrigation project

Irrigation department holds training workshop for Maharashtra Water Sector Improvement Project when project is over

By Aparna Pallavi
Published: Sunday 17 November 2013

Maharashtra farmers are fuming over the irrigation department’s failure to provide them water for their crops in spite of the participatory water management programme the law provides. The Rs 1,860 crore Maharashtra Water Sector Improvement Project (MWSIP) of the World Bank which began in 2007 as well as the Maharashtra’s Management of Irrigation by Farmers Act (MIFA) of 2005 provide for farmers participation in irrigation management through water user associations (WUAs).

“Every year when we visit the irrigation department office to demand water for our crops, we are given dates when the water will be released. But water is never released on the said date, and no official is available to meet us afterwards. Then we have no option but to stage protests, roadblocks and so on, and finally we get police cases registered against us,” said an angry Lakshman Sahare, farmer of Dabha village in Bhandara district. “For the past five to six years, this cycle has been going on. Our WUA has received no training, and people do not want to remain in it, as the body has no powers at all,” added Sahare.

Sahare is a member of the Jamni distributary-level WUA of the Itiadoh Irrigation Project. He was speaking to Down To Earth at a workshop on participatory irrigation management held jointly by the Maharashtra Irrigation Department and Water and Land Management Institute, Aurangabad, in Nagpur on November 12 and 13. The workshop saw farmers vent their ire at the shoddy work done under MWSIP of the World Bank, and the fact that WUAs constituted under MIFA have not been taken into confidence in the implementation of the project. The result is that water distribution from the irrigation projects in eastern Vidarbha remains a skewed and stressful process for farmers.

Participatory eye-wash

It was evident from the skewed participation in the workshop – just 36 farmers attended against 96 officials – that the organisers had hardly made efforts to ensure farmers’ participation. Most farmers said they got to know of the workshop from non-profits. Moreover, the timing of the workshop was telling. “We should have been given this training in 2007, when the project was started, not now, when it is on its last legs,” said farmer and Shetkari Sanghatana activist Sanjay Satyekar from Kanhan in Nagpur district. “Clearly, this is being done now because department has to give a report to the World Bank to justify the expenses made under the project.”

In fact, say farmers, the participatory component in MIFA and MWSIP, under which money was required to be spent through the WUAs, has been entirely compromised by officials. “Under the Pench Irrigation Project,” said Satyekar, “some 350 WUAs were to be constituted, out of which 254 were actually constituted. But since then officials have never communicated with the WUAs. Officials took a few WUAs in hand and managed signatures of water users. We never found out how and where the Rs 400 crore spent on the Pench project was spent.”

He said that the department has not replied to any RTI queries on the subject. “I made appeal after appeal on my RTI application for one-and-a-half years, and finally the executive engineer was fined, but I got no information,” said Satyekar.”

Namdeorao Sarote, Armori tehsil (district Gadchiroli) president of the Itiadoh Project Level WUA, said that 55 WUAs have been formed for the 22,854 ha command area of the project, but there is no coordination between officials and the WUAs. The biggest problem, he said, is that procedure for handing over the decision-making process to the WUAs has not been completed in most cases, and they are still dependent on officials for decision-making. “This has caused huge water supply problems and there have been fights between farmers.”

Sahare said that water supply remains as politicalised as ever, with WUAs ignored totally by irrigation officials in nexus with local politicians. “Under MIFA, water associations have the right to decide how much water is to be released, when, and where, but in reality, it is the local MLAs and officials who are taking decisions according to their personal or political advantages.”

Corrupt work, shoddy cover-up

Farmers unanimously complain that the most important work that should have been undertaken in water sector improvement—repairing and restoring old distributaries—has not been done at all. Said Sarote, “Water supply from the Itiadoh project started in 1973-74, and distributaries (fine dug channels to supply water to individual farms) dug in 1974-75 have now fallen in disrepair. The result is that more water has to be released to irrigate all the land required.” He said that as much as one-fourth to half the water released in being wasted in this manner. “A total of 87 crore have been spent on the Itiadoh project, out of which Rs 7.54 crore is supposed to have been spent on distributaries, but there isn’t a single functioning distributary.”

“In our area, this excess water often floods people’s farms, causing crop damage,” said Satyekar.

Farmer Dharmaraj Akade, president of village Korabmi Tola distributary-level WUA in Gadchiroli, said that work on siphons, outlets, lining and other repairs under MWSIP are of very inferior quality. “Immediately after repairs in 2011, when the water supply started, a siphon broke, and officials had to use 50 m long plastic sheets to cover up the flaw.” He said that when farmers protested against this corruption, officials issued a letter sacking the office-bearers of the WUA, based on a supposed complaint by some farmers.

Time needed, say officials

Asked to comment on the situation, K E Warambhe, project officer of the Irrigation Department’s Water and Land Management Pilot Project, under which work was done, said, “Time is needed to get everything in place. Farmers do not understand that, and expect immediate results.” He said at least 10 more years will be needed before WUAs get fully functional.

Farmers hotly refute this. “The project was supposed to end in 2012, and the one-year extension period also ends this year,” said Satyekar, “Ninety per cent of the project money has also been spent. What do officials hope to achieve with time?”

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