Right Bank Canal of Gosikhurd Dam (Photo: Jan Manch)
Controversial irrigation projects of Maharashtra continue to make headlines after massive irrigation scam that was unveiled in 2012. Following an inquiry in the scam, the state cabinet has recently scrapped 94 tenders of 14 irrigation projects worth Rs 9,196 Crore.[i] Around 52 of these tenders have been under the scanner of anti-corruption bureau (ACB), with first information reports (FIRs) filed in four of them.
The scam was brought to light by brave whistle blowers in 2012, inside and mostly outside the government. Financial irregularities & cost escalations in irrigation projects were exposed by Vijay Pandhare, the then chief engineer in the water resources department, Anjali Damaniya and several other groups, including SANDRP.[ii] Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) was a highlight of this scam. The VIDC was rife with incomplete, languishing projects, unsettled community claims and rehabilitation, violations of environmental Laws, arbitrary hike in the tenders done flouting rules, violation of PWD (Public Works Department) Manual clauses, irregular grant of mobilisation and machinery advance indicating undue favour to the contractors, etc. (List of VIDC projects with irregular cost escalations given in Annexure at the end).
In this situation, Jan Manch, a voluntary organization from Nagpur[v] filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court in August 2012, demanding a probe into cost overruns.[vi] The petition was disposed off on December 24, 2014 with the State Govt promising an open inquiry into the scam, giving liberty to Jan Manch to approach again if they were not satisfied with the probe.
Not happy with the Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) inquiry proceeding at snail’s pace Jan Manch has approached the court of law yet again. They have filed another PIL in March 2016 demanding CBI probe into the matter, work audits of irrigation projects and expedited completion of incomplete projects.
What is remarkable is that Jan Manch undertook a fact finding tour, Sinchan Shodh Yatra, to incomplete and corruption laden irrigation projects of Vidarbha region of Maharashtra to understand the ground reality and to strengthen their case. So far 18 projects have been visited and audited by Jan Manch Volunteers in the last 1.5 years.
Their experiences are shocking to say the least. In the process they have witnessed the grim reality of projects – misleading claims by engineers of VIDC, pathetic conditions of canals, non-existent distributaries, defunct pump houses and agitated farmers deprived of irrigation at a war of words with the officials.
More and more farmers from this rain fed region who have been lone sufferers of the scam are joining hands with Jan Manch and Sinchan Shodh Yatra is slowly evolving into a pressure group on irrigation officials.
It is a real game changer when common people take charge of democracy, start actively participating, demanding explanations and holding the government accountable. Sinchan Shodh Yatra stands testimony to this.
SANDRP talked with Jan Manch’s President & counsel Adv. Anil Kilor to understand this journey. Some excerpts from the interview:
How did the idea of Sinchan Shodh Yatra evolve?
Adv. Kilor: “Idea of the yatra emerged accidentally. One of our friends requested us to visit Turagondi irrigation project which is about 30 km from Nagpur. The project was incomplete and farmers were facing several problems. We then decided to investigate all the projects one by one. Initially when we filed a petition in 2012, it was based mainly on the committee reports. We had not investigated the situation first hand. Information regarding the status of irrigation projects furnished in the court by the respondents often painted a rosy picture of the projects. Even the court asked us that situation does not seem that bad, why do you have problems? So we started to pay visits to the dam sites, canals, command area etc. The reality was unbelievable”
“We would intimate the VIDC officials about each visit through email about 10 days in advance. We also requested them to provide us with information booklet about status of the project. Initially the officials would typically make a power-point presentation full of misleading information. For example if the irrigated area is 1000 ha they would state 10,000 ha. or would state 80% of canal work is complete and would also show pictures of finely constructed canals. And when we would ask them to take us to that particular spot, suddenly string of excuses would follow like it is in too much interiors, there is no approach road… they would even threaten that we could be attacked by tiger!! But we would not give up. We insisted on visiting the spots, that’s where the problems start. For first 2 to 3 km from the roads and highways canals are constructed well but as you move in the interiors construction quality would be poor. Lining would be inferior, at times the width would suddenly reduce without reason. The true picture would reveal.”
Initially when Jan Manch was relatively unknown to many parts of Vidarbha, the inspection visits would go unnoticed. Slowly farmers got to know about the initiative and started showing up for the visits. Many of the agitated farmers who were clueless about whom to approach with their complaints found a platform where irrigation officials had to listen to them. By now Jan Manch has bagful of stories to share.
In many projects walls of the main canal are broken, lining work has come crumbling down, canals are choked, trees and shrubs have grown in minors, distribution network is absent, pump houses are defunct due to load-shedding. In many cases irrigation officials have not paid visits to these works for more than a decade!
Adv. Kilor shares an incidence from Yavatmal District. “When we went to inspect canals of Bembla Project, farmers from alongside the sub-canals showed up. The lining of canal was of inferior quality and heavy leakage caused water logging in their farms. Crops along the canals would perish due to excessive water. The farmers were facing this issue for last five years. They had approached Yavatmal Irrigation Division & Collector multiple times. But no one listened to them. The farmers were so angry at seeing the officials on their fields after such a long time that the crowd was about to beat the executive engineer who accompanied us.” He further adds, “We have seen this happening at many places. When farmers try to complain about inferior quality work or for forceful land acquisition or unfair rehabilitation process, the irrigation officials even file criminal cases against them.”
Another incidence is from Guikheda village which was submerged by Bembla Dam. Details of several houses submerged by the dam were never recorded in the rehabilitation & resettlement plan. People have lost their homes and the collector is asking them if their houses existed at all!
“Today people have no clue how to raise complaint. They go to collector office or to VIDC office in Nagpur where no one pays heed to them. These trips cost them a fortune. Eventually they get tired and give up. And official records show that the project has been stalled due to protests” says Kilor.
When Shodh Yatra visited much controversial Gosikhurd project, the officials claimed that the work of Right Bank Canal (RBC) upto 99.53 kms has been completed. But it turned out that the canal is partially filled with water upto only first 25 kms. There were no branch canals, distributaries and field canals to take water to farm lands. From 30 kms to 43 kms, the wall of RBC on one side has been built and surprisingly there is no wall on other side. VIDC officials accompanying the Yatra had no cogent explanation for absence of wall. And of course the payment for un-constructed wall was settled long back.
Adv. Kilor showed me a photograph of concrete wall which had slid down from its location. “This is a 20 ft portion of retaining wall of Gosikhurd RBC. This five feet wide wall has come sliding down. Can you imagine?”
Beginning of this public audit initiative was tough. Adv. Kilor tells “We had to walk 8-10 km, we would be out in 49°C till 4.30-5pm in evening, without lunch. But we did not even feel the heat because the problems we saw were so grave.”
Now whenever Shodh Yatra is about to visit any project local people take care of their food and accommodation. 60 to 70 volunteers of Jan Manch are accompanied by few other organizations such as Bapuji Aney Smarak Samiti, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, Swadeshi Jagran manch & Vidarbha Economic Development Council. Including the local farmers that join at the site the number often crosses 100.
With consistent visits and follow up of the projects things are slowly changing. Affected people now have a say and their voice is heard by the irrigation officials. In presence of Jan Manch representatives the officials are careful while responding to complaints.
In 2015 Jan Manch made hoardings about irregularities of the projects and exhibited them openly on streets of Nagpur. They even took this exhibition to Azad Maidaan in Mumbai. “Exhibition of Azad had a visible impact. Immediately after the exhibition Chief Minister and few MLAs personally visited projects like Lower Wardha, Bembla.” tells Adv. Kilor.
While the ACB inquiry proceeds with its own speed and Jan Manch prepares to fight another case, Sinchan Shodh Yatra continues with much zeal. Jan Manch Volunteers are slowly building local teams to address grievances of project affected. “If the irrigation officials think that Jan Manch has visited once and won’t come back, they are wrong. We will follow up.”
It is indeed remarkable how common people have successfully carved out a space to participate in irrigation governance which otherwise remains exclusive and unreachable. If this becomes a culture to get the information out in open and to publicly question the government, it might be an effective way to curb further irregularities in irrigation projects.
Amruta Pradhan, SANDRP, email@example.com
|List of VIDC Projects with irregular cost escalations (Source: Jan Manch)|
|Sr. No.||Name of Project||Tender cost (Crores)||Tender accepted at (Crores)||Difference|
[i] First Post (2016): “Setback for Ajit Pawar: Maharashtra cancels tenders of irrigation projects worth Rs 6,000 cr”, FP Staff, August 30, 2016
[iii] An Enquiry Committee appointed by State Government in February 2010 headed by the then chief engineer H.T Mendigiri
[iv] Nandkumar Vadnere, retired Principal Secretary, Water Resources Department
[v] TOI (2014): “Maharshtra clears ACB enquiry against Ajit Pawar, Tatkare and Bhujbal”, Vaibhav Ganjapure, TNN, December 13, 2014
[vi] It said that in year 2009 within just seven months, cost of 38 projects of VIDC increased by 20,050.06 Cr. the original estimated cost which was 6672.27 Cr reached 26722.33 Cr. 30 out of these 38 schemes were granted hurried approval within just four days and their cost was later revised.[vi] The cost escalations were 33 times the original cost after sanctioning. Further citing the Vadnare panel’s report pertaining to Gosikhurd dam the NGO said it found that rates were arbitrarily increased in 90 major tenders related to the project. In most cases VIDC officials illegally awarded tenders at 15% to 40% above the estimate.