Despite it seeming like the Congress and the NCP have kissed and made up, rumblings continue. The latest salvo was fired by NCP chief Sharad Pawar when we said CM Prithviraj Chavan should not interfere in the portfolios assigned to his party. The epicentre of the conflict is not in distant Delhi but closer home in Maharashtra. As the Congress systematically goes after NCP leaders identifying their links with the dam lobby, this could lead to embarrassment for Sharad Pawar and his party and further trouble for the state’s ruling alliance.
At the heart of the current heartburn is a note circulated by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, which lays bare the alleged links between the irrigation and dam scam in Maharashtra and the current political stand-off between the NCP and Congress. This has only raised the hackles of the NCP, which has been on the defensive since Chavan asked for a white paper on irrigation projects and Governor K Shankaranarayanan on March 17 chided the government for its dismal performance in irrigation and ordered a probe into the Kondhane project in Raigad district.
The water resource ministry in Maharashtra’s NCP-Congress coalition government has been with the NCP since 1999 to date. Ajit Pawar, the current deputy chief minister and Sharad Pawar’s nephew, held the portfolio of irrigation and WR from October 1999- October 2009 under various chief ministers. Since 2009, Sunil Tatkare, also from NCP, has been the WR minister.
Pawar then criticised Governor Sankaranarayanan and CM Chavan for not doing enough for drought relief. ‘People are facing water scarcity and the governor is not looking into the matter. I am highly disappointed,’ he said on April 7. Incidentally, the Maratha satrap was saying this not about the irrigation backlog-hit farmer suicide region of Vidarbha, but about Western Maharashtra’s water-rich Satara and Sangli.
Media reports, many by this paper, brought into sharp focus how the government favoured one contractor for the Kalu, Shai, Balganga, Susari and Kondhane dams. They highlighted blatant irregularities in tendering, cost and height escalations, violation of environmental and forest norms. So much so that the HC stayed work on the Kalu project. What stood out in each of these cases is the wantonness with which nearly every law was flouted, without consideration for the predominantly tribal population that is facing displacement, the western ghats’ sensitive ecology or even something as basic as whether these dams were needed at all!
Soon after Chavan announced that his government will publish a white paper on irrigation projects, looking at investment and performance of irrigation projects over the past decade, he met the PM for funds to tackle drought. Even at that meeting, all Union minister for heavy industries and NCP heavyweight Praful Patel was concerned about was a dam in his own backyard: the Gosikhurd dam over Vainganga river in Bhandara. He urged the PM for funds for this project, which is heavily delayed with costs and time overruns. Strange, since both the CAG and the Vadnere committee reports have exposed massive corruption in the project. What’s worse, none of the 16,000 families affected by the dam have yet heard about rehabilitation.
On May 10, Patel’s boss, Pawar was back attacking the Governor. He said Shankaranarayanan’s decision to remove backlog and give priority to projects in Vidarbha over Godavari threatened state unity. He also defended deputy CM Ajit Pawar and WR minister Sunil Tatkare. This, when the latter is already under the scanner for his unaccounted assets and links to the irrigation scam.
Even as the home ministry, also with the NCP, is dragging its feet on acting against Takare, on July 14, Ajit Pawar said the white paper on irrigation projects, scheduled to come out by May 19, would now be tabled only before the winter session. In 10 days, Praful Patel upped the ante stating, ‘A part of the Congress is involved in mud-slinging on the NCP over corruption and this should stop immediately.’
This sequence of events reveals the reach of the Big Dam Lobby. Unfortunately, neither the Congress nor the opposition parties come across as very keen to stop this scam. Despite vigilante civil society groups and the media giving them all the proof needed, why else have they not followed up a single dam fraud case and taken it to its logical conclusion?
The links between corruption, politics and large dams has been made many times before. However, the blatancy with which political parties and their leaders have sided with pro-dam lobby in Maharashtra is unparalleled. It is sad commentary on the kind of interests behind the building of large dams.
A white paper by a credible independent agency, an independent probe into specific irregularities, identification of specific individuals, institutions and companies involved in specific cases and stringent action against them, implementation of measures that will ensure this never happens again is the least one can expect. It will go a long way in rebuilding some of the shaken faith in democracy.