During 1999–2009, the UPA was ruling Maharashtra, and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar was the irrigation minister. On April 25, 2008, then-Deputy Secretary TN Munde issued a circular stating that the Irrigation Department was making inflated payments for the various raw materials and apparatuses instead of following the scheduled rates fixed by the department.
On May 14, 2008, Pawar’s office issued a letter asking Munde to repeal the circular, and cautioning him against issuing any circular without the minister’s sanction. During December 14–19, 2009, the Marathi-language newspaper Loksatta carried a series of articles accusing Pawar of awarding two projects worth Rs 1,385 crore to the builder-cum-contractor named Avinash Bhonsle, at a magnified cost. In November 2010, Pawar handed over the Irrigation Department to fellow NCP leader Sunil Tatkare. He also appointed two inquiry committees, which found several financial irregularities.
In August 2012, a non-profit organization called Jan Manch petitioned the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court to order an inquiry into the irregularities. The Court then sent a notice to the Government. The petition stated that the cost of 38 irrigation projects under the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) had escalated from Rs 6,672.27 crores to Rs 26,722.33 crores within a span of 7 months in 2009. In 2013, the present Deputy CM of Maharashtra used this issue for his election campaign, pledging that he would send Ajit Pawar behind bars.
On November 26, 2018, the then ACB chief and current Mumbai police commissioner Sanjay Barve filed an affidavit in the same court stating that the alleged multi-crore irrigation scam had revealed major lapses on Pawar’s part and by other government officials. The ACB DG claimed that the latest affidavits were based on “a painstaking investigation conducted by two special investigation teams and after questioning Pawar.” Based on evidence and a reply filed by Pawar, the ACB concluded that, apart from cost updates and mobilization advances to contractors, no fault could be found with Pawar.
The ACB DG also claimed that his predecessor had overlooked the reply filed by the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) in March 2018. This reply, he said, had rejected the involvement of Ajit Pawar. Barve’s affidavit pointed the needle of suspicion at Pawar by mentioning that norms were tweaked and tenders were manipulated. Procedures were bypassed, pecuniary benefits were passed on, and sub-standard work was allowed, leading to a drain on the public exchequer. This irrigation scam made headlines, but Ajit Pawar, who was once the target of the BJP, is now in alliance with them. Addressing booth workers of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bhopal last month, Modi said there were allegations of scams of nearly Rs 70,000 crore against the NCP, including the Maharashtra Cooperative Bank scam, the irrigation scam, and the illegal mining scam.
Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray targeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi over his comments on a “Rs 70,000 crore scam” by the NCP. Uddhav asked, “What happened to the Rs 70,000 crore scam? Who all will be there on the stage? NCP president Sharad Pawar also asked PM Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah to probe the Rs 70,000 crore irrigation scam and the multi-crore state cooperative bank scam in which Ajit Pawar’s name had cropped up. Pawar said that at a rally in Bhopal, Modi had alleged the Congress and NCP were the most corrupt parties, and a Rs 70,000 crore scam in the irrigation department and a scam in the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank had rocked the state.
If Modi has specific information that there was abuse of power in the state, then as PM, he must initiate a probe and submit the report. It will be wrong to make baseless allegations. You have power, you conduct the probe. Farmers and activists in Maharashtra fear that the new alliance between the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) faction led by Ajit Pawar and the BJP may end up burying the alleged Rs 70,000-crore irrigation scam involving top NCP leaders, including Pawar.
The scam was unearthed after Maharashtra’s Economic Survey in 2012 reported that the irrigation potential of the state had increased by only 0.1 per cent despite Rs 70,000 crore spent on various projects over a decade. Later, the Maharashtra Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) informed the Bombay High Court about major lapses on the part of Pawar and other government officials. Pawar, along with other NCP ministers, was in charge of the irrigation department between 1999 and 2014 under the Congress-NCP regime in Maharashtra.
During the 2014 and 2019 state elections, the BJP made the irrigation scam its main election plank, targeting Pawar directly. The irrigation scam relates to alleged corruption, cost escalation, irregularities in the approval and execution of projects, inflation of tenders, and the allocation of work to specific contractors.
Meanwhile, Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis recently spoke to BJP MLAs and other leaders in Mumbai to address the concern. The BJP cadre in the state is unhappy with the NCP faction joining hands with the party. Fadnavis reportedly said that the party has followed orders from the high command and that everyone must work to ensure that the BJP gets the maximum number of Lok Sabha seats in the upcoming elections.
In Maharashtra, about 20 per cent of arable land is under irrigation, while the rest is dependent on monsoon showers, with even a few days’ delay in rain disrupting the agriculture cycle. Raju Hinge, who owns agricultural land in Pune, says farmers in the state have suffered heavily due to incomplete and delayed irrigation projects. Maharashtra tops the list of farmer suicides, as the lack of irrigation facilities and dependence on the monsoon push many farmers into distress.