Mumbai: The Maharashtra government has ordered a massive probe into the irrigation scam - unarguably the state's biggest so far - that has seen leaders from both the ruling and the opposition parties finding themselves in the dock. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan has, according to sources, authorised an investigation into the role of 45 officers of the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) - the nodal agency for all irrigation projects in Vidarbha. It is in this impoverished region - infamous for farmer suicides - where part of the Rs 70,000-crore swindle played out.
Sources say that the officers facing the departmental inquiry include six top-level Chief Engineers, eight Superintendent Engineers and 31 Executive Engineers. Seven of them have retired. According to sources, the said officers of VIDC were or still are a part of the decision-making process including the issuance of work orders and advances to contractors for several irrigation projects, including canals and dams. One of the officers under the scanner is Devendra P. Shirke, who is the Water Resources Secretary and then head of VIDC. Mr Shirke, incidentally, is said to be close to NCP leader Ajit Pawar who recently resigned as the state's Deputy Chief Minister amid allegations that he, as Water Resources Minister from 1999 to 2009, was the kingpin of the irrigation scam - allowing thousands of crores to be spent and managing to increase the state's irrigation ability by just 0.1%.
The Opposition and activists, who have pegged the irrigation swindle at Rs 72,000 crore, have faulted Mr Pawar for hiring private firms at exorbitant costs to build canals and dams, changing rules to give himself huge control in deciding which firms would be hired, and allowing the costs of projects to multiply by several hundred times. As proof, they point out that in just three months in 2009, Mr Pawar signed off on an additional Rs. 20,000 crore for 38 projects in Vidarbha.
As proof of their allegations against Mr Pawar, the opposition and activists point to a letter signed on August 15 in the same year that endorsed the new expenditure for a project first cleared in 1981 for Lower Wardha dam. An original budget of Rs. 48 crore had been revised twice. On Independence Day in 2009, the letter in question green-lit a new budget of Rs. 2,300 crore. The letter was signed by Mr Shirke; a signature, purportedly of Mr Pawar, added on a later date, is also on the note.
Activists ask why the government allowed the cost of the project to keep rising and why a government department approved more funds on a national holiday.
Mr Pawar has said that he does not like to keep decisions pending - a thinly-veiled reference to Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, who has been accused by Mr Pawar's party of being indecisive and holding up the implementation of essential infrastructure projects. His party has also said that inflation and modifications of original designs contributed to the increasing costs of projects, some of which were spread over decades.