White paper on irrigation presented at Maharashtra cabinet meet; will it pave the way for Ajit Pawar's return?

White paper on irrigation presented at Maharashtra cabinet meet; will it pave the way for Ajit Pawar's return?

File Photo: Ajit Pawar

Mumbai:  A Maharashtra irrigation department report that sources say will counter allegations of corruption against Ajit Pawar that cost him his job as deputy chief minister was presented to the state cabinet on Thursday evening. It is being seen as the first step in the political rehabilitation of Mr Pawar and his return to government.

Irrigation Minister Sunil Tatkare of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) made the presentation at the two-hour-long meeting at the state guest-house Sahyadri in Mumbai, sources said.

Sources in Mr Pawar's NCP say that the report is likely to clear 'misconceptions' about Mr Pawar's role in an alleged Rs. 70,000 crore irrigation scam that put the state through days of political turbulence. Mr Pawar was irrigation minister for 10 years from 1999 to 2009. The irrigation ministry, which has put together the report, remains with the NCP. The report details irrigation projects in the last 10 years, covering most of Mr Pawar's time as the minister.

"A white paper on irrigation was submitted today. The white paper is on two volumes. One is a general volume which explains reasons of time cost escalation and difference in the way irrigation and irrigated land is quantified. The Maharashtra irrigation department is divided into five corporations and the second volume gives the details of large and medium projects," Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan said after the meeting.

The Opposition BJP, reacting to media reports on the likely findings, earlier on Thursday, called it a "whitewash" and "anticipatory bail" for Mr Pawar.

The alleged irrigation scam was uncovered by whistleblowers within and outside the government. Records in the state assembly too pointed to gross mismanagement of funds, since the thousands of crores that were apparently spent on irrigation projects in the state yielded only a 0.1 per cent increased in irrigated land. The state's auditor had questioned delays, cost-overruns and poor construction in the projects. Mr Pawar was also accused of over-riding objections by bureaucrats after a change in the tendering process meant he would have to sign off on any contract above Rs. 1 crore.

Sources have told NDTV that the status report is likely to counter the main allegation of only 0.1 per cent increase in irrigated land by saying that the increase has been 5.17 per cent in the last 10 years. It is also likely to say that cultivable land in the state has increased by 73 per cent in the same period.

About the figure of Rs. 70,000 crore, the report is understood to have broken it down to expenditures on irrigation projects from 1962 totalling to Rs. 72,000 crore. Of this, the report is likely to say, the bulk or Rs. 40,000 crore was spent between 2000 and 2012, during most of which Mr Pawar was irrigation minister. Rs. 30,000 crore will be shown as being spent on irrigation and Rs. 10,000 crore to acquire forests and administrative costs, sources have claimed to NDTV.

It is also likely to deflect the charge of cost escalation, which is at the core of the scam alleged by the whistleblower as well as pointed out by the state auditor, by saying other states have higher escalations.

Finally, the sources have claimed, the charge that Mr Pawar cornered the right to allocate contracts for more than Rs. 1 crore will be countered by saying that the governor during the time of the BJP-Shiv Sena government had made the rule that such contracts be cleared by the minister and the irrigation development council board.

Leader of Opposition Vinod Tawde of the BJP, accused the NCP of "trying to re-induct (Mr Pawar) into the Cabinet. This is not a white paper, it is a whitewash. The chief minister should keep his word."

Mr Chavan had announced that government would come out with a white paper on irrigation after the resignation of Mr Pawar. After approval by the state cabinet, it would be tabled in the state legislature during the winter session starting at Nagpur from December 10.

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