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Irrigation scam: Fadnavis govt going soft on Ajit Pawar. What's the play?

Sanjeev Shivadekar | Updated on: 9 July 2015, 18:50 IST

The game

  • Corruption in construction of irrigation projects and Maharashtra Sadan.
  • Ajit Pawar, Sunil Tatkare are accused in one, Chhagan Bhujbal in the other.
  • The state is going soft on Pawar, Tatkare; probe is on against Bhujbal.
  • It has starved the irrigation scam probe of manpower.

The play

  • The BJP is wary of Shiv Sena ditching the coalition government.
  • So, it needs to keep the NCP in good humour, just in case.
  • Going after Pawar, Tatkare will antagonise NCP boss Sharad Pawar.
  • Bhujbal isn\'t as significant, he can be sacrificed.

Is the BJP in Maharashtra cultivating friends in the opposition to bail it out on a rainy day? It certainly appears so, if recent developments are anything to go by.

Although the fear of the Shiv Sena pulling out of the coalition regime is remote at present, the ruling party is going out of its way to humour the Nationalist Congress Party. Just in case.

The Devendra Fadnavis government has hastened the corruption investigation against Chhagan Bhujbal, but is dragging its feet on the irrigation scam involving the party's bigger fish - Ajit Pawar and Sunil Tatkare.

Though Bhujbal too is from the NCP, he is a less significant target than Ajit Pawar, NCP chief Sharad Pawar's nephew, and Tatkare, the party's state president.

This is a smart strategy: the government can create the impression that it's fighting corruption while not antagonising Pawar senior by laying off his nephew and Tatkare.

How is it doing this? By starving the irrigation scam probe of potential material evidence and manpower compared to the relatively less significant Maharashtra Sadan scam involving Bhujbal.

In hot water

In late 2014, Fadnavis informed the Assembly that an open inquiry would be conducted against Pawar and Tatkare. And on 12 December, his government instructed the Thane Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) to get going.

The ACB requested, repeatedly, for relevant documents from the water resources department, only to be stalled.

It was only after the media reported that the ACB was struggling to obtain documents related to the controversial irrigation projects in the coastal Konkan region that the government handed over the records.

Five people are probing the scam involving Ajit Pawar. Twice as many are investigating Bhujbal

The ACB had also asked for a legal expert and a chartered accountant to assist in the probe, but none were ever provided.

According to ACB officials, five people have been tasked to investigate irregularities in the construction of 12 dams in Konkan. But twice as many are probing allegation of corruption in the construction of the Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi.

An FIR has already been filed in the latter case, but none in the former.

The contrasting deployment of investigators for the two scams shows that the ACB "is not so keen to wind up probe into the irrigation scam", said an official involved in the investigations.

An official of the Thane ACB, which is probing the scam, said, "How can one compare the two cases and expect as speedy a probe into the irrigation scam when enough manpower is not being deployed to investigate it?"

Former IPS officer-turned-lawyer YP Singh claimed the ACB was short of manpower and experts because no government wants to see it strengthened, the present regime being no exception.

"Had the BJP really been keen on punishing the culprits, they would have deployed more personnel to investigate the scams involving Congress and NCP leaders. But that's not the case as is clearly evident in the irrigation inquiry."

BJP spokesperson Keshav Upadhyay, however, refuted these charges. "There is no interference from the government in the investigation. As and when the inquiry is completed, the ACB will file the case against the culprits," he said.

Mucked up

The scam came to light in 2011 when a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report pointed out irregularities in irrigation projects. Then, the Economic Survey tabled in the assembly by the then Congress-NCP government revealed that despite massive spending over the preceding decade, the state's irrigation potential had increase by a minuscule 0.01%.

The government set up a probe committee under Madhav Chitale which submitted its report in March 2014. It blamed the irregularities on administrative lapses by engineers and officials, but did not comment on the role of politicians.

Despite massive spending through the 2000s, Maharashtra's irrigation potential increased by just 0.01%

Leaning on committee's findings as well as the auditor's report, activist Pravin Wategaonkar filed a complaint with the ACB. He alleged that Ajit Pawar and Tatkare, as succeeding ministers for water resources, had awarded contracts for the irrigation projects to their favoured people in violation of norms.

For the first four months after taking over the probe in December last year, the ACB made no progress in the case. Several retired police officials and bureaucrats Catch spoke to said this delay could have been easily avoided by the BJP-Sena government.

"If the file pertaining to the procurement of chikki can be cleared within a day, why can't the water resources and home departments exhibit the same alacrity when it comes to the irrigation scam," a former IPS official said, requesting anonymity.

While the water resources ministry is with senior BJP leader Girish Mahajan, the home department is headed by Fadnavis himself.

First published: 9 July 2015, 13:55 IST