Twenty months after the Devendra Fadnavis government initiated an open inquiry in the multi-crore irrigation scam, the state cabinet on Tuesday scrapped 94 tenders of 14 scam-tainted irrigation projects worth Rs9,196 crore. Around 52 of these tenders are under the anti-corruption bureau (ACB) scanner, with first information reports (FIRs) filed in four of them.
The cabinet move is being viewed as the first tough decision of the BJP government against Maharashtra’s influential irrigation contractor lobby, which includes some firms associated with its own leaders — MP Ajay Sancheti and MLC Mitesh Bhangadia.
However, a stronger political message has been sent to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and former deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, who had so far controlled the irrigation contractor lobby.
“The government will rely on the Indian Contract Act, 1972, and get an opinion from the law and judiciary to cancel these tenders. All these cancelled tenders will be re-tendered and finished in a time bound manner,” said water resources minister Girish Mahajan.
The state cabinet also approved a whopping cost escalation of Rs12,835 crore for the Gosikhurd project by granting it a third revised administrative approval, a hike of more than 50 times since the project was first cleared in 1982 at the cost of Rs372 crore. The government said 90% of the project cost of Rs18,494 crore will come from the Centre, since it has been tagged as a national project.
Meanwhile, the cancelled tenders include all 12 Konkan irrigation projects — Balganga, Kondhane, Kalu, Shai, Susari, Gadgadi, Shirshinge, Chanera, Shil, Jamda, Kal and Gadnadi — that were cleared in gross violation of existing tender norms, environment laws and saw arbitrary cost escalations. All these tenders were given to firms owned by the Khatri family, FA Constructions and FA Enterprises, considered to be close to the NCP.
The decision will also impact 81 tenders of the Gosikhurd project in Vidarbha — one of the biggest projects in the state — that has been languishing for the past three decades.
The sole remaining scrapped tender is of the Kikwi project in Nashik, brought to the fore by a PIL before the Aurangabad bench of the high court, where tenders were issued even before the project was approved.
Several influential contractors had a share in the Gosikhurd project. These include SMS Infrastructure associated with Sancheti, D Thakkar Private Limited, a firm linked to Bhangadia, RJ Shah.
However, the list of contractors in Gosikhurd project, whose tenders have been cancelled could not be confirmed.
“All the tenders that are under the scanner of the ACB have been cancelled while other tenders in Gosikhurd were cancelled on the basis of the 2010 report by the one-man committee of ND Vadnere that had pointed to several irregularities in handing out contracts for the project,” said a senior bureaucrat. The Vadnere committee had presented its report in two parts, the first part dealt entirely with the Gosikhurd project. This report revealed that 93 tenders of this mega project were given cost escalations arbitrarily and in violation of existing rules. Out of these 93 tenders, the state has now scrapped those tenders where remaining work more than Rs1 crore needs to be completed. Those tenders where work of less than Rs1 crore remains will be completed by the existing contractors.
However, even as the government cancelled the tenders, the bigger question is if it can weed out the contractor lobby, which has so far hijacked the sector, and prioritise irrigation projects on the basis of public interest and real cost-benefit analysis. The moves of the government, so far, hint that it cannot do either.