At least three minor irrigation projects that the Pune-based Raj Group, which has close ties to former deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, bagged in Vidarbha were among those for which cost escalations were cleared in haste before the 2009 Assembly polls.
Hence, these are likely to be within the ambit of the ongoing inquiry by the anti-corruption bureau into Maharashtra’s irrigation scam.
The Raj Group, one of whose directors and shareholders, Jagdish Kadam, is Pawar’s maternal uncle’s son, bagged at least 16 irrigation projects worth Rs803 crore during the Congress-NCP government. The firm also got road projects.
The cost escalation for two of the projects — Chandrabhaga barrage minor project and Vagalinga minor project — were approved in June 2009, and that for the third, the Karanjgaon minor project, was cleared a year earlier in May 2008.
Documents HT has accessed show that Devendra Shirke, executive director of Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC), and Pawar, as the then water resources minister, cleared the escalations that ranged from 8.15 % to 19.45%.
Shirke, who was water resources secretary, is facing a departmental inquiry, along with 44 other senior engineers of the VIDC in the irrigation scam.
One of the central allegations against Pawar in the scam was over clearing arbitrary cost escalations to irrigation projects in Vidarbha in 2009. Activists had alleged that the increase was done to benefit contractors, in violation of several norms and without approval from competent authorities.
Within a span of seven months in 2009, the cost of 38 irrigation projects under the VIDC escalated by a whopping Rs20,050.06 crore from Rs6,672.27 crore to Rs26,722.33 crore.
The Chandrabhaga project cost rose by 18.62% from Rs56.62 crore in the initial tender to Rs66.92 crore. The one-page letter seeking consent to issue work order did not give any justifiable reason for the hike. The cost of Vagalinga minor project in Amravati rose by 8.15% from Rs15.02 crore to Rs16.25 crore.
And, the Karanjgaon project cost went up from the initial tender by 19.45%, from Rs25.03 crore to Rs29.90 crore. Here, too, the one-and-a-half page letter seeking consent did not go into details to justify the hike. The letter said that following negotiations with the lowest bidder, the cost of the tenders was revised.
The Chandrabhaga and Karanjgaon projects went to Raj Promoters and Civil Engineers, while the Vagalinga project went to Raj Infrastructure Private Limited.
Both the firms are part of the Raj Group, although this has been denied by one of its directors, Ram Nimbalkar, and confirmed by the other, Kadam.
Under the norms, cost escalations of up to 5% must have sanction from the water resources secretary, hikes of between 5% and 15% must be cleared by the governing body comprising of the water resources minister and some other ministers, and rises more than 15% must be passed by a high-power committee of ministers.
Since May 2005, Pawar had concentrated the powers of the irrigation department in his hands, issuing a circular that all tenders had to get his sanction before being awarded. Sources said this was expected to be his defence, as he may argue that he did not go into the merits of the cost escalation proposal, leaving it to lower ranking officials.
The one-man committee of former water resources secretary ND Vadnere that examined cost escalations of irrigation projects in Vidarbha from 2006-2007 to 2009-10 had said that in a majority of the cases, officials had turned a blind eye to prevalent norms while granting these clearances and higher ups had allowed such hikes outside the framework of the government.
The report clearly pointed out that changing the scope of work of a project after giving out tenders was improper and suspicious. It also said the project costs that were revised on the grounds of change in scheduled rates of raw materials seemed arbitrary.