The central government has denied environmental clearance to the controversial Ashti Lift Irrigation project, which was planned in the drought-prone Marathwada region. The Centre’s state expert appraisal committee (EAC), which scrutinises irrigation projects, made the decision in its July meeting after it came to light that work on the project had begun without the mandatory green nod, especially in view of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) order.
The NGT order of July 7 quashed two Office Memorandums (OM) by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) that laid down procedure to clear projects where work started without green nod. Indirectly, these orders regularised projects that had violated laws.
The Ashti Lift Irrigation project is part of the larger Krishna-Marathwada irrigation project that envisages lifting water from Ujani dam in Solapur (in western Maharashtra) to dry Marathwada (central Maharashtra). It is estimated to be worth Rs1,046 crore and includes the Kuntephal storage tank, for which a work order has been awarded to the Raj Group, which has links with former deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar. One of the directors of Raj Group, Jagdish Kadam, is Pawar’s maternal cousin and has business relations with the NCP leader.
HT had reported earlier that Raj Group’s Kadam had written to Pawar in May 2009, asking him to push the proposal for revised administrative approval to the project. Documents show that the tender notice (February 2009) and work order (August 2009) for this project were issued without administrative approval. What’s more glaring is that the work order for the project came on the day the principal secretary of the planning department, Sunil Soni, pointed out through a letter that including this lift irrigation scheme in the larger Krishna-Marathwada project would be a “gross violation” of the governor’s directives as it was a new project and did not have administrative approval. In Maharashtra, the governor has a say in how development funds should be disbursed so as to redress regional imbalances.
Although the BJP government is loath to review the project, the holding back of environmental clearance will now stall the lift irrigation scheme.
The minutes of the July 20-21 meeting that were issued on Tuesday said, “The committee noted that a violation has occurred in the project. EAC was informed that such cases are to be dealt in terms with MOEF OMs and in conjunction with order of NGT and the case of scoping or Terms of Reference clearance for this project cannot be considered at this stage.”
“We had made a representation to the EAC, pointing out that this project had started without environmental clearance, in violation of existing laws. Also, as per the recent NGT order, it can’t be given a go-ahead. We had also pointed out various gross violations in the project, including non-existent water availability,” said Parineeta Dandekar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP).
The Krishna-Marathwada project, estimated to cost Rs4,845 crore in 2009 (cost likely to double at current rates), had got a green clearance from the Centre in June. The clearance came despite opposition from environmentalists, who had argued that the project envisaged storing 23 TMC of water without having any reliable water supply or water availability certificate.
Even though Ashti is part of this larger project and does not have a separate administrative approval, the Godavari Irrigation Development Corporation (GIDC) – agency implementing the projects – has sought a separate clearance for it. This lift irrigation scheme aims to lift 5.68 TMC of water from Ujani reservoir in Solapur in 5 stages to ostensible provide irrigation to 27,543 hectares in Beed. However, with no surplus water in Ujani, the project is likely to be a huge drain on public money.
The Krishna Water Tribunal that adjudicates distribution of Krishna basin water between three states had asked the government to scale down the entire project and had not given it a go-ahead. Water expert Madhav Chitale-led special investigative report on irrigation scam had termed this project as “flawed”, calling for action against the officials who cleared it.