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Probe into 9 irrigation scam tenders shut; ACB says no link to Ajit Pawar

PUBLISHED ON NOV 26, 2019 12:10 AM IST

Forty-eight hours after Ajit Pawar took oath as the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra in the Devendra Fadnavis government, the anti-corruption bureau (ACB) document closed investigation into nine tenders in the Vidarbha irrigation projects that are linked to the multi-crore irrigation scam.

The move also comes three days ahead of a final hearing in the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court in a clutch of petitions against Pawar’s role as one of the main accused in the scam. The anti-corruption bureau’s open inquiry against Pawar was instituted by Fadnavis in December 2014, soon after he took over the top job in the state during his first tenure.

On Monday, additional director general of police (ACB) Bipin Kumar Singh in a ‘confidential’ letter to the superintendent of Amravati ACB ordered closing of the inquiries as “no offence was disclosed’’. “The ACB is inquiring into a total of 2654 tenders of 45 projects of Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC), as per the two Public Interest Litigations (PILs) filed in the year 2012 in the High Court Nagpur Bench,” read an ACB statement. VIDC had executed these projects. “So far, open inquiry has been completed in 212 tenders, in which 24 cases have been filed and charge sheets have been filed in five cases… None of these [nine] inquires is in respect of Ajit Pawar, the then chairman of VIDC. All 24 FIRs are under investigation.” Parambir Singh, director general of anti-corruption bureau,said, “No FIR has been closed.”

Of the 212 tenders probed, the inquiry has been closed in 45 tenders that include the nine tenders, which were closed in the letter on Monday. These nine tenders pertained to minor projects in Washim, Yavatmal, Amravati, and Buldhana districts of Vidarbha. While the ACB termed it a routine matter and activists admit the document in no way implies a clean chit to Pawar, the timing of the ACB document has raised questions on the future of this probe.

One of the big shockers in the Maharashtra government formation potboiler has been the coming together of Fadnavis and Pawar, former opponents, especially over the irrigation scam in the state. It is widely believed in political circles that Pawar’s decision to back Fadnavis-led government at the cost of a split in his family and his party, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), is to secure himself in the irrigation scam and Maharashtra State Co-operative bank scam probe.

“This is an indication of things to come. I agree these nine tenders pertain to some minor projects and may not even be directly linked to Pawar. But with Pawar as the deputy chief minister, there is no doubt that the investigation files in the scam will close sooner than later and he will get a clean chit. This is a travesty being orchestrated by Fadnavis, who ironically instituted the probe and promised Maharashtra that guilty would be punished,” said activist Anjali Damania, who exposed the irrigation scam in Konkan.

The BJP has refuted the allegations of any quid pro quo for Pawar’s support in the irrigation probe. “The BJP has been extremely sincere about the irrigation probe. Several charge sheets have been filed in this scam. At the end of the day, the case is being monitored by the court. There is no question of any quid pro quo,” said Keshav Upadhye, BJP spokesperson.

For the past three years, the irrigation scam has been moving at a snail’s pace. While the ACB has so far not filed any criminal case against Pawar, it has also not given him a clean chit yet. Apart from the Vidarbha projects; three criminal cases, two charge sheets and one enforcement directorate (ED) inquiry is underway in three Konkan projects. Pawar’s role is under the scanner in the Balganga project in Konkan, which the ED is investigating.

ACB sources said in a scam of such a massive proportion where so many FIRs have been filed, a mere order cannot close the entire investigation. “We can close the FIRs only by moving court,” said an official.

One of the main petitions filed by Jan Manch before the Nagpur bench in the irrigation scam on Friday has sought a transfer of the probe from the ACB to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), given the slow pace of the probe. “Fadnavis had promised that the guilty would be punished. In the past five years, despite the many tenders being probed, no case has been filed against Pawar. This is despite an affidavit by the ACB commissioner last year that prima facie held Pawar guilty in this scam,” said one of the lawyers representing one of the five petitions, who did not want to be named.

In an affidavit filed before the HC in these petitions, then ACB commissioner and incumbent city police chief Sanjay Barve had said: “What ACB has observed in the VIDC inquiry was a clear pattern with sinister similarity of a criminal conspiracy to defraud the government under the garb of subverted and sham procedures and through instrumentality of minions in the department and the VIDC.” He had indicated that Pawar was involved in the scam, but had sought more time to reach a conclusion especially with regards to money trail in the scam.

Since then, however, no action has been taken against Pawar.

With inputs from Vijaykumar Yadav and Pratik Salunke

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