‘Not on my watch’: Fadnavis counters clean chit to Ajit Pawar in Vidarbha irrigation probe
Former Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has said that the clean chit given to Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) in the Vidarbha irrigation scam was not approved by him.
Hindustan Times had earlier reported on December 6 that the ACB, in its affidavit to the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court late last month, ruled out involvement of Pawar in the scam pertaining to irrigation projects in Vidarbha.
The affidavit was submitted a day after the Devendra Fadnavis-Ajit Pawar government fell on November 26, three days after they took oath as Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister respectively.
On the same evening, it was clear that the Shiv Sena-led three-party coalition would form the next government.
“It (the affidavit) was not submitted to me or any one in the government. It’s been done at the ACB level. I had resigned a day earlier,” said Fadnavis, implying that the clean chit was not done on his watch.
The former chief minister, who initiated the open inquiry against Pawar in the irrigation scam in December 2014 soon after he took over the top job in the state, also said that he would oppose this clean chit.
“This (the ACB affidavit) is very surprising. How can one affidavit already filed by ACB be contradicted by another affidavit? I totally oppose this and I am sure that the court will not accept this,” Fadnavis told HT.
In the tug of war last month between Shiv Sena and the BJP over government formation in Maharashtra, Fadnavis, in a surprising move, took oath as chief minister along with Pawar as his deputy.
Pawar had then supported Fadnavis as a group leader of his party’s 54 MLAs, against his uncle and NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s wishes.
The affidavit filed on November 27 says: “Considering facts and evidence collected during the course of inquiry/investigation, it is observed that there is no criminal liability on the part of chairman of Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC).”
The clean chit refers to two main allegations against Pawar as the former water resources minister and ex-officio chairman of VIDC from 1999 to 2009 - handing out arbitrary cost escalations to irrigation projects and giving contractors mobilisation advance in contravention to norms.
It is, as Fadnavis mentions, an about turn from the affidavit filed by the ACB in November 2018, when the agency indicated that Pawar was culpable in a “modus operandi” to “defraud the government” but sought more time to reach a logical conclusion.
The affidavit has exonerated Pawar on the issue of cost escalations by pointing out that majority of the tender hikes were in the range of five per cent and were cleared by the executive director of VIDC, or in some cases, the secretary.
It says the minister just signed the note sheets, which had no negative remarks on them.
“There is no evidence to show that the secretary had briefed the minister about not accepting liability of the cost escalations.”
With regards to the mobilisation advance, the affidavit says that the government through two letters dated September 10, 2018 and 11 June, 2019, clarified that there is no loss to the government due to the handing out of mobilisation advance.
The earlier affidavit by former ACB chief and incumbent Mumbai Police Commissioner Sanjay Barve, however, had pointed out that there was a set modus operandi in the way the irrigation project costs were hiked and mobilisation advances were doled out to favour a certain cartel of contractors.
“The entire affidavit is shameless cover up. It has sought to dispose of the petition and give a clean chit to the main accused even while investigations in as many as 202 tenders and completion of 20 FIRs is underway. Every irrigation cost hike has been cleared by Pawar himself by contravening existing norms,” said Anjali Damania, activist who played a key role in exposing the irrigation scam.
The main petitioner, an organisation Jan Manch represented by lawyer Firdaus Mirza, has sought that the investigation should be taken away from ACB and transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Jan Manch’s original petition in the Vidarbha irrigation scam was filed in 2010 and was disposed off in December 2014 after Fadnavis announced an open inquiry against Pawar. The organisation filed a petition again in 2016 in the Nagpur court saying it was unhappy with the pace and quality of investigation by the ACB in the scam.