As Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar Join Hands, Has the Irrigation Scam Charge Been Forgotten?

Five years ago, Fadnavis approved a state anti-corruption bureau inquiry into Ajit Pawar and the Maharashtra irrigation scam, an investigation that is still ongoing. Today, the NCP leader was sworn as his deputy chief minister for the next five years. 

Update (November 25): Two days after Ajit Pawar was sworn in as a deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, the state police’s anti-corruption bureau has started the process of closing some of the cases in the alleged Rs. 70,000 crore irrigation scam.

In a letter, marked as “confidential”, the Anti Corruption Bureau’s additional director general Bipin Kumar Singh has sought for a closure of nine different cases or irrigation- related scam in Maharashtra.

While the letter doesn’t mention Ajit Pawar’s name anywhere, it has given details of several cases registered across different districts of Vidarbha region like Washim, Yavatmal, Amravati, and Buldhana– all filed in 2018.

In the letter, ADG Singh has stated that the investigations into the case have not led them to any tangible evidence and that the case be closed until any new evidence is found or as per the court’s direction. The closure report will have to be submitted to the court for final directions.

The ACB is presently investigating over  3000 different tenders. A senior ACB official told The Wire that the cases sought to be closed were “routine” in nature and that the main investigation still continues.

Speaking to news agency ANI, Maharashtra Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) DG, Parambir Singh said, “We are investigating around 3000 tenders in irrigation related complaints. These are routine inquiries that are closed and all ongoing investigations are continuing as they were earlier.”

Singh added that none of the cases that were closed today are related to Ajit Pawar.

New Delhi: In October 2013, Devendra Fadnavis and other state BJP officials showed up at the offices of renowned water expert Madhav Chitale in a bullock cart with what they claimed was clinching evidence of Ajit Pawar and the Nationalist Congress Party’s role in the Maharashtra irrigation scam.

Fadnavis, then the state BJP chief, unloaded four bags off the cart and presented a 14,000-page document to Chitale, who at the time was heading the special investigation team (SIT) probe into the alleged Rs 70,000 crore water scandal. 

“We want the committee to probe the role played by [now deputy chief minister] Ajit Pawar, who headed the department, and his Nationalist Congress Party colleague Sunil Tatkare, who is the current minister, in escalating project costs. They conspired with executive directors of the irrigation development boards to help contractors,” alleged Fadnavis, while speaking to reporters. 

In December 2014, after becoming chief minister, Fadnavis gave the go-ahead for a state Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) inquiry into Pawar and other top NCP leaders — a probe that is still ongoing.

In fact, the scam allegations became a regular talking point for the BJP in the run-up to the state elections in 2019, with even senior leaders like home minister Amit Shah lashing out against the NCP over the irrigation controversy.

Also read: Maharashtra Live: NCP to Take Action Against Ajit Pawar, Says He ‘Fooled’ MLAs

“Ajit Pawar spent Rs 70,000 crore on irrigation projects during the tenure of the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra. I want to know from Prithviraj Chavan and Sharad Pawar where this money disappeared… Paisa kahan gaya? Pani kahan gaya? Ek bhi boond pani nahi aaya (‘Where has the money disappeared? Where has the water gone? Not a drop of water has been made available’),” Shah said at an election rally for BJP candidates Atul Bhosale and Udayanraje Bhosale at Shivaji Stadium in Karad.

On Saturday, after weeks of political manoeuvring, Fadnavis now finds himself beginning a second tenure in heading the Maharashtra state government with Ajit Pawar at his side as deputy chief minister.

Contours of a scandal

But what exactly is the Maharashtra irrigation scam, what has been alleged in its aftermath, and why is it uncomfortable for the BJP to accept the support of Pawar and a number of NCP MLAs? 

The scandal first came into the public domain when Vijay Pandhare, who was then the chief engineer in the water resources department, wrote letters to the Maharashtra governor on the various alleged irregularities in the costs and approvals of a number of irrigation projects.

Specifically, Pandhare alleged that Ajit Pawar, who was the state’s water resources minister between 1999 and 2009, had approved 38 projects worth Rs 20,000 crore in 2009 by tweaking rules without the specific clearance of the Governing Council of Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC).

More importantly though, despite the huge amounts of money spent on various projects, it appeared that there was no significant rise in irrigated land in the state. 

The most common allegation that made the rounds then — and continues to find space in election rallies like those made by Amit Shah — was that Maharashtra’s irrigation potential increased by just 0.1% in those years despite an expenditure of Rs 70,000 crore on such projects.

Also read: By Swearing Fadnavis in, Maharashtra Governor Has Opened the Ground for Horse-Trading

The controversy led to the resignation of Ajit Pawar, who eventually rejoined the Maharashtra cabinet after the Congress-led government headed by Prithviraj Chavan gave a clean chit to the NCP leader.

Separately, in December 2012, the Maharashtra government announced a probe by Special Investigation Team (SIT) into the scam. The SIT, headed by Chitale, submitted a report that flagged a number of irregularities in incomplete irrigation projects across the state, but ultimately also gave a clean chit to Ajit Pawar.

Pandhare, who first raised the allegations, went onto join the Aam Aadmi Party in December 2013.

Fadnavis and the ACB probe

After coming to power in late 2014, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis approved the ACB’s proposal to investigate Ajit Pawar and other top NCP leaders in the irrigation controversy.

I have been authorised by the chief minister of Maharashtra to state that he has cleared open inquiries by ACB against Ajit Pawar, Sunil Tatkare and Chhagan Bhujbal,” Advocate General Sunil Manohar told the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court in December 2014.

Manohar added that Fadnavis had asked the ACB to go ahead with probe against the three top NCP leaders “in the alleged scams in which several thousand crores of rupees were siphoned off with the connivance of greedy contractors and pliant officials”.

Since then, the ACB probe, with regard to Pawar specifically, has continued slowly. 

In June 2015, media reports speculated that the ACB was going soft on Ajit Pawar, even as it turned up the heat on other NCP leaders like Chhagan Bhujbal.

An India Today story from the time noted how Bhujbal and his family members had been called for direct questioning, but in the case of Pawar, the ACB was satisfied with merely sending a postal questionnaire. Eventually though, Pawar was issued summons for in-person interrogation.

Also read: Why Chhagan Bhujbal May Be the Fall Guy in a Bigger Political Game

In November 2018, the anti-corruption bureau submitted an affidavit to the Bombay high court that pointed a finger at the now deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, noting that as minister of the water resources department, scams in the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation department would come under his responsibility.

Around that time, senior BJP leaders claimed that Ajit Pawar could be arrested “anytime”.

“Police have reached the door steps of Ajit Pawar in the irrigation scam. Therefore, his condition is such that there is a sword hanging on his head and he can be arrested anytime,” state BJP president Raosaheb Danve said, while addressing a gathering in the presence of Fadnavis.

In October 2019, the most recent development, the ACB declared that it was “scrutinising” the answers submitted by Pawar over the allegations related to the Jigaon irrigation project.

An affidavit submitted by ACB superintendent Shrikant Dhivare in the Nagpur bench of Bombay high court, noted that the NCP leader submitted a reply to 52 out of 57 queries asked by the ACB on alleged irregularities while awarding construction contracts for the projects. 

The Nagpur division bench is currently hearing five PILs related to the irrigation scam. The petitioners claim that the ACB has no new information in the scam-related cases and that it has been examining Pawar’s role for over a year now.