Of Irrigation and Corruption
Bharat Dogra

The revelations relating to the Maharashtra irrigation scam made recently by India Against Corruption (IAC) were relevant and significant but limited in scope. As the main focus was on proving the involvement of Mr Gadkari and the willingness of political parties opposed to each other to collude in corrupt activities, the full dimensions of the shocking failure of major and medium irrigation projects to bring the expected benefits to farmers and other villagers could not be explored in these allegations.

The wider reality of this irrigation scam in Maharashtra is that an expenditure of Rs 7000 crore during the past decade or so could increase the area under irrigation by just 0.1%. In recent times activists of several social organisations have been painstakingly collecting facts from the field regarding why this happened. In several projects investigated in detail by them revealed glaring examples of huge and arbitrary budget escalations, favours shown to certain contractors and neglect of environment norms. The irregularities continued even after projects were completed with water diverted to non-priority users instead of meeting the priority needs of farmers.

But this is by no means an isolated picture. What recent investigations revealed in the Vidarbha region known for serious crisis of farmers is equally true of Bundelkhand region known for the same reason. A recent study made by this writer in Lalitpur district of Bundelkhand, revealed a shocking story of arbitrary rise in budget of projects which actually resulted in such changes in projects that greatly increased the problems of villagers living in project areas.

The shocking situation revealed is several studies of different areas gets reflected ultimately in the even more disturbing national level data. The available statistics for major and medium irrigation projects for the entire country for the last two decades (beginning 1991-92) corrobarates the fact that while Rs two lakh crore were spent during this period, there was no addition to the irrigated area. Where did the entire money go?

Of course corruption played an important role in this debacle, but it will be ill-advised sensationalism to say that corruption alone was responsible. Wrong policies, distorted priorities, mistaken choice of projects, less than careful investigation, flaws in the execution of projects and diversion of water to other uses—all these played an important role.

So while corruption in these projects certainly needs to be exposed and the guilty persons indicted as much as possible the wider task of making corrections and reforms should not be forgotten for the ultimate aim is to bring real benefits to farmers. Activists of various social and research organisations in Maharashtra have done a fine job in exposing various aspects of the irrigation scam, but this is only the first essential step and a lot of follow-up work has to be done before one can be assured that systemic reforms are under way. Similar challenges have to be taken up in other parts of the country. The challenge is the greatest in areas where the existing water sources including rivers are themselves threatened by gigantic mining or other megaprojects.

Vol. 45, No. 29, January 27- Feb 2, 2013

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