ACB puts ball in Uddhav court

Mumbai: The clean chit by Maharashtra Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) to former Water Resources Development Minister Ajit Pawar in the investigation of cases of alleged corruption in irrigation projects in the state has presented Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray with a tricky situation. Thackeray-led government will have to take the legal process forward even while giving the much-needed push for the completion of long pending irrigation projects in a transparent manner.

It is just a coincidence that when the irrigation scam came to light in 2012 the Nationalist Congress Party was sharing power with Congress and seven years later, it is again in power not only with Congress but also with Shiv Sena, which was then in opposition. After seven years of court battle and investigation, the Anti-Corruption Bureau has come to a conclusion that NCP leader Ajit Pawar, who was holding the irrigation department between 1999 and 2009, as chairman of the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC), cannot be held responsible for acts of the executing agencies as there is no legal obligation on his part.

It also stated that the State economic survey, in its report tabled in 2012, mentioned that the irrigation potential had grown by just 0.1% in the past decade. This led to criticism by the BJP-led opposition. Subsequently, the Nagpur bench NGO filed PIL demanding probe against cost escalations in the VIDC projects. It said in year 2009, within just seven months, cost of 38 projects of VIDC increased by Rs 20,050.06 crore. The original estimated cost which was Rs 6672.27 crore escalated at Rs 26722.33 crore.

Nearly 30 out of these 38 schemes were granted hurried approval within just four days and their cost was later revised. The cost escalations were 33 times the original cost after sanctioning.

The opposition stepped up its attack against Pawar and NCP in particular which forced the coalition government to release white paper in which the government gave clean chit to Pawar and other ministers while stating that there was a 28% rise in the irrigation potential. However, BJP disagreed with these findings and continued to fire salvos against NCP.

Amidst mounting pressure from the opposition, the government formed special investigation team led by water experts Dr Madhav Chitale without delegation of power under the Judicial Commission Act. The committee gave clean chit to Pawar but observed that the cost escalation of irrigation projects was due to rise in market prices.

NCP and Congress fought the assembly election separately in 2014. BJP emerged as the single largest party and formed the government. After a month Shiv Sena joined the government which instituted ACB probe into the scam and scrapped few tenders. Despite five years in power, contrary to BJP's claim, irrigation scam probe did not conclude nor Pawar was kept behind the bars.

In the latest affidavit, ACB has given clean chit to Pawar. However, former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who is now leader of opposition in the state assembly, has said that the affidavit will not stand the test of law.

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