Prime Minister Narendra Modi is greeted at Pune airport by CM Uddhav Thackeray, former CM Devendra Fadnavis, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari. The PM will be attending a conference of police chiefs in the city. (Express photo)
Maharashtra’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) office in Amravati too has filed an affidavit before the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, exonerating former state Deputy Chief Minister and Water Resource Minister Ajit Pawar of any wrongdoing in the irrigation projects under its jurisdiction.
Like its Nagpur counterparts, which filed an affidavit before the High Court on November 27 — a day before the new Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress dispensation took office in the state — giving a clean chit to NCP leader Ajit Pawar, ACB SP, Amravati, Shrikant Dhivre too filed an affidavit before the High Court the same day, stating that the ACB hadn’t found anything to put blame of the alleged multi-crore irrigation scam on Ajit Pawar. The wording of the affidavit is exactly the same as the one submitted by Nagpur ACB SP Rashmi Nandedkar.
The ACB has said it relied primarily on three letters from the Water Resources Department of the then BJP-led government which were received in the past six months. Eyebrows had been raised as the clean chit came a day before the Sena-NCP-Congress combine Maha Vikas Aghadi government was sworn in. Also, the latest affidavit appears to differ with the affidavit filed by the ACB last November that had said that Ajit Pawar had intervened in the process of award of contracts for irrigation projects.
ACB chief Param Bir Singh refused to comment on why the two affidavits filed by the ACB within a span of one year appeared to differ. He said, “All the reasons behind our findings are mentioned in the affidavit.” Mumbai Police commissioner and the then ACB chief Sanjay Barve, who filed the earlier affidavit on November 26, 2018 apprising the court of investigations in the case till that point, did not respond to calls or messages.
On filing of the affidavit on November 28, a day before the Maha Vikas Aghadi was sworn in, an ACB officer said they had been told to file an affidavit about the progress of investigation before November 28 by the Nagpur bench of the High Court. “The fact that the political developments happened around the same time has nothing to do with the affidavit. It was based on letters we received over the past six months,” the officer said.
On the different findings of the two affidavits filed a year apart in the same case, the officer said the latest affidavit was based on three letters received during the current year. The first letter was received on May 7 from the Water Resources Department stating that the executive director of Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) should have informed Ajit Pawar — who was its chairman — if there was any departure from the observance of rules of business.
The affidavit filed last year mentioned Section 10 of the Maharashtra Government Rules of Business and Instructions that makes the minister in charge of a department responsible for all the business and Section 14 that makes the secretary responsible for careful observance of these rules.
The second letter was received on July 5 this year from the Water Resources Department, which informed the ACB that there had been no losses to the state on account of Mobilisation Advances (MA) — an advance given to contractors by VIDC — given to contractors of irrigation projects as the money was repaid, an officer said. The earlier affidavit talks about how MA was not mentioned during the tendering process. It said, “The government had made it mandatory to declare availability... for MA in the tender document so that there is greater participation.”
The third letter received on July 6, received from the same department, said that there was no provision in law for VIDC to have referred the acceptance of tender cost to any other authority. An officer added, “Apart from these letters we also recorded the statement of Ajit Pawar earlier this year where he gave some justification for some of the actions during his tenure as head of VIDC.”
Anjali Damania, who was one of the petitioners, said, “It is astounding how he has been given a clean chit. The rate at which things are going, soon the ACB will say that the irrigation scam did not take place at all. Why did the ACB not check the money trail.” An ACB officer said they did not find any money trail in the form of bank transfers from any of the beneficiaries to Ajit Pawar.
Damania said, “So far they have not even finished the investigation. How can they give Ajit Pawar a clean chit at such an early stage.” An ACB officer said they had taken 300 of the main tenders from the over 2,500 tenders in which there was likely to be involvement of some big players. “The rest of the tenders are of a smaller value where we are not expecting any foul play,” the officer said. Damania added, “I hope the court will throw out the affidavit and order a re-investigation by the CBI.
The Nagpur bench of the High Court is hearing four petitions filed by activist Atul Jagtap, seeking a probe into four irrigation projects in Amravati division: Waghadi, Raigad, Lower Pedhi and Jigao, while NGO Janmanch has filed a PIL seeking a probe into, and expeditious completion of, the Gosikhurd project in Bhandara district. The affidavits were filed on the direction of the High Court during the hearing on these PILs that have been clubbed.
The Nagpur ACB is looking into 302 tenders in 17 irrigation projects. Of these, 195 tenders are for the Gosikhurd project. The ACB has lodged FIRs in 20 cases so far. Of them, chargesheets have been filed in five cases. The Water Resources Department has granted “conditional sanction” to prosecute the public servants involved in 11 other cases.
The Amravati ACB is currently conducting a probe into 28 projects involving 1,002 tenders. FIRs have been registered in four cases. Fourteen inquiries have been closed as no criminality was found in them. Permission has been sought to register FIRs in seven cases. Three inquiries are still pending.