Just before polls, Devendra Fadnavis used contentious rule to pay irrigation contractors

Sandeep A Ashar
devendra fadnavis, devendra fadnavis pays irrigation contractors, shiv sena, maharashtra irrigation scam, uddhav thackeray, mumbai city news

Fadnavis, when contacted, said his Cabinet had taken the decision as a “special case” to expedite ongoing projects. (File)

Just before the Assembly polls in Maharashtra, the previous BJP-led regime invoked a contentious provision to regularise payments for additional works, amounting to hundreds of crores of rupees, to irrigation contractors across the state. But the new Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government under Uddhav Thackeray has stayed the move for now.

The Sunday Express has learnt that the Devendra Fadnavis Cabinet had in a meeting held on September 9 this year invoked Clause 38 of the Schedule of Rates for irrigation works, permitting the state’s Water Resources Department to incur liabilities towards additional works undertaken in 39 existing dam contracts. Besides this, it had also permitted the department to sanction extra items that were not part of the original contract.

In August 2014, months before the Fadnavis government took over, the department, through an official communication, had suspended the implementation of both the provisions after investigations into the multi-crore irrigation fraud during the Congress-NCP regime had alleged that there was rampant misuse of these provisions.

Without inviting fresh tenders, inquiries had then revealed that in several cases, extra works, which were beyond the scope of the original contract, to the tune of several hundred crores were awarded in the garb of sanctioning additional items. In the garb of sanctioning additional items, changes were introduced to the scope of the work, design for the project, height of the dam, the command area projections, among others, all of which would have required invitation of a fresh tender.

Incidentally, Fadnavis, then in Opposition, had led a vocal campaign against the then regime for misuse of the provisions.

September 9 was also the last time the Fadnavis Cabinet had met before the model code of conduct for the elections kicked in. On December 4, when Thackeray’s Cabinet took up the confirmation of the minutes of the September 9 meeting, this decision had come under scrutiny after two ministers objected to the bulk approval on the ground that it had been passed without a formal Cabinet note.

Sources confirmed that on December 9, the department moved a note for the withdrawal of the proposal from the Cabinet. When contacted, Principal Secretary (Water Resources) Iqbal Singh Chahal confirmed the withdrawing of the proposal. While the department had already issued a government resolution (GR) notifying the Cabinet decision on September 11, Chahal confirmed that “it has now been put on hold.”

While justifying the need to invoke the provisions for expediting dam works and avoiding cost escalation, Chahal said his department would now “move an independent file to the Chief Minister’s Office for reconfirmation of the decision. The GR will be operationalised only after he ratifies it.”

He further argued that since the proposal dealt with the “operationalisation of existing provisions”, a Cabinet nod was not mandatory. Sources said that even on September 9, the department had reportedly moved the file for the then Chief Minister’s (Fadnavis’s) approval. It was brought before the Cabinet on the latter’s insistence.

While Clause 38 is meant to provide the government an instrument to sanction payments for exigencies at the time of execution, it has been routinely used in the past to award new works to existing contractors. For sanctioning payments for extra items that were not a part of the original contract, rules prescribed by the state’s Public Works Department are used, but even this provision has been prone to misuse.

Fadnavis, when contacted, said his Cabinet had taken the decision as a “special case” to expedite ongoing projects. “It was a sort of fait accompli. None of these contracts were awarded during my term. These were all awarded during the Congress-NCP regime. We had to invoke the provisions to regularise the additional liabilities already incurred on the projects to put them back on track and avoid further cost escalations,” he argued.

The former CM added that “we were in the process of availing fresh loans to fund 52 additional ongoing projects. Without regularising the additional works, we couldn’t have gone ahead with it.” But a senior official said that the September 9 decision had allowed additional works to be awarded for future expenditure on these projects as well.