The Rs70,000-crore irrigation scam had been a major issue in Maharashtra during the run-up to the assembly election last year. And, “we will not rest till Ajit Pawar is in jail” was an oft-heard declaration at BJP rallies. After coming to power, the BJP-Shiv Sena government did promise a free and fair investigation into the dubious projects cleared by the former deputy chief minister. But, within months, the hot potato seems to be growing cold.
Eyebrows were raised as the Maharashtra Anti Corruption Bureau recently sent a questionnaire to the Nationalist Congress Party leader in connection with the scam. Ajit, nephew of NCP chief Sharad Pawar, was an alleged beneficiary in the scam.
Anti-corruption crusaders are up in arms against the ACB's soft approach. What stopped the agency from summoning Ajit to its Worli office for questioning, they ask.
In 2014, a special committee found 27 irrigation projects across the state to be illegal. Subsequently, the Bombay High Court asked the ACB to form a special investigation team to probe the financial irregularities in the projects.
The SIT, however, has been accused of doing a tardy job in nailing the nexus between politicians, unscrupulous engineers and contractors who had allegedly siphoned off money from the 27 projects in Vidharbha and Marathwada regions between 1999 and 2009, when Ajit was the state water resources minister.
The case has gained more political weight with the names of NCP bigwigs Chhagan Bhujbal and Sunil Tatkare also popping up in the scam.
Anti-corruption crusader and former Aam Admi Party state convener Anjali Damania, in a letter dated June 6, 2015 to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, says she is “deeply disturbed” that the ACB has extended special favours to Ajit. The letter (a copy of which is with THE WEEK) says, “You have been also talking against the irrigation scam and Ajit Pawar, and that he should be sent to jail.... the ACB should be allowed to go ahead with an open inquiry....”
Fadnavis denied charges of leniency and said “no one will be spared or shielded”. But not many are buying his statement.
Damania says the government should at least ensure that Ajit personally answers the questionnaire. In a letter to ACB Director General Praveen Dixit, Damania writes Ajit “will hire experts to answer the queries and will definitely try to misguide and provide incorrect/misleading information. If this information provided by Pawar is reported to the court, the entire case will be diluted and end up in him going scot-free.”
When contacted by THE WEEK, Dixit appeared evasive: “I can answer your questions come next Tuesday.”
The ACB, formed in 1957, has often been accused of soft-pedalling on high-profile cases. Sources say the agency often ends up as a mere puppet in the hands of the political masters.
The biggest handicap for the officers is that they need the government's 'go ahead' at every stage of a probe. Incidentally, the ACB is currently awaiting a green signal from the state home department for prosecution in 99 cases.
Meanwhile, Damania, who filed a litigation regarding the scam in the Bombay High Court in 2012, is all set for the next round of hearing on June 15. Former Maharashtra Engineers Research Instititue chief Vijay Pandhare, who was one of the whistleblowers of the scam, throws his weight behind activists such as Damania. “Whatever that has been alleged is true,” he told THE WEEK. “There is ample proof of things that went wrong. Now, it is up to the government and its arm, the ACB, to get to the bottom of the matter.”