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Ajit diverted irrigation water to industry: NGO

The Times of India, New Delhi, 10th April, 2013

Deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar might have apologised for his callous "urinating-in-the-dam" statement that belittled the tragedy of Maharashtra's farmers facing the worst drought in decades. But his apathy for them predates the blunder by years.

Between 2003 and 2011, as the water resources minister and then finance minister, Pawar chaired or partook in a high-powered committee that diverted almost 2,000 million cubic metre (mcm) of water meant for irrigation to industries. Equivalent to the storage capacity of Maharashtra's largest dam Koyna, the large-scale redirection from 51 dams reduced the state's irrigation potential by about four lakh hectares—an area about nine times the size of Greater Mumbai. This coincided with, as repeatedly highlighted by TOI, criminal cost escalations of many dam projects in the state.

 According to information collated by Prayas, a Pune-based NGO, the committee allowed 40% to over 80% of water in 23 projects to be diverted to industries. From Hetwane dam in Raigad district, 88% water was rerouted. From Amba and Pavna dams in Pune district, 81% water was allotted away from irrigation and to industries.

The decisions to funnel away water meant for farmers were taken, according to Prayas, without consultations with the affected people and—as is mandated under the Maharashtra Water Regulatory Authority Act of 2005—with the Maharashtra Water Regulatory Authority.

The committee's decisions were in line with the state water policy—which gives preference to industries while apportioning water—but disregarded the Central water policy that sets irrigation as a higher priority than industries.

This partiality continued until 2010, when charges were made in the Bombay high court of illegalities in water diversion.

As protests erupted around the state, the government sought to legalize the high-powered committee's decisions by inserting various clauses in the Water Regulatory Authority Act through an ordinance. It was able to ram the bill through the Lower House on April 14, 2011 at 1.30am, when barely any members were present. However, the Upper House rejected the bill, causing great embarrassment to the government.

Faced with defeat, the chief minister disbanded the high-powered committee and assured that decisions of water diversion would be taken by the cabinet, not the committee. The new resolve briefly led to heightened friction between the Congress and its ally NCP.

"This is not a debate on industries versus agriculture. It is about how water meant for farmers was diverted without public consultation," said a Prayas member. The NGO will release its report on water diversion later this month.

In a paper last year, Prayas said Maharashtra's 2003 water policy, for the first time in any Indian state, assigned "higher priority" in water allocation to industrial use as compared to irrigation.

The state had then issued a government resolution instituting a ministerial-level committee. Called high-powered committee, it was headed by Pawar in his capacity as water resources minister and included five ministers from the finance, water supply and sanitation, industry, and agriculture departments.

The state empowered the committee to decide on allotting and reserving water for non-irrigation users, including private industries. The state water resources department issued a circular, stating that up to 25% of water diversion from dam storage would be cleared by chief engineer. Any diversion above 25% of the limit was to be referred to the high-powered committee.

In eight years, the committee held 21 meetings. Official records show that the agriculture minister's attendance was barely 35%. The Prayas representative said, "The meetings were marked by poor attendance. Except for Pawar, other members recorded poor attendance. Whenever water is to be diverted for non-irrigation purpose, the agriculture minister must be present. However, his attendance was only for 35%. Other members recorded attendance of 50%.