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CAG and the parched state

                                                                                                    Mumbai Mirror, Mumbai, 20th April, 2013

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has prepared a report on the various irrigation projects in the state of Maharashtra. This report was tabled in the Vidhan Sabha this week, and contains details on hundreds of small and large projects that were undertaken over past several decades.

The CAG is a statutory constitutional office, not answerable to the government of the day (like the CBI), and is independent, just like the Election Commission or the Finance Commission. In the present tenure of the CAG, the office has gained prominence, as they have unearthed large scale irregularities in government spending.

(That's a polite way of saying that the CAG has sniffed out many scams). The CAG report is much more than an audit report. Due to its constitutional status, the report is considered "authentic". In this current report on Maharashtra's irrigation status, here are some of the main points: (a) Rs 43,270 crore currently spent on 426 incomplete irrigation projects (b) Collective cost of projects shot up from Rs 7215 crore to Rs 33,832 crore, a cost escalation of 469 per cent. (c) Projects have commenced between 5 to 45 years ago.

The oldest and incomplete Kukadi project started in 1967, and was supposed to have been completed in 1972. The data for the CAG report was provided by the state government's water resource ministry. Interestingly, the state has two different ministries to deal with water: they are called irrigation and water resources, and water supply and sanitation. The former ministry has been continuously headed by an NCP minister in the coalition government, since 1999.

The topic of drinking water, surprisingly, is not covered by irrigation and water resources ministry. The government's own Economics and Statistics department reported recently that between 2000 and 2010, total spending on irrigation projects was more than Rs 70,000 crore.

During this period the total irrigated area increased by 0.1 per cent as per that same report. Separately, the Governor of the state recently said that the state would need additional Rs 78,451 crore to complete more than 600 incomplete irrigation projects. In a yet to be published report, an NGO from Pune has revealed that from 2003 to 2011, almost 2billion cubic metres of water was diverted from 41 dams, for non-irrigation purposes. In most cases this was for industrial use, quite often for the use of sugarcane factories.

There are 202 "cooperative" sugarcane factories, most of them controlled by politicians. They are invariably loss making, giving poor returns to cane growing farmers over which they have monopoly buying power, and they often support schools, colleges, hospitals and temples.

The NGO's report has highlighted the fact that in some parts of the state more than 50 per cent of the dam water is diverted for non-agriculture. The beneficiaries, apart from sugar factories, are also thermal power companies (both private and public) as also companies located in MIDC. Of course water needs to be allocated both for industrial and agricultural use. But in times of droughts such statistics are quite shocking.

The data for this report was all sourced by filing RTI applications with the government of Maharahstra. So there you have it. Four different, all authentic sources: the Economics and Statistics department, the CAG report, statement from the Governor and now this Pune NGO report based on RTI.

All together conveys a sad story or massive diversion of water from dams, huge cost overruns with many projects still pending, and very little increase in area under irrigation or improvement in drinking water facilities for villages.

The drought of 2013 is supposedly as bad, but not much worse than 1972 in terms of rainfall and precipitation. But in terms of access to drinking water, fall in crop output and other forms of distress it might very well be much worse. The state is literally getting parched, not just by lack of rainfall, but by policy and implementation failure as well.