Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Woman who stalled Rs 5000 cr corrupt irrigation projects

Bureaucracy hits back at Anjali Damania by taking away her 59-acre farm, but she remains undeterred. Truly, todays Jhansi ki Rani, Laxmibai.  
On Friday last week, when 42-year-old pathologist Anjali Damania received a government order informing her that she had lost ownership of a 59-acre farmland she had so lovingly nurtured for close to 18 years, it just brought a wry smile to her face. What is 59 acres for a woman who has stalled irrigation projects worth over Rs 5,000 crore across the state and who has become the pivot in a struggle against a corrupt system that lets project costs escalate to help contractors make obscene amounts of money.

    The forfeiture of her farm was the system hitting back at her, hoping she would get scared and abandon the movement. But on Monday, when this correspondent met Damania at her residence, it did not look like she was afraid or was contemplating laying down arms.

    Activism was thrust upon this softspoken mother of two who till a year ago led a comfortable life, dividing her time between the farm, her medical practice and foreign holidays.

    Farmers' rights, human displacement, cost escalation in government projects and land acquisition were phrases she had read in the passing in newspapers and heard on evening TV news.

    She was just trying to save her land in Karjat which was to be acquired for the construction of a dam when she stumbled upon papers that showed how dams that would displace thousands of people and destroy acres of cultivable land were cleared in a matter of weeks. The papers also revealed how project costs were increased manifolds just days after a contractor bagged the project.

    The first set of figures that she managed to get hold were shocking. The cost of Kondhane dam, for which the government had sought to acquire her farm, had jumped from Rs 56 crore to Rs 328 crore barely a month after the contract was awarded. That's a cost escalation of nearly 600 per cent. Of course, this was done because a local elected representative demanded that the dam height be increased from 39 meters to 71 meters.

    Damania's struggle, which has spurred several activists to question cost escalation in irrigation projects across the state, started in May last year when she was told her 30-acre farm in Kondhane, Karjat would be have to acquired for a dam project. When she met local irrigation officials, they confirmed that such a project was being planned, but that the same had still not moved even to the drawing board stage. A complacent Damania went on a month-long holiday with her family.

    It was big mistake. When she returned, she found out that the project had been approved, tendered and a contractor appointed.

    Her immediate reaction was to save her farm that she had grown so attached to. Soon, project coordinators approached her to acquire the land. "They kept increasing the price thinking that I was acting like any other landholder trying to get the best deal. Frankly, I was like any other landholder, ignorant about my rights and how to protect them," she said.

    When pressure increased, Damania decided to sleuth around. She sought documents pertaining to the dam under RTI from the irrigation department. The first lot of basic documents revealed the shocking jump in construction costs. The documents also revealed that the project report was prepared, tender floated, and a contractor appointed in less than a month. This is when she realised something was amiss.

    At this juncture, Damania decided to get to the bottom of the issue and met up with several residents from other areas in Maharashtra where similar dam projects were proposed. "To my utter shock, it was the same story everywhere. Identical clutch of contractors bid for the projects everywhere. Contracts were awarded within days. At times, tender notices were published in newspapers a day or two after the project had already been awarded. Barely a month after the contract was awarded, scope of work was increased and cost went up manifold. None of the contractors were capable or technically sound to handle such huge projects," said Damania.

    This is some of the additional information that Damania was able to unearth. The cost of Kalu dam in Thane district had jumped from Rs 640 crore to Rs 1400 crore soon after the work was allotted. Similarly, the cost of Balganga dam in Pen jumped from Rs 420 crore to Rs 1,320 crore and for Shai dam the cost rose from Rs 410 crore to Rs 1,339 crore.

    As Damania began nosing around more, she started getting threat calls at her residence. Her family of stock-brokers freaked out. Her father-in-law issued an ultimatum - she would not be allowed to put everybody at risk for her work. "Fortunately, a few days later a television channel was featuring a programme on farmers' plight in a region where a big dam hadn't taken off as planned. Suddenly, my father-in-law turned towards me and told me that I should go all out after the scam and expose it to help poor farmers."

    She now began seeking documents pertaining to specific contractors and projects and it became more difficult to break through the bureaucracy. She was given lame excuses by irrigation department for not giving out documents. Her appeals under RTI Act went unheard. And when she eventually confronted Konkan Irrigation Development Corporation babus in their offices, she was told that the documents were nowhere to be found. "I just sat there and told them that I would not budge till I get my papers. I was scared that they will book me on some false pretext so I alerted my friends and India Against Corruption volunteers, who joined me in large numbers. Finally, at 7 pm the officials opened the cupboards and allowed me to take whatever I needed and photocopied them for me," she said.

    Armed with several relevant documents, she met Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan in May this year, who stayed work on Kondhane dam and asked his officers to prepare a white paper on the state's irrigation projects. Work on several other dams, where she had been able to expose the nexus between bureaucrats and contractors, was stalled too. Earlier this year, she filed a Public Interest Litigation at the Bombay High Court.

    Just when Damania thought she was going strong in exposing corruption in irrigation projects, the system hit back. Damania received a notice from the tehsildar in Kondhane stating that she would have to surrender all the parcels of land that she had bought in the last 18 years. The reason cited was that since all these land parcels, barring one bought in 1994, were agriculture plots, only a farmer could buy them.

    Damania tried to prove that her first plot she bought from a cultivation company in Mahagaon, Raigad, was non-cultivated but fertile land. Over the years she and her husband had started cultivating it. "I showed them photographs of my land. I tried asking them as to why they took 18 years to realise that my first acquisition was illegal. I was obviously being targeted to get me off the case," Damania alleged.

    Of course, all her arguments were rejected. On Friday, she received a final order stating that all her land had been acquired by the state.

    Damania's resolve to fight against corruption hasn't diminished. She still continues to dig up documents on various other under-construction dams in the state.

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