On 29 July 2013, five engineers of the Maharashtra Water Conservation Department and the Minor Irrigation Division of the Water Resource Department died in a fateful accident while inspecting the Chinchave Minor Irrigation project in Deola block, Nashik. The mud wall of the 67 million-cubic-feet project, 12 metres high and 30 metres in length, was being repaired.

Significantly, no orders had been given to the engineers to undertake this maintenance, according to the Water Conservation Department; it is therefore not clear why the engineers were there in the first place. The engineers were inspecting a trench near the jack-well of the project when the overlying mud caved in on them. They succumbed to their injuries before help could arrive.

It has been reported that the four engineers of the Water Resources Department had accompanied S G Sonawane (who has since died), who, along with four others, had been suspended from the Maharashtra Water Conservation Department in July 2013 following irregularities in the work of the Chinchave Project. A high-level inquiry into the accident is to be instituted. Dr. Nitin Raut, Minister, Water Conservation, said in the Assembly that a police case has been filed against Swati Constructions, the contractors of the project.

Chhagan Bhujbal, who is both Public Works Minister and the Guardian Minister of Nashik district, has announced help for the families of the deceased. He has said that it is not clear why so many engineers went to the spot when no orders had been issued. He also said that this should act as a lesson about the consequences of poor quality work. Maharashtra government official Vijay Pandhare, known as a whistle blower, had also said that work at the project has been of poor quality and it is questionable why the engineers were undertaking repair work off the record.

Is the incident at Chinchave a freak accident, or is there more to it? For some time now, officials like Vijay Pandhare have been raising questions about the quality of work in irrigation sector, including in dams like Lower Tapi and Tarali. Specifically, the Minor Irrigation Department has been facing several complaints regarding the quality of work. It is therefore time to look at the bigger picture.

Minor irrigation projects in Maharashtra

In Maharashtra, projects with a command area of less than 100 hectares are managed by the Zilla Parishad, those with a command area between 100-250 hectares are the responsibility of the Local Sector, Water Conservation Department (Jal Sandharan), and those with a command area between 250 and 2000 hectares are managed by the Minor Irrigation Department of the Water Resource Department (Jal Sampada). Retired official Pradeep Purandare says there is not much difference between the ways in which the Water Conservation Department and Water Resources Department function, as officials from both departments are interchanged often.

Following the dismal performance of major and medium irrigation projects in Maharashtra, the Governor gave directives in 2012 to stop funding these projects, but keep minor irrigation projects going. However, these are not functioning any better.

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Orders for starting work on Chinchave were given in 2001, and Swati Constructions was hired as the project contractor in March 2002. In 2005, it was noticed that the main dam wall was leaking. Over the years, there have been several complaints about the Chinchave Project. Questions about the poor quality of work on Chinchave (and some other minor irrigation projects) were raised thrice in the Assembly in 2010, 2011, and 2012. It was said then that action would be taken against those responsible, including engineers. Following this, two engineers including S G Sonawane and two Zilla Parishad engineers were fired in July 2013. These engineers were subsequently at the site by themselves, with no orders supporting the work they were supervising. This has also raised questions about the links between contractors and engineers.

According to the Maharashtra Economic Survey Report 2012-13, 62,229 minor irrigation projects have been completed and 6,962 are ongoing in Maharashtra under the Water Conservation Department, Local sector. Under the Water Resources Department 3355 projects are completed and ongoing. Together, these 72,546 projects have a designed irrigation potential of 14.70 lakh hectares. However, less than 3.37 lakh hectares is actually in use.

There is a question mark about this figure as well. There are 7496 minor irrigation tanks and 20,669 percolation tanks constructed on paprt, but the administration itself agrees that information about these projects is not collated properly. Looking at this dismal performance, a Government Resolution dated 27 March 2012 ordered that there will be 100 per cent physical verification of minor irrigation projects in six districts, as pilots. One of the districts included for this pilot investigation is Nashik.

The 3rd Minor Irrigation Census was conducted by the Ministry of Water Resources in 2000-2001; however, many of the detailed fields in the census log for Maharashtra are empty, making it difficult to put it to any effective use. Information from the 4th Minor Irrigation Census of 2006-07 is still not available, underlining the attitude of apathy towards this sector.

Minor projects, major problems

The minor irrigation sector is plagued by a number of problems. Officials claim that there are no funds for operation and maintenance of these projects. Many of the projects are silting up and leaking. Officials passing the buck from one department to another - Minor Irrigation to Zilla Parishad to Water Resources to Agricultural Department - is common, leaving farmers clueless about utilising these projects and reporting complaints.

Community participation is lacking in these schemes. There is no audit of their performance, making these projects dens of corruption. Some say that corruption in minor irrigation is at par with the kind present in the irrigation scams involving large dams in Maharashtra, but more difficult to unearth as there are no checks and balances or transparency requirements for these projects. In places where community participation has been the backbone of small irrigation and watershed projects, like in Ralegan Siddhi, Hiware Bazar, Bhandara, Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, and Mann-Khatau in recent times, projects have visibly been more successful and lived up to their full potential, but these are the exceptions.

Major, minor ... all the same

Following the dismal performance of major and medium irrigation projects in Maharashtra, the Governor gave directives in 2012 to stop funding these projects, but keep the support for minor irrigation projects going. However, unless functioning of the minor irrigation sector is made more transparent and participatory, no improvement can be expected in this sector either. The Chief Minister of Maharashtra has been reluctant to take any effective action in the massive irrigation scam involving big projects, ostensibly because of political compulsions due to the involvement of its ally in government, the Nationalist Congress Party. One wonders, what is stopping him from taking action in case of problems plaguing the minor irrigation sector?

National dimensions?

The lack of transparency, accountability and participation in the minor irrigation sector leading to disasters like the one at Chinchave may not be limited to Maharashtra. On 28 July 2013, a new irrigation reservoir constructed this year at a cost of Rs 8.8 crores in Lodha village in Sarguja district of Chhattisgarh, was washed away in the first filling, wreaking havoc in the downstream area. Local villagers there allege serious irregularities in the construction of the project.