PERHAPS THICK skin is a pre-requisite for Indian life. To live without the shield of some moral blindness — to chafe too keenly at what is, against the ideal of what should be — would be to invite madness on oneself. There is much that is wrong with India: one learns to make one’s peace. But even by the opaque standards of Indian public life, the brazen reinstatement of Ajit Pawar last week as Maharashtra deputy chief minister marks a new low. What is this a sign of? Collective amnesia? Disinterest? Helplessness? Do we no longer deserve even the pretence of an investigation? Not even the comfort of half-baked recompense?
By all accounts, Pawar has presided over an unconscionable scam. From 1999 to 2009, while he was the water resources minister, Maharashtra spent a whopping Rs 70,000 crore on irrigation projects. This is a state prone to drought; its despairing farmers make international headlines. Spent well, the money could have created an artery of lifelines. Instead, more than half of it has been siphoned off. Worse, the money has not just lined an array of political pockets; the work has simply not been done. Ten years, Rs 70,000 crore squandered and the enhanced irrigation potential of the state is just 0.01 percent. Surely this is sufficiently sharp to pierce the hide? Elicit some sustained outrage? Force some accountability?
Over this entire decade, as projects lay derelict or shoddily done, instead of getting them fixed, Pawar kept sanctioning scores of new projects at wildly escalated costs — often to the same contractors. A project budgeted at Rs 60 crore would suddenly be rebudgeted at Rs 1,322 crore. Projects worth Rs 1,000 crore would mysteriously shoot to Rs 10,000 crore. In 2009, in a span of just three months, 32 project costs were escalated by almost Rs 18,000 crore. Apparently Pawar personally signed every tender worth more than Rs 1 crore. Many lakh hectares of land was supposed to benefit; not an inch did.
Finally, earlier this year, disgusted beyond the limits of the Indian carapace perhaps, chief engineer Vijay Pandhare — who has worked with the irrigation department for 30 years — wrote a letter to the governor, chief minister and principal secretary detailing the astronomical misuse of public money and accusing Pawar of architecting this ‘irrigation rush’ only so he could earn commissions from private contractors. It is difficult to dismiss this accusation. Pawar not only sanctioned the tenders personally, he actively rapped any officer who tried to flag the scam.
Many media houses — Loksatta, TEHELKA itself — have documented the scam in stark detail. But none of this seems to have rocked the status quo enough. Congress Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan famously promised a “white paper” but the wily Pawar resigned in advance and precipitated a political crisis. Predictably — depressingly — the “white paper” morphed into a “whitewash”. The Congress caved in and gave its ally (NCP) a clean chit. Now, despite several petitions pending in the courts, Pawar has triumphantly reinstated himself back as deputy CM. (For the backroom politics on this, read Irrigation Scam Fails to Drown Ajit Pawar)
The story of this scam encapsulates the despair of contemporary Indian public life. All of it is known; all of it has been told before. Yet, nothing happens. The only resistance left is to tell it again. But who can take up the gauntlet? In this case, Pawar is not alone in the cesspit: the Congress and BJP-Shiv Sena combine are wading there too, caught in a symbiotic embrace. So who will force the issue to its logical end?
Corruption in India is so pervasive now, our responses have become inadequate. Increasingly, our “outrage” lasts no more than a day. Each day brings new baubles to focus our rage on. The guilty rely on that distraction. They understand the headline will change.
But Pawar’s reinduction is a particularly rude alarm. Like the National Rural Health Mission scam in Uttar Pradesh, the irrigation scam is no ordinary corruption. It is not just about public money stolen: it is about even baseline work not being done. Rs 70,000 crore has been spent. In return, one has a ghost network of absent dams and canals. How can a scam of this scale lie exposed and evoke absolutely no response from any institution?
In a self-respecting democracy, Pawar would not have been allowed to resume office with such grievous allegations pending against him. But our selective outrage will no longer suffice to ensure this. We need to rediscover the comfort of a country that follows due process.