BJP President Nitin Gadkari today found himself at the centre of yet another controversy over a letter he wrote to Union Water Resources Ministry seeking release of funds for an irrigation project in Maharashtra, in which an associate of his is said to be a contractor.
The Gosikhurd project is embroiled in an alleged scam involving NCP leader Ajit Pawar who quit recently in the wake of charges of corruption on which the BJP had mounted a big campaign.
Gadkari wrote to Union Water Resources Minister P K Bansal on July 30 this year asking him to clear the dues of the contractors involved in the project though no names were mentioned.
"Due to non-payment of the dues, the contractors stop their works. This may delay the programme and would also result in time overrun and delays in creation of irrigation potential. Presently liability of Rs 400 crore is pending," the letter said
The BJP chief's detractors claimed it was aimed at benefiting his associate Ajay Sancheti.
The BJP and Gadkari himself today defended his action, saying he had asked the Centre to release funds for the Gosikhurd project to help the farmers and not for the benefit of any contractor close to him.
"I wrote a letter to Bansal and will write ten more.... It was done in the interest of the farmers of Maharashtra, to prevent farmer suicides in Vidarbha," Gadkari told reporters in Mumbai.
BJP spokesperson Prakash Javedekar, who, incidentally, is reported to have written a letter similar to the one sent by Gadkari, said that "it is clear that no contractor's name is mentioned in the letter.
"The issue is that a Central government project is pending and it should be completed," Javadekar said in Delhi.
But Congress leader Digvijay Singh, against whom Gadkari had issued a legal notice over allegations related to coal scam, was quick to latch on the issue and describe the BJP chief as "more of a businessman than a politician."
"It is clear that he (Gadkari) was interested in contractors getting their money which they don't deserve," he alleged.
The Gosikhurd project is facing time and cost overrun with its cost reportedly going up from Rs 372 crore in 1982 to over Rs 7000 crore in 2008 and an estimated Rs 13,000 crore now.
Contractors of the project reportedly include SMS Infrastructure of BJP's Rajya Sabha MP Ajay Sancheti.
In their letters, the two BJP leaders have asked the Centre to release the funds for the dam project stating that it is getting delayed. The funds were reportedly stopped after several committees found fault with the quality of work.
Asked if the letter would have benefited Sancheti, Javadekar was evasive and said there is no mention of any person's name in the correspondence.
BJP said the Gosikhurd project was declared a central project and hence 90 per cent of the funds for it come from the Centre and 10 per cent from the state government.
"The money from the Centre does not go to the contractors but to the state government. The state government then distributes it as per the sanction. Even Congress representatives have written to the Centre (to sanction the funds)," Javadekar said.
Gadkari said Maharashtra government had earlier not given money for the project so he had written to the Centre.
"When completed, the Gosikhurd project will bring 3.5 lakh acres of land under irrigation. It was at my request that the Centre recommended that Gosikhurd be declared a national project," he said and denied he had any links to contractors involved in the execution of the project.
"The Gosikhurd dam project is of national and paramount importance as it will give water to millions of farmers of the Vidarbha region where farmers are committing suicide. That is why all representatives of the region write to the Centre," Javadekar said
Speaking in Delhi, Union Minister Bansal said Gadkari had written "two to three letters" telling him that the project is important for the region and it should be expedited by releasing fresh funds which were pending.
"Since it was letter written by the BJP chief I had marked it to my officials treating it as a VIP issue," he said.
Meanwhile, Arvind Kejriwal-led India Against Corruption alleged that Gadkari was more interested in helping companies involved in construction of dams rather than the farmers who were committing suicide in Vidharbha region.
The BJP alleged that though NCP leader and union minister Praful Patel and Congress Maharashtra unit Chief Manikrao Thakre have also written similar letters, the government has engaged in "selective leaks".
Gadkari, who has also slapped a legal notice on RTI activist Anjali Damania for levelling allegation against him in connection with the irrigation scam, said, "There have been media reports saying I have business links with Sharad Pawar (NCP chief).
"If anyone of you (in the media) is able to prove the charge, I will give my entire property to him," the BJP chief said.
Referring to Damania's allegation, Gadkari said when the scam was brought to light by BJP colleagues including party secretary Kirit Somaiya and MLA Devendra Phadnavis, it would be wrong to say that he wanted it to be kept under the wraps.
BJP, which had been in forefront in demanding the resignation of Maharashtra Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, was at pains to highlight the difference between state and national projects.
"It is true that BJP has raised questions about the sanctioned state projects in Maharashtra. Prices of the state projects escalated by up to 300 per cent in three months. Nobody is saying the cost of national projects have escalated," Javadekar said, adding that Gosikhurd dam is a national project.
The BJP also maintained that the letter was not binding on the government and it was up to the Centre to take a call.
"When the Opposition writes a letter it is not an order. They are not ministers. If some wrongdoing is being done, it is the government's responsibility to punish them (the wrong doer). There would be letters to Pawan Bansal (Water Resources Minister) from people of all political parties," Javadekar said.
The party claimed that on the eve of every Parliament session, Maharashtra government holds a meeting of MPs from the state to discuss the issues related to the state that should be raised in both Houses.
BJP said the intention behind Gadkari's letter was that the project, delayed for years, should be completed soon.
The Vadnere Committee report, as well as several other committees, found lapses by the contractors. These were ignored by the officials and the Central Water Commission which maintained that work should be redone wherever required.
These complaints had led the Centre to stop payments to the project.