Mumbai: In May last year, Anjali Damania, a pathologist, mother of two, and land-owner, received a notice from the government seeking to acquire 30 acres she owned in Kondhane village in Karjat taluka of Raigad district for a dam.
That was the 42-year-old’s introduction to the murky world of politicians, bureaucrats and contractors.
Today, Damania is making headlines as a whistleblower, having added a twist to the ongoing tale of state deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar’s resignation over allegations of corruption and favouritism in awarding contracts for irrigation projects.
Pawar is part of the Nationalist Congress Party, which, along with the Congress, rules the state. The Congress’ Prithviraj Chavan is the chief minister.
Damania has alleged that Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) president Nitin Gadkari colluded with union agriculture minister and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar to suppress the alleged irregularities related to irrigation projects.
In a press conference on Wednesday in Mumbai, she claimed that when she had approached Gadkari to help her to expose corruption in the irrigation department, Gadkari had bluntly refused.
Gadkari issued a statement on Wednesday, saying he never met Damania.
She also alleged that Gadkari tried to prevent BJP’s national secretary Kirit Somaiya from filing a public interest litigation in the Bombay high court in the multi-thousand crore irrigation scam which is now being christened Maharashtra’s “Watergate”.
Gadkari’s counsel S.S.Shamshery has sent a legal notice to Damania asking her to retract her statements and offer a public apology for defaming his client, who would otherwise take legal action.
In the notice, Shamshery said Gadkari had no business dealings with Sharad Pawar and it was the BJP’s state unit that first exposed irregularities related to irrigation projects.
Another person who has played a crucial role in exposing the alleged scam in the irrigation department is chief engineer in the irrigation department and head of Maharashtra Engineering Research Institute (MERI), Vijay Pandhare.
Pandhare’s 15-page letter to governor K. Sankaranarayanan, chief minister Prithviraj Chavan and secretary of irrigation department Eknath Patil gave details of how, out of Rs.70,000 crore spent on irrigation projects, nearly Rs.35,000 crore was either wasted or pocketed by a nexus of politicians, bureaucrats and contractors.
Pandhare has not been reachable after news of Ajit Pawar’s resignation broke out and NCP activists have been burning his effigies at various places.
Girish Kuber, political analyst and editor of Marathi newspaper Loksatta, said, “For the last decade-and-a-half, Maharashtra’s economy and polity has become ‘of the contractors, by the contractors, for the contractors’”. Not a single infrastructure project is undertaken with public good in mind but seen as an opportunity to make money, he added.
For Damania, it wasn’t long before a private cause became a public one.
Through an application filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act she found out that the cost of the Kondhane dam project had risen from Rs.56 crore to Rs.328 crore and that too after the contract for the project had been awarded. The reason cited by the government was that it had decided to increase the height of dam from 39 meters to 71 meters.
This increased her determination to probe the scam. She similarly discovered that the cost of Kalu dam in Thane district had more than doubled—from Rs.640 crore to Rs.1,400 crore; that of the Balganga dam at Pen in Raigad district had increased three-fold—from Rs.420 crore to Rs.1,320 crore; and that of the Shai dam in Thane district, from Rs.410 crore to Rs.1,339 crore.
Her efforts resulted in threats over the phone, but her initially reluctant family started supporting her after her father-in-law was inspired by a TV programme on the plight of farmers who had lost their land to dams.
Damania went ahead and forced officials of the Konkan Irrigation Development Corporation (KIDC) to give her information by threatening to protest in the office of KIDC itself.
Mayank Gandhi, president of the Mumbai chapter of India Against Corruption (IAC) said, “Damania approached us and told us about her personal experience with the irrigation department. We sensed a big scam and encouraged her to file RTI applications. Our activists worked closely with her to make sense of all the documents she had received under RTI and from other sources and build a strong case.”
After gathering enough ammunition, Damania met chief minister Chavan. Soon after, work on the Kondhane dam stopped and the chief minister ordered an investigation into the functioning of the irrigation department, a move that almost cost him his job at the NCP’s behest. That storm passed, but it was, in many ways, the beginning of the current crisis in Maharashtra.
“Whether it is corruption or social evils like female foeticide, the role of whistleblowers is extremely important and is very important for the society and media to stand firmly behind such people as these people act as purifiers in our corrupt system,” said high court lawyer and human rights activist Asim Sarode.