New Delhi: An intervention by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has led to the Planning Commission approving Central government funding for expansion of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Project to service the drought-prone regions of Kutch and Saurashtra in Gujarat.

The matter had been pending for the last three months as the commission was strapped for resources. Singh’s intervention, which has led to it earmarking more funds for the project, is being viewed as an effort by the Congress to avoid being publicly perceived as a government seeking to block development funds to states ruled by opposition parties.

Gujarat is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The move was preceded by a request from Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, in which he had pointed out that though the Union ministry of water resources had considered and approved revised cost estimates of the entire project, including the proposals for Kutch and Saurashtra, at Rs39,420 crore on 11 March, the Planning Commission had not moved on it.

“In the absence of revised investment clearance, we are unable to avail of the financial assistance under the AIBP (Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme) and the Centrally sponsored command area development programme," said the letter, a copy of which has been reviewed by Mint.

The inter-state multipurpose project, which provides drinking water to at least 25 million people in Gujarat, according to Modi, earlier had an estimated cost of Rs6,406 crore at 1986-87 prices, which was cleared by the Planning Commission in 1988. “The Planning Commission was asked by the Prime Minister’s Office to expedite the project," said a government official aware of the development but did not want to be identified.

Thereafter, on 20 May, the commission communicated a conditional go-ahead to Gujarat’s planning department. In its communication, the commission said the approval was subject to the project being executed by 2016-17. AIBP’s budget allocation for 2010-11 is Rs11,500 crore for all irrigation projects together.

“There is paucity of funds under AIBP and finance ministry has not been allocating more money despite the Planning Commission asking for it," said the same official.

S. Jagadeesan, managing director, Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL), said “The approval of the revised cost of the project would be a milestone in completing the network of canals in the drought-prone Kutch and Saurashtra areas. There were some reservation within the Planning Commission, which was sorted by the timely intervention of the chief minister and the directive of the Prime Minister and deputy chairman, Planning Commission."

For some time the Congress has been trying to revive its political prospects in Gujarat, which has been ruled for two consecutive terms by the BJP. As part of this effort, several young Congress politicians, along with party general secretary Rahul Gandhi, have been campaigning to cultivate a pro-development image for itself. The Prime Minister’s intervention is being perceived to be a boost to these efforts.

“This speedy allocation and the concern shown by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Planning Commission is yet another example of the fact that the Congress and the Central government has a bigger role to play in the development of Gujarat," said Shaktisingh Gohil, leader of the opposition and Congress legislator in Gujarat assembly. “This allocation also proves that Congress views development of states above partisan lines, which was not the case during the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) regime."