The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s decision to involve private consultants in removing silt from irrigation canals has not impressed many stakeholders and is even resented by the relevant provincial department.

Officials of the irrigation department and farmers’ representatives, when reached, termed the recent annual cleaning effort as ‘effective and useful’ as in the past.

“It was business as usual,” said Abdul Samad Saafi, general secretary of Kissan Board, district Nowshera chapter.

A senior irrigation department official echoing the same observation said except for some improvement in Peshawar district, the exercise was a re-run of the previous campaigns in most of the province.

“The supervision of the contractors’ work by consultants has not been as effective as it should have been,” said the well-placed official. Another said the department had been conducting surveys in the past, too, to clean the watercourses. “It went well this year, too like the past.”

Out of 6.72 million cultivable acres in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, some 2.277 million acres are dependent on irrigation, receiving water from the government canals, lift irrigation schemes, tube and dug wells, and civil canals. The province has 13 old and comparatively new canal systems, involving a collective length of 3,444 kilometers that supply irrigation water to 1.247 million acres of the cultivated land.

This year’s canal cleaning (Bhal Safaee) campaign raised some extra interest among the stakeholders because of the consultants’ involvement. The idea has not been very popular with the official circles for obvious reasons: it compromised their position because of oversight of the private consultants.The provincial irrigation department hired the consultants following a decision of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf-led provincial government. Six consultant firms were engaged for as many divisions (area circles) of the irrigation department to monitor and evaluate the silt removal and canal cleaning work done by the contractors.

In addition to improving the quality of work, the consultants were inducted by PTI to curb corruption. For example, without the consultants’ approval and certification, the contractors could not be paid their bills. However, officials said the cleaning ended without any controversy about the quality of work.

Naimatullah Roghani, an office- bearer of the Anjuman-e-Kashtkaran, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said canal cleaning in his area (Sawal Dhair village, Mardan district) was marginally better than the previous years.

“It (improvement) was not carried out the way it should have been, but it was comparatively better than the past,” said Mr Roghani, referring to Bakhshalee minor that passes through his area.

Mr Saafi is not happy with the canal cleaning this year as well because he supports manual canal cleaning previously done by the irrigation department’s staff.

“Ever since they started using big machines like excavators, the standards of canal cleaning deteriorated,” said Mr Saafi.

In the past, the department’s cleaning staff removed silt with shovels, which, he added, had greater utility and was also cost effective.

“Most of the drivers operating excavators lack training and expertise required to safely operate the giant machine, damaging the watercourses,” said the Kissan Board leader.

The careless application of the excavators, he added, developed cracks in the canal beds, causing seepage. “We have been taking up this issue with the department, but to no avail,” said Mr Saafi.

And Mr Roghani said big machines had not been of much help in removing silt from under the culverts, turns and curves. “The excavator’s blade cannot access the silt deposited deep inside the culverts,” said Mr Roghani.

Cleaning canals is a huge undertaking that not only requires technical expertise and human resources, it is a highly capital intensive exercise as well.

KP conducts canal cleaning every year, but the money spent annually has never been sufficient to support the kind of effort that should go into removing silt from the large network of irrigation canals.

Usually, the province allocates Rs500 million annually for this purpose.Part of this money is used to remove silt and part of it goes into the repair works.

This year, the provincial government, said an official, has spent Rs380 million on the silt removing operation, which, according to sources, is inadequate. Each of the six consultants was paid a fee ranging between Rs1 million and Rs1.2 million.

The government needs to assess how useful the consultants have proved in improving the quality of work and weeding out corruption.

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