FIRST, a little background to the scam-tainted 31-storey Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society building in Colaba, Mumbai.
In the 1970s, the spot where the high-rise building has come up was coastal marsh and mangrove wetland with some parcel of land along its edges. A part of the strip of land between the mangrove forest and the road was occupied by a few washermen who would use the nearby military dhobi ghat (open-air laundry) and dry the washed clothes by spreading them out on the mangrove thickets. The only other human activity in the area happened deep inside the mangrove forest where a few local bootleggers prepared their brew. The whole area belonged to the military, as was apparent not just from the signboard but also from a rusty old barrier of colonial vintage that stood about 700 metres north from where the Adarsh building now stands.
Gradually, the mangrove forest was cut down and rubble from Mumbai’s nascent construction industry was dumped in the marshes to reclaim land. At the time, some land was handed over by the military to the Bombay Electric Supply and Transport Corporation, or BEST. There are allegations of corruption in this regard but no case had been made out. BEST constructed a depot there. Over the years, land reclamation activity extended further into the sea and vast colonies of slums ruled by slumlords came up there.
In the early 1990s, there was talk of constructing a building on 6,490 square metres of land near the bus depot for retired armed forces officers. The proposal generated great enthusiasm among retired officers as the project was being planned in prime real estate in one of the nicest localities in the city. However, nothing seemed to materialise for a long time and the idea faded away until construction activity started on the site in the mid-2000s. The secrecy surrounding the Adarsh Housing Society started at this time. No one seemed to know if the project that was coming up was new or the one planned earlier. Even those keen to own a flat there could not get information. The mystery remained even as the building emerged with 31 storeys. What started as a housing scheme for retired armed forces officers soon included serving personnel, and was later modified to benefit Kargil war heroes and their widows. While the developments were in the realm of speculation, the real intention, it appears, was for Ministers and bureaucrats to appropriate the flats and assign a few to senior armed forces officers.
In 2003, a press report exposed what was clearly a scam in the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society Ltd. A housing society meant for defence personnel included a motley group of Ministers and bureaucrats, senior army officers and a dubious “promoter” who was already under the scanner of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for irregularities in another defence land deal. Not much notice was taken of the report at the time, but in 2010 it was resurrected by the media. By this time, the scheme was accepted as one meant for Kargil heroes (although when this change in the beneficiary of the scheme occurred is not known), and the uproar centred round the issue of flats being taken by defence personnel who had not participated in the Kargil war, top politicians, military officers and bureaucrats. Further, there were allegations of hasty construction clearances, of violation of the original development plan and security, and of sale of flats at artificially lowered prices. Flats that would have cost a minimum of Rs.4 crore each at the time were sold for an average price of Rs.70 lakh.
The controversy forced the resignation of Chief Minister Ashok Chavan in 2010. His successor Prithviraj Chavan appointed a two-member judicial commission headed by the retired High Court judge Justice J.A. Patil to probe into the allegations. The commission’s mandate was to look into several issues, including the ownership of the land and the intended beneficiaries and the bypassing of construction rules. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report for 2011 said: “The episode of Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society reveals how a group of select officials, placed in key posts, could subvert rules and regulations in order to grab prime government land—a public property—for personal benefit.”
The Patil Commission, which submitted its report in April 2013, indicted four former Congress Chief Ministers of Maharashtra—Ashok Chavan, Sushilkumar Shinde, who is now Union Home Minister, the late Vilasrao Deshmukh, and Shivajirao Patil-Nilangekar. Two Ministers in the State Cabinet, one former Chief Secretary, three Additional Chief Secretaries and several officers in the ranks of Principal Secretary and Secretary were also indicted. Both Ashok Chavan and Nilangekar were named for the roles they played as Revenue Ministers between 1999 and 2004. The other two Ministers named belong to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Both Sunil Tatkare, Minister for Water Resources, and Rajesh Tope, Minister for Higher Education, were indicted for taking advantage of their positions as junior Ministers in the Urban Development Ministry between 1999 and 2004. The report said that the land belonged to the State government and not to the Defence Ministry and that the Adarsh Housing scheme was not reserved for Kargil war widows. It said rules had been flouted during the construction. The report said 25 of the 102 members of the housing society were ineligible to be its members. These include Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat who was arrested in the United States on the charge of visa fraud, and three close relatives of Ashok Chavan. Further, the report said that construction permission was not sought from the Ministry of Environment and Forests despite the building falling within the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) II category. The CRZ rule stipulates that construction activity worth more than Rs.5 crore in this zone requires the clearance of the Environment Ministry.
The Congress-NCP government in the State delayed the tabling of the report saying that the action taken report was not ready. The Bharatiya Janata Party moved the High Court, and the government was forced to table the commission’s report in the Assembly on December 20, the last day of the winter session. The State government rejected the report. It is worth noting that although the Chief Minister heads the Cabinet and it was a Cabinet decision to reject the report, Prithviraj Chavan apparently was personally unhappy with the decision.
Interestingly, what changed the game was Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s public rally in Mumbai on December 22. Modi pointed out that while Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi had expressed concern over corruption in the country, the Congress government in Maharashtra sought to protect those involved in the multi-crore Adarsh scam by rejecting a judicial probe.
Soon after this scathing attack by Modi, Rahul Gandhi criticised the State government for rejecting the judicial commission report. Milind Deora, Member of Parliament representing South Mumbai, who is believed to be close to Rahul, tweeted that the party should not hush up the Adarsh report.
On December 13, the CBI’s ongoing investigation against Ashok Chavan suffered a setback. The agency said it had enough evidence to proceed against the former Chief Minister but Governor K. Sankaranarayanan refused to give permission for the prosecution. The Prithviraj Chavan government is faced with many dilemmas. Adarsh is clearly a political hot potato. The very fact that it is back in the news in an election year proves this. There will be pressure from the society’s powerful members who would not want the prime real estate to slip through their hands. While prosecution of erring members has been recommended, the government has already made it clear that this is not a step it will take easily. It would be suicidal for Prithviraj Chavan and the Congress to disregard the report, but to implement its recommendations would mean walking a political tightrope.