A resort for the rich

Print edition : December 27, 1997

The Maharashtra Government is helping a private sector plan to develop a project for the elite in an environmentally sensitive region, despite complaints of unauthorised construction and irregular land purchases.

THE Maharashtra Government seems to be bending over backwards to further a private sector plan to develop - in apparent violation of various regulations - an elite housing project with some hill station features on at least 1,575 hectares (3,892 acres) of land in Pune district. The project has been criticised strongly by environmental activists and the Opposition. The area has been authoritatively identified as extremely sensitive from the environmental point of view. A glaring manifestation of the Govern-ment's posture is the nature of an inquiry it ordered on May 13, 1997 into complaints of unauthorised construction and irregularities in land purchases in connection with this Sahara India Housing Limited (SIHL) project. The site of the project is spread over eight villages in Mulshi taluk, off the Mumbai-Pune highway and 15 km from Lonavla.

One of the terms of reference required the inquiry committee to find out to what extent any construction irregularities that it might find could be regularised in the light of a set of controversial regulations designed to boost hill station development. The regulations were brought into effect by the Government in November 1996. This was made part of the committee's mandate even though the project had been sanctioned only "in principle" through a letter of intent (dated January 7, 1997). It is not surprising, therefore, that the inquiry report says there should be no difficulty in declaring the project area a hill station even while it admits that there have been irregularities. The report was submitted to the Government in early November and is in the public domain.

Congress legislator R.R. Patil had alleged more than a month before the institution of the inquiry that there was a Rs.100-crore deal behind the acquisition of land for the SIHL project. According to news reports, social worker and anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare told newspersons in Pune on December 12 that he possessed evidence to establish that Chief Minister Manohar Joshi had aided the project. When it was pointed out that the acquisition of land for the project and the seeking of sanctions had begun before the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance assumed power in the State, he conceded that Joshi was not solely responsible. In response to Hazare's allegation, the Chief Minister reportedly declared that his Government would not hesitate to raze the project if irregularities were involved.

Hazare told the newspersons that the Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Andolan Samiti, an anti-corruption body headed by him, had sent a fact-finding team to the Mulshi area to investigate allegations of irregularities. He expressed the view that this was a scam bigger than the fodder scam in Bihar.

The Government-appointed inquiry committee, headed by Ajit Warty, Principal Secretary, Revenue, says that the 1,124.56 ha of land acquired for the project (as at the time of the inquiry) was purchased not by the SIHL but by 68 persons connected with the company. It admits that the SIHL has undertaken construction without the required permission on 11,215 square metres of the project area, that the purchase of 112 ha involved a non-permissible transfer of ownership, that the purchases involved a case of violation of the Maharashtra Agricultural Lands (Ceiling on Holdings) Act, that 163.53 ha purchased may be forest land owned by the State Forests Department and that a villa and its outhouses have been built on the site closer than is permissible to Koraigad, a Shivaji fort in the vicinity.

However, it suggests procedures for regularisation of the irregularities in some cases and further inquiries or procedures in others. Thus, the committee recommends the tackling of the situation created by the SIHL's going ahead with development work without permission as required by the Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning Act (MRTP Act) through resort to Section 143 of the Act. This section provides for the compounding (agreeing for a consideration not to prosecute), either before or after prosecution is launched, of offences that are punishable under the Act or rules made under it. The Government should recover from the company a compounding fee of Rs.55 lakhs, it says.

Section 63 of the Bombay Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act prohibits the transfer of agricultural land to a non-agriculturist without the previous permission of the District Collector. The committee says that this section is not applicable in this case as the 68 persons who made the land purchases have provided proof of their being agriculturists. It is a matter of record that those who purchased the lands have given the SIHL wide-ranging authority through power of attorney.

Manohar Joshi indicated at a press briefing on November 12 that the Government would not withdraw the letter of intent issued to the SIHL but would go in for compounding of the offence involved in unauthorised construction as recommended by the Warty Committee. The letter of intent was issued by the Urban Development Department, the Cabinet Minister in charge of which is the Chief Minister himself.

The Sahara project site with water bodies created as part of landscaping work.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Even as it instituted the inquiry, the Government made the Collector of Pune issue a notice for the stoppage of work on the project. These steps were apparently taken in immediate response to indications that Hazare was getting interested in the project. But instead of setting up a commission of inquiry as demanded by Patil, it opted for an administrative inquiry.

THE Government took its own time to take cognisance of complaints of irregularities. On February 26, about two and a half months before the 'stop work' notice was issued, the Additional Collector of Pune district wrote to the personal secretary to the Revenue Minister on the subject of "purchases of land by Sahara India Ltd at Mulshi."

The letter said that no land had been purchased by the company itself but "some 66 North Indian persons" had purchased 1,049.348 ha of agricultural land in six villages. It said that as on January 31, construction or development had been done on 38,876 sq m (against 11,215 sq m of construction mentioned by the Warty Committee) despite the fact that no permission as required by the Maharashtra Land Revenue Code had been granted for the use of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes or for the construction of farm houses. It also said that 17 of the 66 persons had purchased land in excess of the limits imposed by the agricultural land ceiling law and that investigations were on.

The Warty Committee says that while 11 of the 68 persons appeared at first sight to have violated the ceiling law, only one has actually been found to hold land in excess of the ceiling as provided under the law. The lands held by the other 10 are uncultivable (and therefore outside the ambit of the definition of (agricultural) land under the ceiling law). Even in the case of the sole apparent violation, it says that it would be necessary to find out the number of adult members in the family of the purported owner.

Going by Section 2(14) read with Section 2(21) of the Maharashtra Agricultural Lands (Ceiling on Holdings) Act, however, the ceiling would apply not only to the holdings of individual purchasers but to the total holding of the SIHL as an occupant of agricultural land. The company claimed in a handout and elsewhere that it has acquired the land - mentioning 2,000 ha in some documents and lower figures in others - and so it must be deemed to be holding the land as occupant. The highest ceiling for any class of land in Pune district is 21.8529 ha (54 acres).

Regulations designed to boost hill station development would take care of difficulties of this nature. But it is open to question whether they may be made applicable with retrospective effect. As on December 3, the SIHL project has yet to be formally given hill station status. The "Special regulations for development of tourist resorts/holiday homes/townships in hill station type areas" were published in draft form inviting suggestions and objections on September 3, 1996 and in their final form on November 26, 1996, and gazetted four days later. This set of regulations provides, inter alia, that the condition that only an agriculturist may buy agricultural land shall be waived in hill station-type areas, that the ceiling on agricultural land holdings would not apply to purchases made by the owners or developers of hill station projects, that agricultural land may be used for non-agricultural purposes without permission in an area declared a hill station and that hill station development would be treated as an industry.

The regulations facilitate the alienation of land belonging to tribal people. Regulation 17 says that the Revenue Department "shall" permit the owner or developer of a hill station project to purchase lands belonging to tribal people in a project area provided the latter takes the responsibility to rehabilitate the affected tribal people economically. However, none of the land purchases that the Warty Committee took into consideration (totalling 1,124.557 ha out of an apparent target of about 2,000 ha) involved alienation of land belonging to tribal people, according to the committee.

Regulation 1 reads: "Any suitable area at appropriate height and (having) suitable topographical features can be declared by government... for purpose of development as (a) hill station." The regulations also provide for mandatory open spaces and tree planting.

ENVIRONMENTAL activists allege that the hill station regulations were framed specifically to benefit projects like the SIHL project, if not the SIHL project itself. The Bombay High Court has held that prima facie, this is not so. It has done so in an order passed on September 11, 1996 while admitting three writ petitions filed by activists challenging development work being carried out by the SIHL, the letter of intent issued to it and the hill station regulations. "Prima facie, it appears that the State Government has exercised its power... for the balanced development of... hill stations," says the order, passed by Chief Justice M.B. Shah and Justice S.D. Gundewar. While the bench admitted the petitions, it declined to stay the operation of the hill station regulations. It allowed the SIHL to undertake further construction on the project site provided that it obtained prior permission from the appropriate authority and refrained from violating the regional plan of Pune district.

Construction of a weir in progress. Work is proceeding briskly even though the project has only received approval in principle in the form of a letter of intent.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

However, the stop work order issued by the Collector as directed remained in force up to December 3. As the High Court order makes clear, the bench's observation about the bona fides of the hill station regulations is provisional. The history of the development of the SIHL project provides ample grounds for reasonable suspicion that the Government has favoured the SIHL.

The letter of intent said: "On the basis of information submitted by the company... the location appears to be suitable for proposed hill station. Government, therefore, intends to consider this area to be declared as a hill station..." It is self-evident that before the letter was issued the Government had made no effort to determine whether or not the location was suitable for a hill station. And did the Government satisfy itself that the proposed project was indeed a hill station project? Even the preliminary project report, of which the letter takes note, indicates that public access to the resort would not be free. "It is... the first ever hill station bounded and guarded by a three-tier security system," it says.

A document annexed to a June 2, 1997 SIHL letter to the State Environment Department describes the project as a "well-planned housing project in the form of hill station..." An annexure to an application that the company has made to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) is even more explicit. It says: "This project is basically a housing project. Because of various amenities and large number of temporary residents this project assumes the features of tourist project."

This is as good as saying that it is a housing project masquerading as a hill station. There is ample indication that it is a housing project for the mega-rich. The document annexed to the letter to the Environment Department says that the resort would have 1,000 "mansions" and 300 "villas" and lists among the "common facilities" a hotel (150 beds) for "select" visitors and "bungalows, flats, apartments and gardens, etc. for service personnel." Referring to the estimated population density in the township, it says: "To the best of our knowledge this city will have (the) thinnest urban population anywhere in the world. Being a privately held property it is feasible to exercise control over this factor."

The project report mentioned in the letter of intent provides further proof that the SIHL project is designed to be an exclusive haunt of the rich and famous. The amenities it mentions include a "night-lit international standard 18-hole golf course which can be extended to 27 holes," a "state-of-the art business centre," conference halls, "the latest" in communication facilities, including video conferencing and Internet, an "ultra-modern health spa" and a "hi-tech diagnostic centre." The report mentions a regular helicopter service to Mumbai and Pune, adding that it is proposed to deploy small aircraft other than helicopters also on these routes.

An earlier project report, enclosed with a March 7, 1995 letter to the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation, labels the project the "Sahara Lake Resort", while the report mentioned in the letter of intent calls it the "Sahara Hill Station". Several subsequent 1995 SIHL documents, of which Frontline has copies, speak of a housing project, while others use phrases such as "lake city" and "tourist complex." But the word "hill station" appears in a January 22, 1996 letter to the State Revenue Minister. An undated SIHL letter to the Chief Minister speaks of "our meeting held on 12-1-96..."

While the first project report envisages a project covering an area of 413 acres (167 ha) in Ambavane village, 23 km south of Lonavla, the second project report provides for 3,000 acres (1,214 ha) in Ambavane and seven other villages. In other documents, the SIHL mentions figures of 2,000 acres (809 ha), between 2,500 and 3,000 acres (1,012 to 1,214 ha) and 2,000 ha. The latest SIHL document available with Frontline (dated June 2, 1997) says that 3,892 acres (1,575 ha) have been acquired and that another 1,100 acres (445 ha) may be available for expansion - which adds up to 2,020 ha.

The final hill station regulations (dated November 26, 1996) say: "The area under the development complex shall be not less than 400 ha and not more than about 2,000 ha." The September 3, 1996 draft, however, envisaged an upper limit of 1,000 ha. The change was not notified before the final regulations were published.

Homi N. Sethna, Chairman of Tata Electric Companies (TEC), noted in a July 18, 1995 letter to Chief Minister Manohar Joshi that the SIHL had applied to the Irrigation Department during the preceding April for permission to build a dam 400 metres long and 18 metres high in the project area, secured approval on May 5 and "the dam was almost completed by June..." This is only one instance of the promptness with which the State bureaucracy serviced SIHL's needs.

In the letter, Sethna wondered how the dam proposal was cleared without any reference to TEC, "whose Mulshi dam is in the same catchment." He estimates at roughly 4.5 lakh units the fall in power generation that his company would experience as a result of the resultant reduction in the water inflow for its generation. The Warty Committee says that the Irrigation Department had considered the possible impact on TEC power generation before approving the dam proposal.

Koraigad, a Maratha fort, within the project area. Flags of the developer-company now flutter atop the fort.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Sethna also expressed the view that the SIHL project would grossly denude the environment in the Mulshi area. The draft of the revised plan for the Pune metropolitan region said that a study carried out by the Town and Country Planning Organisation of the Union Government had identified Mulshi taluk as an extremely sensitive area from the environmental point of view. It added: "The necessity of eco-conservation and eco-enhancement need obviously to be kept uppermost in all proposals for tourism development in areas of extreme and high sensitivity."

Is the SIHL keeping this necessity "uppermost"? The Additional Collector's letter of February 26 says that the company "has done levelling everywhere" (over an area of 1,049 ha). One of the writ petitions says that the SIHL project "involves the extensive levelling of land, huge excavations and earth movements, the felling of trees, the diversion of water courses and the total degradation of the environment..." It offers to produce photographic evidence. The company, however, has denied all this in its affidavit.

In its project report, however, it says that the hill station is to have four to five dams with a total shore length of 18 km - which seems to be an implicit admission of diversion of water courses. In documents appended to its application (dated June 2, 1997) for State-level environmental clearance, it admitted that "vegetation cover is removed," although it went on to say that the loss has been "compensated several times" through plantation.

The petitioners point out that the project area has been identified in the Pune regional plan as an "afforestation zone" - which means that construction is severely restricted. The company counters this by pointing out that the lake areas have been identified as "tourism development zones." In the above-mentioned undated letter to the Chief Minister, however, it sought the conversion of the land user status of the eight villages of the project site from "afforestation zone" to "residential zone".

The Additional Collector's letter of February 26 said that 66 persons had bought 1,049 ha of land and that 307 deals had been registered. This means that an average of 3.4 ha was purchased in each deal. According to the SIHL's affidavit in reply to one of the petitions, the first deal was struck on December 5, 1991. Thus, over so many years, small parcels of land have been purchased and integrated into a single, compact area.

The Sahara group having persisted for years with the acquisition of land for a project in advance of sanction, there is reason to assume that it had cause for confidence that the sanction would eventually come. After all, it is a group that has claimed to have increased its assets to Rs. 4,000 crores from a mere Rs. 2,000 in 18 years.

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