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Towards trial

Print edition : Jul 27, 2012 T+T-

The CBI charge-sheets 13 persons, including Ashok Chavan, former Chief Minister of Maharashtra, in the Adarsh scam.

in Mumbai

Close to two years since the multi-crore Adarsh Housing Society scam came to light, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on July 4 charge-sheeted former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan and 12 others, who include top bureaucrats and defence personnel. The charges include criminal conspiracy, cheating and criminal misconduct under Sections 120(B) and 420 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Section 13(1)(d) of the Prevention of Corruption Act. Chavan is charged with misusing his official position for personal gain.

In his capacity as Revenue Minister in 2000, Chavan is alleged to have taken part in a criminal conspiracy to include civilians in Adarsh Society, which was originally meant for Kargil War widows, in order to favour his mother-in-law and another relative. With the inclusion of civilians, the allotment of land was said to have been expedited as Chavan cleared the files relating to land acquisition and building construction. The Adarsh scam is not just about a housing society built illegally on prime property and appropriated by people in power; it is also a shocking reflection of the level of corruption that has permeated and exists in the State government and sadly in the defence services as well.

The others charge-sheeted by the CBI include Ramanand Tiwari, then Principal Secretary, Urban Development, and Subash Lala, then Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister. The duo allegedly conspired to transfer floor space index (FSI) from the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST) land and misguided the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) on issues relating to Adarsh. Tiwaris son and two of Lalas relatives have flats in the building. A.R. Kumar, a retired major general, then GOC, MG&G area, Mumbai, and M.M. Wanchoo, a retired brigadier, allegedly conspired with Romesh Sharma, another retired brigadier, to issue a no objection certificate (NOC) to the Mumbai Collector to start building the block of flats. Part of the Adarsh controversy includes the dispute whether the land belongs to the Army or the State government. Kumars relative owns a flat in the complex.

According to the charge sheet, T.K. Sinha, a retired brigadier who was a colonel in the MG&G area at that time, managed to convince the defence authorities not to raise any objections to the transfer of the land. He owns a flat in the complex. Another retired major general, Tej Kishan Kaul, maintained that the land had never been under Army occupation and that he did not act on a directive to cancel the NOC given by the defence authorities. He too owns a flat in the Adarsh Society building. R.C. Thakur, a former defence estate officer, has also been charged with involvement in the scam.

Pradeep Vyas, who was Mumbai Collector in 2004, apparently accepted false documentation on incomes and allowed several memberships to go through on the basis of this. His wife owns a flat in the complex. Similarly, former Municipal Commissioner Jairaj Phatak allowed the buildings height to be increased without referring the matter to the high-rise committee. His son owns an Adarsh Society flat. P.V. Deshmukh, then Deputy Secretary, conspired with the other guilty bureaucrats and cleared the building proposal, according to the charge sheet. He is also a flat owner.

The other politician indicted is Kanhaiyalal Gidwani, who as a Member of the Legislative Council allegedly exercised his power and personal influence with public servants and ensured that the building came up. He owns two flats in Adarsh Society.

The CBI told the media that all those who were clearly culpable had been charge-sheeted. A separate charge sheet would be filed against the owners of benami flats in Adarsh and those who produced false affidavits about their income and domicile in order to obtain membership in the society. The investigators said that at least 15 of the 103 flats were owned under fictitious names by politicians, including former Chief Ministers.

The Adarsh Housing Cooperative Society scam unravelled in 2010 after a Right to Information (RTI) application exposed the fact that flats in the 31-storey building meant for families of soldiers killed in the 1999 Kargil War were allotted to politicians, bureaucrats and military officers. Heading the list of those allegedly involved in the scam was Ashok Chavan, who, as Revenue Minister, sanctioned the sale of the flats to civilians.

Essentially, the building is highly sought after as it is located at the tip of south Mumbai, which has the highest real estate value in the city. The apartments appropriated by the family members of several senior politicians, top defence officers and some bureaucrats have been bought for prices far lower than the market rate for the area. These people effectively bought apartments worth several crores (estimates vary between Rs.3 crore and Rs.8 crore) for Rs.60-80 lakh.

The building society violated not only the norms pertaining to who should be allotted the flats but also several land, real estate and environmental laws to ensure that the structure came up. To begin with, it is not clear who owns the land. When the scam was exposed, the defence establishment said the land belonged to it. But the State government maintained that some land in the suburbs had been swapped with the Defence department for this small patch of land in South Mumbai. Strangely, the documents and maps relating to this are missing, a lawyer involved in the litigation says. Additionally, through some crafty paper work, bureaucrats and politicians appropriated land from the adjacent BEST bus depot for the building. They also decreased the width of the road to accommodate the compound.

The building is close to the citys coastline. Mumbai has stringent environment and Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) laws. The lawyer and activists say that it is necessary to find out how the project, which came up in clear violation of CRZ guidelines, got this far. Although the Union Environment Ministry did recommend complete demolition of the building in January 2011 when the lid was blown off the scam, the owners of Adarsh flats managed to get a stay.

It would seem strange that a building as high as Adarsh could come up without being noticed. Construction work on the building began in 2003. South Mumbai is a small area, and it is impossible to miss the towering structure in the citys skyline. When it was being built, it seemed odd that such a massive structure was allowed to come up so close to a military cantonment and virtually on the citys coastline.

The inquiring media were given to understand that the property belonged to the Indian Navy and, therefore, civilian rules did not apply. And, on a more humanitarian note, it was suggested that the apartments were meant for war widows. The explanation seemed buyable, and Adarsh came up without much interference.

I will come out clean and blotless, Chavan said after he was charge-sheeted. Chavan told the media that the CBIs decision is unfortunate and unexpected. He said: I am not involved in the scam at all. I never allotted the small piece of land to Adarsh Society. It appears that my political rivals are determined to implicate me and oust me from public life. I am sure truth will prevail and I will come out clean and innocent.

He maintained that he had not been briefed properly on the building permission norms and that he had signed the files pertaining to Adarsh in good faith. During the CBI interrogation, he blamed his department secretaries and the then Chief Secretary D.K. Shankaran. He said he thought they had done a complete scrutiny of the building project before giving him the files to sign.

Yet, that does not explain how Chavans relatives, including his mother-in-law, own two flats in Adarsh. RTI documents reveal that Chavan recommended allocation of the Colaba land to the housing society after it agreed that 40 per cent of the members would comprise civilians. Chavans family members resigned from the society soon after the scam was exposed. Chavan, who continues to claim that he had no role in the allotment, eventually had to resign as Chief Minister.

Two former Chief Ministers who have been named by the CBI as being complicit in the buildings development are Vilasrao Deshmukh and Sushil Kumar Shinde. Deshmukh is currently the Union Minister for Science and Technology and Earth Sciences, and Shinde is the Union Minister for Power. Sources say that though not charge-sheeted, Deshmukh and Shinde are on the CBI radar and have definitely not been given a clean chit, given their positions during the time the building was under construction.

From 2000 to 2002, when Adarsh documents came for clearance, Deshmukh was the Chief Minister. After he resigned in 2003, Shinde took charge. He too supposedly cleared several files pertaining to the building. Once again, from 2005 to 2009, when Deshmukh returned as Chief Minister, he reportedly gave several clearances.

Once the CBI began its investigations, the three began a blame game. Chavan told the CBI that in all matters relating to government allotment of land in Mumbai city, its suburbs and Pune, the decisions were taken entirely by the Chief Minister. Deshmukh said that the land had been allotted to the housing society only after getting a go-ahead from the Revenue Department, thereby pinning the blame on Chavan (who was then Revenue Minister). Shinde, who reportedly broke down during the interrogation, blamed the bureaucracy. He said he signed the files because he trusted the officials.

Meanwhile, Maharashtra has questioned the CBIs jurisdiction to investigate the case. The Union Defence Ministry had asked the CBI to initiate a probe into this issue. The State government has filed an affidavit in the Bombay High Court saying that it had never sought an inquiry by the Central agency. Most of those arrested in connection with the scam are out on bail. The offence can invite imprisonment for up to seven years.

If a former Chief Minister is sent to jail in connection with the scam, it will definitely be another dubious distinction for the State.