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House of scandal

Print edition : Dec 03, 2010 T+T-

Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan loses his job for his alleged role in the Adarsh Housing Society flats scam.

in Mumbai

ANOTHER scam has rocked Maharashtra and another Chief Minister has been forced to resign. This time the scandal involves illegal ownership of real estate in the upmarket Colaba area in southern Mumbai. The rot has clearly gone deep.

It was the Right to Information (RTI) tool that helped in exposing the fact that flats in the 31-storey Adarsh Housing Cooperative Society 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 Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, who, as Revenue Minister in June 2000, sanctioned the sale of the flats to civilians.

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. Chavan's mother-in-law and sister-in-law are said to have bought apartments in the society. His family members resigned from the society soon after the scam was exposed. Chavan, who continues to claim he had no role in the allotment, was directed by the Congress high command to submit his resignation. More heads are expected to roll as finer details of the scam come to light.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has started an inquiry into how the prime land, which was marked for Kargil War widows and war veterans, was given to VIPs. The Adarsh Society building did not come up surreptitiously overnight. Construction work on the building has been on since 2003. South Mumbai is a small area and it is impossible to miss the towering structure in the city's 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 city's coastline. Mumbai has stringent environment and Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) laws. RTI activists say how the project, which came up in clear violation of CRZ guidelines, got this far needs to be looked at closely during the inquiry process.

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. But RTI activists blew the lid off the scandal. Documents made available to the media through RTI applications revealed a scam that reeked of corruption and nepotism. Every possible environment and urban development rule appears to have been broken. Information provided by informed sources reveals that the culprits deliberately pushed files to allow the building to come up. While doing so they ensured that some of their kin were able to own flats at throwaway prices.

The apartments were appropriated by the family members of several senior politicians, top defence officers and some bureaucrats. These people effectively bought apartments worth several crores (estimates vary between Rs.3 crore and Rs.8 crore) for Rs.60-80 lakh. Real estate in Mumbai, particularly in the southern part of the island, is extremely valuable. A property offered for less than Rs.1 crore is a steal in this upmarket area.

Among the defence brass who obtained flats in the Adarsh Society building are former Army chiefs Generals Deepak Kapoor and N.C. Vij, former Navy chief Admiral Madhvendra Singh and Vice-Chief of the Army Staff General Shantanu Choudhary. The defence officers, claiming innocence, have offered to surrender their flats. Among the bureaucrat allottees are former Chief Secretary D.K. Sankaran's son Sanjoy and the children of serving bureaucrats Seema Vyas and Idzes Kundan. The list also includes the names of Suresh Prabhu, former Union Environment Minister; Jitendra Avhad, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) member; and Kanhaiyalal Gidwani, Congress leader, and his two sons.

When the scam came to light, those implicated kept up a steady chant that they were ignorant of the fact that the building was meant for war widows. However, enough material is available to prove that all the senior politicians and officers concerned were in cahoots with one another.

When the explosive information came tumbling out, the question who primarily owned the land that was given to the housing society came into focus. Military officials claimed that in the 1960s the Defence Department had exchanged a plot of land it owned in the suburbs with the 6,490-square-metre Adarsh land, which was owned by the State government. The Defence Department used the area for an ecological park until sanction was given to Adarsh Society. It also said the plot was enclosed by a boundary wall and was used for military training from time to time.

The State government and the Mumbai Collector, however, maintained that the land belonged to the Revenue Department and, therefore, Chavan felt it was alright to sanction the building as long as the allottee quotas (defence 60 per cent and civilians 40 per cent) were met.

In a strongly worded press statement, Adarsh Society attempted to explain who actually owned the land and why the construction was legal.

It is not as though the construction is entirely illegal, one of the activists said. The problem is these officers pushed the files and took advantage of a situation and of people who deserved those apartments.

According to Brigadier M.M. Wanchu, the president of Adarsh Society, the land was allotted on July 9, 2004, on the basis of payment of ready-reckoner market value applicable to societies. The building plans were approved by the MMRDA [Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority] as per rules. The CRZ clearance was approved by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2004. Furthermore, the building height was approved by a High Rise Committee headed by a retired Chief Justice of the Madras High Court.

Although the State and the Defence Department may scrap over the ownership of the land, the more fundamental points are that the society appears to have violated several stringent environment and urban development laws. When they saw the building come up, why did the Environment Ministry not take action earlier? asks Nilesh Shah, a resident of Cuffe Parade, who has seen Adarsh rise.

As per CRZ norms, no building can come up in the 200-metre zone from the high tide line (HTL) of the coast. Adarsh has been built virtually on the edge of the seashore.

According to RTI activists, the building was originally meant to be a six-storey structure but was conveniently converted into a 100-metre-tall building with an FSI (floor space index) that allowed 31 floors.

Adarsh refuted this by saying that the plot was originally marked as part of a road-widening project. However, owing to a ban on reclamation of land in 1991, the project fell through. This is when the society approached the government with a building proposal.

The documents, however, indicate that this is when the government and the Defence Department plotted their scheme. There are a few private buildings in Navy Nagar that were constructed before the CRZ and new security rules were enforced. They perhaps thought they would get away with it. Brigadier Wanchu said it was factually incorrect to say that the State government, while allotting the land, laid down that the land be reserved for Kargil War widows/girls' hostel.

Furthermore, he said that after the land was allotted on payment of ready-reckoner market value, its possession was handed over by the Mumbai Collector to the society on October 4, 2004.

The CRZ clearance came from New Delhi vide letter NoF. No.J-17011/46/2002-IA III dated March 11, 2003. Hence, every clearance was taken before the construction, and the final commencement certificate was issued by the MMRDA on August 4, 2010. The occupation certificate was given on September 16. This has been revoked by the MMRDA now.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has sent a show-cause notice to the society. They have clearly violated CRZ rules, said Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Environment and Forests. He has sought reports from the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority and the Urban Development Department. Ramesh said demolishing 24 floors and allowing six, the original number, was an important option. He, however, could not say why the Ministry was so slack in monitoring the violations.

It has been discovered that in giving the clearances for the building, the Urban Development Department misinterpreted a letter from the MoEF, which had stated, when the application for CRZ clearance was submitted, that the State can decide on the eco-clearance as per the CRZ notification of 1991 as the complex falls under CRZ-2. CRZ-2 is the area that has been developed up to or close to the shoreline, which includes designated urban areas that are substantially built up. Buildings are permitted only on the landward side of the existing road.

The Central government and the Defence authorities have begun inquiries into the scam. However, what happens to all those genuine buyers is a question that is not being addressed. Additionally, was there really a proposal to provide housing for Kargil victims' families?