The ‘plot’ thickens

Fadnavis counters Congress's graft allegations in a land scam, with judicial inquiry

PTI7_4_2018_000187B Land, locked horns: Fadnavis said the deal followed rules set by the previous Congress-NCP government | PTI

ON JULY 2, when Mumbai Congress president Sanjay Nirupam accused Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis of “blessing” an alleged land scam, he cornered the state government like never before and delivered a blow to Fadnavis’s clean image. At a packed media briefing, Nirupam, along with former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan and Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala, accused the chief minister’s office of facilitating a land deal in which a 24-acre plot in Navi Mumbai, apparently worth Rs 1,767 crore, was pocketed by a builder for just Rs 3.6 crore. The Congress leaders demanded Fadnavis’s resignation and a judicial inquiry into the deal.

They claimed that the developer, Paradise Group, wanted land close to the upcoming international airport in Navi Mumbai. “A modus operandi was adopted to identify gullible oustee farmers of the Koyna dam [project] for the purpose of getting CIDCO land allotted [to the affected] and to simultaneously get this land transferred to a private developer,” said Nirupam.

He added that Raigad collector V.N. Suryawanshi had allotted the 24 acres owned by the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) to families of eight farmers, even though he did not have the authority to do so. “Paradise Group had already entered into an agreement with these farmers to sell the land at the rate of Rs 15 lakh an acre,” said Nirupam. “CIDCO and the urban development department [headed by Fadnavis] raised no objection. This land had been reserved for phase II of the Central Park.”

The Congress leaders said that, on May 14 and 15, a sale deed was executed by eight families in favour of Sanjay Bhalerao of Paradise Group for Rs 15 lakh an acre. “The sale deed also records that there was a prior agreement between oustees and the Paradise Group,” alleged Nirupam. “While this land exchanged hands at the rate of Rs 371 per square metre, CIDCO had sold land in the proximity at the rate of Rs 1.84 lakh per square metre. Thus, the land with an estimated value of Rs 1,767 crore was sold for Rs 3.6 crore, duping the farmers. The entire transaction could not have taken place without collusion between CIDCO and the urban development ministry.”

The leaders also alleged that Manish Bathija, managing director of the Paradise Group, was close to BJP legislator Prasad Lad, who is apparently close to Fadnavis. They then showed pictures of Bathija and Lad having meals together.

Surjewala demanded an impartial judicial inquiry headed by two sitting judges of the Bombay High Court.

With the Congress in attack mode, the BJP had to act quickly. Spokesperson Madhav Bhandari and Lad were tasked with launching a counterattack. Lad announced that he would file a Rs 500 crore criminal defamation suit against the Congress leaders, while Bhandari said the allegations were baseless.

On July 5, Fadnavis addressed the situation, ordering a judicial inquiry not just into the Paradise Group land deal, but also into 200 similar land allotments that had taken place during the previous Congress-Nationalist Congress Party rule.

Fadnavis informed the state assembly that the land allotment in Navi Mumbai was carried out in accordance with the rules and provisions laid down by the previous government. Calling Prithviraj Chavan a “gentleman”, Fadnavis advised him to not readily believe what his colleagues told him without examining the facts himself. “There is absolutely no wrongdoing in the Navi Mumbai land allotment,” Fadnavis told the house. “CIDCO, the chief minister’s office, and the revenue minister have nothing to do with the allotment. Yet, as the opposition has demanded an inquiry, we will certainly order a judicial probe into this matter along with 200 other cases.”

He said that the state government had owned the land in Navi Mumbai for the past five decades before it was allotted to eight project affected persons (PAPs) in February. He confirmed that the beneficiaries had immediately sold this land to a builder. “CIDCO is only the planning authority and not the land owner,” he said. “There are no CIDCO land rates and the current market rate of the land as per the ready reckoner is Rs 5.30 crore. It is agricultural land that the builder has bought as such. During your [Congress-NCP] rule, the Raigad collector allotted 200 pieces of land to PAPs, who also promptly sold them off to private parties.”

Fadnavis added that the Bombay High Court, in 1998, had allowed the Koyna dam PAPs to sell the land after allotment. The previous governments, including the Congress-NCP coalition, had allotted 606 hectares in Raigad district to 627 PAPs. “The Raigad collector allotted the land as per the law and rules formed by the previous governments. All this land is in 1.5km range of the upcoming airport. So, can I ask if the files came to you [Chavan]? Did these allotments have your blessings? The fact is that it is your government that gave the collector the authority to allot land and hence these files do not come to the chief minister.”

Fadnavis then announced that he would put the deal on hold till the judicial probe was over. Nirupam claimed this as a victory. The Congress leader also released a fresh document, which states that a CIDCO official had written to the Raigad collector on May 2, objecting to the Navi Mumbai land deal. In that letter, the CIDCO official mentioned that Bhushan Gagrani, the then managing director of CIDCO, was aware of the deal. “Why did Gagrani not stop this illegal deal?” asked Nirupam. “It is the loss of the chief minister’s credibility. If he is serious about the investigation, he must order the suspension of Gagrani, the Raigad collector, the additional collector, and the Panvel tehsildar. Because, prima facie, all these officers were involved in this land scam.”