Land-ing in trouble: CM Shinde and Minister Abdul Sattar face the heat

Opposition alleges they gave government land to private players

50-Eknath-Shinde-and-Abdul-Sattar It is unlikely that Shinde (left), under a cloud himself, would ask Sattar (right) to resign. In all probability, the land allotment would be cancelled | Amey Mansabdar

IN THE TURF WAR between the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi-led opposition and the state government, the latest battle is over land. The opposition has cornered Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Agriculture Minister Abdul Sattar with charges of corruption and favouritism.

Sattar is also accused of forcing agriculture department officers to sell tickets to a farm fair that he organises in his constituency, Sillod, in Aurangabad district.

In early 2021, when Shinde was urban development minister in the MVA government, he allegedly allotted 4.5 acres belonging to the Nagpur Improvement Trust (NIT) to private individuals. This, despite the matter being sub-judice. The land was meant to be used for slum rehabilitation.

The issue dates back to 2004, when an activist filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court after the Comptroller and Auditor General had found irregularities in the allotment of land by the NIT. In 2017, the Nagpur bench of the court set up a one-man committee under retired judge M.N. Gilani to investigate the issue. The committee found violations in the land allotment process and said, “prima facie, this is a blatant misuse of public property.”

The court has been monitoring the allotment of NIT land for years, and has ordered status quo on Shinde's decision. It will next hear the case on January 4.

Ambadas Danve, leader of opposition in the legislative council, was the first to raise the issue. He alleged that the land was given away for around 12 crore. “Its market value is 183 crore,” the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray) leader alleged. “This is a scam and Chief Minister Shinde has favoured individuals connected to the real estate sector.” Eknath Khadse, former BJP leader and now Nationalist Congress Party legislator, joined in, demanding that Shinde resign. In the legislative assembly, NCP’s Chhagan Bhujbal and Jitendra Awhad raised the issue. Awhad, who hails from Shinde's home turf of Thane, had met the petitioners and collected all the data to implicate the chief minister. Awhad and Shinde have had an up-and-down relationship over the years.

Shinde defended himself saying he had followed the procedure previous regimes had laid down. “My order clearly said that the applicant should be charged as per 2007 orders,” he said. “I have not recommended any reduction of charges.”

The opposition refused to budge. Sensing that Shinde was on shaky ground, Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis rushed to his defence. “The court has asked the state to submit its response and maintain status quo in the matter,” he said. “When Shinde took the decision, the NIT had failed to inform him that a committee had been set up to inquire into the matter. Had it been placed on record, this decision would not have been taken. Our government will not give away plots at cheaper rates causing loss to the exchequer.”

Under pressure, Shinde later told the assembly that he had cancelled the allotment.

Shiv Sena (Thackeray) leader Sanjay Raut tried to create a rift between the Shinde faction of the Sena and the BJP by pointing out that three BJP legislators had originally brought up the NIT land allotment issue. “We just decided to take up the issue,” he said. “The BJP may be with the Shinde group, but its motives are sinister.”

Under fire, the Shinde camp went after the Thackeray family. Senior Sena (Shinde) leader Bharat Gogavale brought up the mysterious death of celebrity manager Disha Salian in June 2020. She was found dead after falling from the roof of a building. Her client, actor Sushant Singh Rajput, was found dead a few days later. Gogavale asked the government to reinvestigate her death and claimed that the Mumbai Police’s probe had been unsatisfactory and was aimed at shielding someone. BJP legislator Nitesh Rane, without naming Aaditya Thackeray, said that a minister from the MVA government had influenced the police investigation. He claimed that Salian was murdered and, to suppress that, the final post-mortem report had not been released and two investigating officers had been changed in quick succession. The government has announced the formation of a special investigation team to probe the death.

If the allegations against Shinde are a headache to the government, those against Sattar are a migraine. The agriculture minister allegedly regularised 37 acres of gairan (grazing) land despite a Supreme Court order prohibiting such actions. On June 17, 2022, two weeks before the MVA government fell, Sattar allotted the land in Washim district to a Yogesh Khandare. Sattar was then minister of state for revenue.

The Nagpur bench of the High Court recently held that Sattar took the decision despite being aware that the Washim court had disallowed Khandare’s claim over the land.

Leader of opposition Ajit Pawar alleged that the land was worth 1170 crore and wondered if Sattar had made money in the deal. The opposition demanded that Sattar be sacked immediately.

“Sattar was aware of the strictures of the High Court and the Supreme Court,” said Pawar. “Despite this, he blatantly misused his ministerial position and allotted the land to Khandare. The Washim district court had rejected Khandale’s claim to the said land. The district collector had written to additional chief secretary (revenue) to inform him that the allotment was in violation of court orders. However, action has not been taken against Sattar.”

The minister is no stranger to controversy. He was recently accused of making derogatory remarks against NCP MP Supriya Sule and of asking a district collector if he wanted to have a “drink” in the morning when the latter refused tea at a meeting. Sattar is also accused of forcing agriculture department officers to sell tickets to a farm fair that he organises in his constituency, Sillod, in Aurangabad district. The villagers had free entry, but the officers were told to sell tickets priced at 15,000, 10,000 and 15,000 to seed, fertiliser and agri-equipment suppliers. The target, according to the opposition, was to raise 115 crore.

On December 28, Sattar said that the land was allotted as per the rules and denied any wrongdoing. However, shaken by the opposition's protests, Fadnavis said that the government would examine the High Court order and take strict action.

It is unlikely that Shinde, under a cloud himself, would ask Sattar to resign. In all probability, the land allotment would be cancelled. But, it remains to be seen what action will be taken against a minister whose brazenness has become his signature style of functioning.