Last August, when an old bridge over the Savitri river collapsed in Mahad in Raigad district, killing 30 people, Maharashtra housing minister Prakash Mehta distinguished himself by rushing to the spot and clicking selfies. Now, Mehta is in a spot again, for having written misleading remarks on a file related to the development of mill land in south Mumbai.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has ordered an investigation into this Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) project at MP Mills compound, which Mehta cleared in violation of development control rules. Mehta wrote on the file that the chief minister had been apprised of it. In reality, the file was not tabled before Fadnavis, who holds the urban development portfolio.
According to former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, Mehta used Fadnavis’s name to overrule objections raised by a bureaucrat and cleared the proposal. Chavan said Mehta gave away nearly one lakh square feet of land to the developer, SD Corporation, which would have benefited Rs 500 to Rs 800 crore from it. “Mehta has illegally transferred the building rights of the slum dwellers to the builder,” Chavan said.
The opposition parties, led by the Congress and the NCP, have demanded an inquiry by a judge of the Bombay High Court. Fadnavis may have to depose before the inquiry commission, if it is set up.
Mehta said in the legislative assembly that he had gone to meet Fadnavis with a bundle of files and did not realise that the MP Mills file was not in the bundle. Later he wrote on the file that the chief minister had been informed. It was only the next day that the department informed him that this file “was not discussed since it was not there with me that day,” he said. As he spoke, Mehta was clearly at a loss for words.
Though Fadnavis promptly announced an investigation, he insisted that there was no corruption. “How can there be talk of corruption when the decision was scrapped, no action was taken and nobody has benefited,” he said in the legislative council. He ruled out Mehta’s resignation.
Opposition leader Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil has raised another allegation: that Mehta’s son Harsh and other relatives were allotted flats under an SRA scheme in Ghatkopar by falsely stating that they were tenants there. He also said Mehta was an additional director on the board of the construction firm, Sai Nidhi Realtors Pvt Ltd, which was involved in the project.
Mehta told the legislature that he had resigned from the board of Sai Nidhi Realtors ten days before he was sworn in as housing minister. He said his son was a legal tenant and that he had not given the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authroity (MHADA) plot to any developer. He pointed out that the government had issued a notification in January that if no developer came forward to develop the land, MHADA should develop it.
Mehta’s wealth rose 15 times between 2004 and 2014. In his election affidavit in 2004, he declared it as Rs 2 crore. In 2014, the figure increased to Rs 32 crore. Interestingly, in his 2009 affidavit, Mehta had not mentioned his son’s flat at Lakshmi Bhavan building, which was being redeveloped by Sai Nidhi Realtors.
A BJP insider said Mehta’s defence was very weak. “He has clearly caused much embarrassment to Fadnavis,” said the insider. Mehta declined to comment on the controversy, saying he would give an interview at a later date. Clearly on a sticky wicket, he seemed to be relying on the BJP’s central leadership. As a senior cabinet minister put it, “The fate of our PM (Prakash Mehta) is in the hands of the PM.”