Land is netas’ currency of power

The Asian Age explores the political-builder-mafia nexus to grab prime plots at throwaway prices

Last week, a report by global real estate firm Knight Frank LLP put Mumbai at the head of a list of most expensive cities in the world for locals. The firm estimated that the price of a luxury home in Mumbai is about 308 times the annual income of an average Indian. The average Indian, or Mumbaikar, of course, has little chance or hope of ever possessing a home in the city in his or her lifetime. That privilege is reserved for the rich and powerful.
But who are these people who not only use this privilege, but also drive up the prices for the rest of the commoners? They are the known faces, our own leaders, who with the help of developers, gangsters, police, and of course, the bureaucrats, work unscrupulously to grab whatever prime land they can at whatever little price they can.
If the leaked report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India is to be believed, it is frequently a privilege usurped. A number of prominent ministers from the state have appropriated large tracts of land to themselves by using their discretionary powers to sell or lease out the land at a fraction of the official value to trusts they control. This official value itself would be well below the actual market rate.

THE POLITICAL CONNECTION
As recently stated by Union agricultural minister and NCP president Shard Pawar, the state wants to help trusts working for various charitable purpose, by providing land at subsidised rates, but this policy of the government is what has been taken advantage of.
Take the example of the state government allotting the Lavasa Corporation Limited a massive plot of land for development of Hill City near Pune that has opened a new chapter in state largesse. Even as the court of law dwells on the legality of the concept altogether, the names that are allegedly associated with the project smacks of blatant misuse of politicians’ power.
Meanwhile, even as the dust settles in the Lavasa and Adarsh society scam — another case of land grab, the revelations made by CAG’s report resound like a bombshell. The leaked report names many bigwigs in the state cabinet of ministers and shows how the public “trust” was flouted in the name of charity. Public works minister Chhagan Bhujbal, for instance, has been named in the report as his trust Mumbai Education Trust (MET) got a plot at Govardhan Taluka in Nasik admeasuring 50,000 sqm on occupancy right basis at an occupancy price of `7.53 lakh. This allocation was in addition to an earlier adjourning plot to MET admeasuring 41,300 sqm in 2003, the occupancy charge for which was `1.55 lakh. The report says that the entire 91,300 sqm plot was initially reserved for mining activity by the PWD. Interestingly, the MET had requested for the entire plot in 2003, but while it got one plot in 2003, the other was made available to it during Mr Bhujbal’s tenure as PWD minister. The CAG observes that as per the ready reckoner of 2008, the market value of the land was `9.39 crore and the allotment to the allottee, NCP MP Sameer Bhujbal, who is the minister’s nephew and a trustee at MET, was an apparent “conflict of interest”.
Former CM and Union Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, whose name has already figured in the Adarsh scam and the Whistling Woods case, has also been named for allotting a plot in Borivali worth `30.37 crore to Manjra Education Trust for `6.56 crore. However, no dental college, as was initially proclaimed was ever developed on the land, but in absence of the clause in the agreement to return the plot, it continues to be held by the trust.
A long list of other ministers figure in the list. The story is the same in every case: land given by politician to his own trust at a throwaway rate (see box).
The list ends with the highest and mightiest. President Pratibha Patil has allegedly taken over 81,563 sqm of defence land in Pune for a retirement home. The Rashtrapati Bhavan spokesperson Archana Datta said the land would revert to defence use after the president’s lifetime and hence, there was no question of transfer of ownership.

THE NEXUS
But, it’s not only the netas named in the current CAG report who have a finger in the real estate pie. The involvement of politically powerful people, who have access to the public property, also has a set precedent.
Take for instance, Raj Thackeray, whose name appeared in a controversial land deal as Shiv Sena opposed the sale of Kohinoor mill land. Raj Thackeray, however, bid and won the prime mill land on July 21, 2005. To recap, he and Unmesh Joshi, son of Shiv Sena leader Manohar Joshi purchased a five acre plot of land, Kohinoor Mill No 3, located across the road from the Shiv Sena party headquarters Sena Bhavan for `421 crore, but the source of this money is a secret well-kept.
Real estates is simply too lucrative a business in Mumbai. South Mumbai had always been the costliest as places like Cuffe Parade, Napean Sea Road, Walkeshwar figure in some of the most expensive deals forged.

THE MAFIA’s ROLE
However, Mumbai markets are always booming, with old chawls, mill lands and slums giving ways to high-rises, malls and plush hotels. Not surprisingly, areas such as the Bandra-Kurla Complex are now giving stiff competition to Cuffe Parade for the “numero uno” spot on the list of costliest lands in Asia. But the prices have not gone up overnight.
The process has been long and continuous and there can always be some level of politicians’ involvement expected, which holds the key to allotments. There are umpteen examples of politician-builder nexus, but there are other players in the game as well — as limited as their role may be. These are the gangsters, the mobs that the builders use to either grab someone’s land via encroachment or forceful possession; for clearing slums; to guard their own properties, etc. By extension, the moment gangsters get involved, there is little scope that the police remains far behind in these activities. However, when they are not in cahoots, a conflict can ensue between the police and the underworld.
No matter what the picture or who the players, it is evident that the sheer volume of money that trickles in the business of real estate is what keeps the politicians and builders in a warm embrace as they exercise the policy of “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.”

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