November 14, 2010

A Towering "Model" Scam

Adarsh Co-operative Housing Society
(where everyone "co-operated")

The signature tune of Maharashtra Govt.?

The Mumbai Adarsh Society scam or the “Model” Scam has become truly symbolic of the levels to which corruption, abuse of power and plunder of public assets has grown in the Maharashtra Government particularly in the last ten years. A building which, even if constructed in the ordinary course, could not have been more than 6 stories high stands tall at 31 stories, perhaps, symbolically suggesting that corruption has grown five fold, if not more in recent times. The fact that the scam which had been assiduously worked out over a period of ten years successfully avoided exposure for so long shows the extent of manipulative powers and hold over the government and the defense establishment the perpetrators had. This, despite the fact that a group of conscientious army personnel knew about the existence of the scam and the efforts to cover it up for at least six years before some of them succeeded in finally blowing it up through the media on 25th October 2010.

In the days that followed, the name of Ashok Chavan, the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra came to the fore for facilitating the entire process and also for securing several flats for his close relatives. Unfortunately for him, his denials about his involvement and about any relatives holding flats exposed him. With great reluctance, the Congress Party was forced to ask him to resign after going through typical Congress-style stage-managed motions of making an “inquiry” to gain time. For Ashok Chavan, it was ironic that just a few weeks before the scam broke, he had arranged for Rupees Two Crores to facilitate a rally for his leader who asked him to quit. However, he may bide his time and wait for the opportunity when he too, like two of his unworthy predecessors may be given a position in the Union Cabinet as a "compassionate" punishment.

Do you have three? Another headache!

In spite of the intense scrutiny of the scam by the media and other activists, the full details have still not emerged with absolute clarity and many questions remain unanswered. What is clear is that some officials in the defense estate department first identified a plot in possession of the army but not in active use and made an elaborate plan based on trickery and fabrications to acquire it for private use. The main “promoter” of the society R.C.Thakur of the Defense Estate Officer appears to be the initiator from the defense services side working with Kanhaiyalal Gidwani, a Congress MLC to manage the civilian side, involving Ministers and bureaucrats in Maharashtra Govt., BMC, MMRDA and other agencies concerned with land use and construction clearances. After the initial stages, the process appears to have become increasingly under the control of the Chief Minister as far as facilitating the approvals and discretionary allocation of flats are concerned.

Thakur and Gidwani

Every one connected with the entire process or anyone in a position to place a spoke in their wheel of deceit was won over with the simple expedient of offering a flat in the proposed society for himself or his nominees. Simple, because allocating a flat at a fraction of the real market value in the prime area of Mumbai South represented a huge bribe, without a single rupee being actually paid out. The entire process was manipulated and meticulously planned at every stage in connivance with those in positions of authority who eventually also got the benefit of a flat allocation.

As the starting step, it was represented that the land, though occupied by the defense department did not actually belong to it but was Collector’s land belonging to the State Government. Ambiguously worded communications were presented to show that the army had no objection to the land being used for the benefit of defense services personnel. To push the proposal for allowing the land to be used for constructing residential premises, equally cleverly worded false representations were made that the beneficiaries would be Kargil war heroes and their widows. The promoters even managed to secure from the Government the FSI which belonged to BEST having the adjacent plot. The space reserved for a road was got reduced and allowed to be used for the society. The entire procedure was followed, paperwork completed so well and even the Occupation Certificate was obtained, that even after the scam has been exposed, the promoters appear to be fully confident that no illegalities have been committed.

Those who have been allotted flats in the Society include two former Chiefs of Army Staff General Deepak Kapoor and General N.C.Vij, and former Naval Commander Admiral Madhavendra Singh, apart from other high level officers from defense services, some of whom were reportedly involved in facilitating the work of the perpetrators of the scam. Of the main promoters, Thakur reportedly has one complete floor to himself and Gidwani and his relatives hold four flats. Apart from Ashok Chavan’s relatives, Malav, the son of his close associate Jayant Shah also holds a flat. Several politicians or their relatives also hold flats. More alarming is the fact that several bureaucrats have managed to get flats in the names of their relatives. (see list here) The precise status of all the flat owners has still not been established but in all likelihood, more instances of largesse to family and friends of people in power are sure to come to light. The real shocking revelation is that the “Kargil Heroes” behind whose masquerade the participants in the conspiracy, cozenage and fraud worked, do not find a single genuine allocation in their names.

The fraud, in fact, would not have come to light at all had the Naval authorities not raised serious security issues related to the building which is in close proximity to various defense areas. The security issues and the alleged violations or by-passing of the strict environmental rules under the Coastal Regulation Zone Regulations have really prompted at least the promise of some action by the Government, notorious by now for its indifference to scams and corruption involving members of the ruling combine.

The issues involved in the scam and the implications of the massive fraud are far more serious and the people need clear answers and decisive actions in several areas:

As far as the politicians involved are concerned, the Congress party has merely replaced Ashok Chavan with a new incumbent, Prithviraj Chavan. However, that in itself is a typical minimal approach which the party is projecting as a major action. The removal is based merely on practical considerations of avoiding further embarrassment and is not suggestive of any moral high ground being taken by his party. It is also known by now that Ashok Chavan has been implicated in a major land matter in Pune which he decided as Revenue Minister in a way that would mean huge profits for a person allegedly close to him, Jayant Shah. The rot runs far deeper and enough facts have come to light that show that even previous Chief Ministers, Narayan Rane, Sushilkumar Shinde and Vilasrao Deshmukh may be as culpable if not more in the Adarsh scam. If the Congress party is really serious as it claims to be, how can Ashok Chavan and the other Ministers responsible escape without any demonstrable and credible punishment under penal law?

Rane,Shinde, Deshmukh, Chavan
We are all same
(boli = bid, price?)

The second issue relates to actions against the bureaucrats involved in the scam and who got their “reward” by way of allotment of flats in the Society. Actions also need to be taken against officials of various authorities who might have been negligent in processing the proposal and granting permissions. So far, the Government has not shown any inclination at all to initiate action against these officers. As far as the defense services are concerned, the Defense Minister has stated that the Ministry is serious about taking exemplary action. However, its sincerity remains to be tested.

There are many issues related to the land as well as the building itself, which have to be addressed.

First, it has not been established yet whether the land indeed belonged to the Defense or was only in its possession while it belonged to the Government. After initial assertions that the land belonged to the Defense, subsequently there has not been any definitive confirmation of the exact status. If the land actually belonged to the Defense Department, then the scam assumes a much greater significance. Second, the responsibility for allowing the society to appropriate the FSI belonging to BEST needs to be probed.

The third and most important issue related to the building is that of violations of the law on the one hand and the security implications on the other. These two issues assume the greatest significance in deciding the future course of action with regard to the building. While the Ministry of Environment & Forests has already issued a show cause notice to the Society, the Minister, Jairam Ramesh is supposed to have stated that “all options under the law are open except regularization of the structure''. It is not clear as to what these “options” are. If the structure is not to be regularized due to violation of CRZ Rules or based on security considerations, what option is available other than to demolish the structure entirely? The question assumes importance as the statement of the Minister mentioning “all” options other than regularization appears enigmatic. Significantly, the influential owners of flats in the society have already begun lobbying to save the building or at least part of it by paying penalty or otherwise persuading the Ministry to take a sympathetic and lenient view (see
here). MMRDA by suddenly withdrawing the Occupation Certificate already granted, has also conveniently given the Society an opportunity to take legal recourse and obtain a stay on further actions. Suggestions have also been made to allow the entire building to be used by defense service personnel, Kargil war heroes etc. Such fanciful suggestions deserve to be rejected out of hand. The defense services already have their rules and are already taking adequate care of their personnel including families of those who lose their lives in the service of the nation, whether in Kargil or elsewhere. Just because in the initial proposal an attempt was made to gain sympathetic consideration mentioning Kargil war heroes and service personnel, there is no reason now to even consider perpetuating the misplaced approach. More importantly, if the building has indeed been made in violation of the law and has security implications, these issues cannot be ignored on the ground that the flats will be allocated to service personnel or their families.

The only solution that would satisfy the people is that both the Central Government, in particular the Defense and Environment Ministries as well as the State Government must immediately set in motion the actions to ensure that all the permissions given to the building are cancelled, the building is demolished and the land restored to the defense department who must not use it for any housing project.

The credibility of the State Government as well as the Central Government will be severely tested on the touchstone of actual actions taken in punishing the guilty and in demolishing the illegal structure which is also a security concern. If the overall attitude of the Government so far is any guide, it will be quite happy to avoid any firm action against the guilty and will also find a way even to rescue the Society in some manner. As of now, there is a complete lack of transparency on what exactly is being done, beyond the cryptic "action will be taken under the law". In all likelihood, the people will only see lip service being paid assuring action till the scam fades away from their notoriously short memories.

And then, those who have already got flats in the Adarsh Society can live happily ever after - in the same flats.

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