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Tower of shame

How does a junior defence officer construct a 30-storey tower on army land? With chutzpah and a lot of help. R.C. Thakur’s all-Indian saga. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: May 21, 2011 16:43 IST
Samar Halarnkar

For a man sought by his furious boss after going missing from office, Ramchandra Sonelal Thakur looked calm and relaxed. It was 2003. Thakur and I were at a café in Colaba, just outside south Mumbai’s sylvan, sprawling military station. Between sips of his coffee, Thakur told me of his plan to rehouse war veterans and widows in a six-storey building.

“You see, it is for a noble cause,” he said, explaining how as chief promoter and founding member of the proposed Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society he intended do the military a good turn. It seemed a minor detail to him that he was a junior defence estates official, being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation for allegedly allowing construction on defence land in exchange for two flats in Nagpur (the allegations were never proved). It seemed irrelevant that his boss, director general of defence estates Veena Maitra had denied him leave to be here in Mumbai. Thakur left Delhi anyway; and much to Maitra’s chagrin, he was slowly, methodically, and improbably, managing to push his housing society through not one but two bureaucracies, military and civilian.

“Adarsh is only concerned with the military, all branches of the defence forces,” Thakur told me. This was the first of many lies, which over the last seven years became the bedrock on which Thakur’s dream rose 30 storeys from the original six. In doing so, the Adarsh Society mowed down what was then a park (inaugurated in 1996 by the local army commander) of about 100 trees, brought on board a power list of names from the military, politics and bureaucracy — and laid bare not just all that is wrong and shameful about emerging India but the opportunities this immorality offers those who dare. Even in 2003, Colaba was among Asia’s most valuable swathes of real estate (Adarsh’s plot is now valued at more than Rs 500 crore). As we talked, I pointed to the name of “Kargil Hero” Subedar Ramnarain Achelal Thakur, the lone JCO (junior commissioned officer) on Adarsh’s list of 71 beneficiaries. Even if your society is for war veterans as you claim, how, I asked Thakur, could the Subedar hope to deposit Rs 6 lakh as a 20 per cent advance?

“You see, jawans (soldiers) have ancestral lands,” said Thakur. “They can sell them easily. “Then Subedar Thakur will collect his family from Bihar and move them to Cuffe Parade.”

Did he seriously expect me to believe such explanations? It didn’t matter. Thakur seemed to be made of Teflon, as did his scheme. Director general Maitra said she had asked the Maharashtra government to stop the transfer of the army’s park to Thakur’s society. As for her errant junior, she said: “We are going to proceed against him for this, and we are waiting for the CBI to finish the inquiry.”

Seven years have passed since I first reported this story. A veil of silence descended around Thakur; his backers possessed a doggedness people like me did not. They knew irritants like me would go away if they all stayed the course and stayed silent. None more so than the man whose go-ahead was needed for the transfer of army land to civilian control, Maj Gen T.K. Kaul, then Commander of the local army base. Today, as then, Kaul refuses to answer questions or his phone or fax. Retired, he lives in the Adarsh tower.

Others who got flats blandly said then — and reiterate now — that they did not know of the Kargil angle or the reputation of Thakur, general secretary today of the Adarsh Society.

Admiral Madhavendra Singh was chief of naval staff when he became a member of Adarsh. “I had absolutely no idea about the background of the person who is promoting it,” he said in 2003. Retired today, the admiral says, “I have no clue if the society was meant for Kargil heroes.”

Glib denials work because Thakur and the Maharashtra government are right in insisting the society’s paperwork is in order. On September 16, 2010, the state handed Adarsh its occupation certificate, the final clearance.

It was obvious his society’s powerful members helped Thakur get a thicket of clearances, many of which should never have been given. India is plagued with dubious land transfers, and the army has had its share, involving its top echelons. But the Adarsh case is particularly depressing because it reaffirms that nothing is sacred in acquisitive new India; laws or memories of dead soldiers.

Defence minister A.K. Antony will find it hard to probe the case, as he now promises. Adarsh was cleared by two of Anthony’s Cabinet colleagues: power minister Sushilkumar Shinde and heavy industries minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. In 2003, Shinde dodged all questions on Adarsh; he continues to do so. The affable Deshmukh just says he doesn’t remember.

Since I first wrote the Adarsh story, follow-ups were few. Today, there’s been a fresh burst of publicity, thanks to a protest — the latest of not-so-many over the years — from vice admiral Sanjeev Bhasin, chief of the western naval command based in Mumbai.

When I tracked down Thakur earlier this week, he was as confident as ever. “Khatta angoor kaun khaya? Who has eaten sour grapes?” he said to me, implying that Admiral Bhasin was opposing Adarsh because he did not get a flat there. As in 2003, Thakur invited me to a meeting. Not at a café this time but at his grand tower.