The issue of government-owned leasehold plots in Mumbai is back in the news with the latest controversy over the rates at which the state government wants to sell the ownership rights of these plots to the lessees. It was first discussed more than a decade ago when the debt-ridden state government was looking at measures to put its finances back on track through a new fiscal policy. Then it was suggested that the leased plots should be sold and the money should be used to pay-off debts. Subsequently, the state revenue department worked out a new lease policy and asked the lessees to pay lease rents at higher rate (up to 1,500 times the current rent) or buy the plots at a price which would be 20-30% of the ready reckoner rates. The rates would be much less than the current market prices and hence the policy has now led to voices of protest from various quarters. The new policy could turn out to be a jackpot for some. A prime plot at coveted address like Bandra or Colaba can be owned for Rs 8-10 crore -- a cheap deal considering the kind of money people are forced to pay for tiny 2-BHK houses in the suburbs.
Former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi has raised a valid question: Why should government let go hundreds of crores by selling or leasing out these 666 plots at prevailing market rates? His calculations show the government would get about Rs 2,800 crore every year if the lease rent is calculated at market rate.
The issue has surfaced in the backdrop of the controversy over renewal of the lease for the race course that expires on May 31. Questions are being asked on whether the huge parcel of land in the island city should be left for a privileged few or the authorities should take it over and develop a Hyde Park-like public place so that citizens will get a green spot in the middle of the city.
Already, the BMC’s open spaces policy that aims at handing over playgrounds and recreation grounds to private parties for protection is under criticism. There are some glaring examples of land-grab as politicians have turned open spaces into private clubs and denied access to citizens.
Land in Mumbai is precious and the issue of publicly-owned plots being given to individuals or institutions at heavily discounted rates is not new. Over the past few decades, acres of Mhada land meant for low-cost housing was given to builders under some pretext or the other.
The question being asked is: Shouldn’t the government use the prime public property to earn some revenue instead of imposing more and more taxes on citizens?
Isn’t there a time for the government to have a comprehensive policy on public-owned land so that taxpayers don’t feel cheated and citizens have access to open spaces in the city?
Citizens are expecting chief minister Prithviraj Chavan to act on the issue.
Politicians and their egos
Last week, the cabinet meeting saw almost all ministers turning down a proposal to set up a policy think-tank for the government. The think-tank of bureaucrats and experts was a good idea but the ministers thought it would be a parallel cabinet.
But then, it was not the only reason. Several ministers in CM Chavan’s cabinet complain that he relies more on the bureaucrats and less on his cabinet colleagues to take decisions. As such, they did not want another set of advisors for the government. Chavan had no option but to keep quiet as the ministers — including his Congress colleagues — shot down the proposal. Is this an indication of things to come?