Mumbai police officials spent the whole of Wednesday at the office of the Slum Rehabilitation Authority drawing up a panchnaama following a fire that ran through the premise on Tuesday night.
The work is expected to continue into Thursday, even as authorities made conflicting claims about the key question - what is the extent of damage. They also refused to allow any media persons into the office premises located on the fifth floor of a government building in Bandra.
“On Tuesday we could not do the panchnama since there were no lights. We are still to finish it since the amount of damage is very high”, said B Jadhav, Senior Police Inspector, Kherwadi Police Station. “Almost 90 per cent of the files kept in various cabins spread across the office were destroyed”, he added. DCP (Zone VIII) R Tadvi who is overseeing the investigation was not available for comment.
SRA CEO Debashish Chakrabarty however claimed that the fire had done minimal damage and would not affect an ongoing and highly controversial probe into corruption in his department.
Chakrabarty said, "The fire was controlled by the fire brigade well in time. The documents related to SRA projects that are being probed are not damaged. We also have records in computers and with other authorities such as BMC and district collector office of the SRA projects."
Fire department officials said they needed more time to ascertain the cause of the fire “The cause is still under investigation and would take 3-4 days”, said Mumbai Fire Chief Kiran Kadam. “We are questioning the security personnel’s and checking the visitor records to find various leads whether there was a deliberate attempt to start the fire”, added PSI Jadhav.
However public interest litigants and civic NGOs have alleged a conspiracy to destroy vital documents_about 1800 project files_and asked for a judicial inquiry into the fire (See BOX) in the light of over 250 complaints made to the Mumbai Police’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) regarding SRA schemes. The fire comes just two days before the hearing of a public interest litigation in the High Court asking for a criminal probe into the corruption complaints against SRA.
Meanwhile the ACB said it was too early to assess how the fire might affect their probe. “We have provided the police with a list of the projects that are named in the complaints made to us since October. They will get back to us on how many of the damaged files correspond to these projects”, said the ACB’s ACP Vilas Tupe, who visited the damaged office this morning.
Corruption complaints about SRA projects alleging collusion between officials and builders have been ballooning since September when the ACB raided city builders and the SRA office. As the HT reported in a February series, ‘The Great Slum Robbery’ Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh who is also Chairman SRA turned down his own investigators request for a Special Investigative team.
The High Court, through March, asked the state to investigate the matter but this investigation too has been under siege, and now come to a virtual standstill. Top SRA, BMC and Mantralaya officials spooked by the prospects of a probe, visited Deshmukh to complain about being investigated by “junior police officers”.
Senior SRA officials, including Chakrabarti, have also ignored ACB summons in late April to appear for questioning with specific project documents.
WHAT ONE FILE REVEALED:
A typical SRA file contains a redevelopment proposal by a builder, the controversial Annexure ‘2’ or list of slum dwellers eligible to be rehoused, and building plans for the rehabilitation component and the builder’s free-sale component meant to be sanctionned by SRA officials.
A senior ACB official carrying out the probe said, “Project plans may be recreated with the help of landowning authorities like the Collectorate but if the files are burnt or damaged by water, it will be difficult to chart their course in the SRA and carry out a fair investigation.”
Despite close to 300 complaints, the Anti-Corruption Bureau has in its possession, so far, just four SRA files.
The progress of one of these, relating to a slum redevelopment project in Oshiwara, when juxtaposed with a diary seized from a former BMC official during a raid threw up prima facie evidence of graft of nearly Rs 1 crore to various officials. The ACB’s request in November to file a formal case in the matter is still pending with the state government.
“INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION INTO FIRE”
"Even before any investigation could begin on the SRA complaints, a fire destroying all files in the SRA office does not seem like an accident but a preplanned and premeditated act of sabotage. An immediate investigation needs to be undertaken on who, how and why SRA office was set ablaze. Who would be benefiting from this blaze also needs to be ascertained. Culprits need to be caught and brought to book. This investigation should be completed within a week.”
- Leena Prabhoo, Vice Chairperson,
Forum for Improving Quality Life in Mumbai Suburbs, which has filed the PIL in the Bombay High Court SRA had been delaying in providing us with information demanded by us under RTI Act since November 2006. Prima facie, in the given circumstances, the breaking of fire is a clear case of destroying evidence and thus a high level, independent investigation be immediately ordered through a sitting High Court judge and criminal action be taken against those held responsible. Also the case files and documents of the cases, which were under investigation, should be immediately reconstructed.
- National Alliance for Peoples Movements, which has alleged corruption in a SRA case in Tardeo’s MP Mill compound.