Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan vs Big daddies of Mumbai | mumbai | Hindustan Times
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Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan vs Big daddies of Mumbai

New Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan will have to tame or win over the Mumbai builders' lobby, believed to be more powerful than the sugar barons, to succeed in his job. Zeeshan Shaikh reports. Chavan's challenges

mumbai Updated: Nov 12, 2010 09:20 IST
Zeeshan Shaikh

Prithviraj Chavan will have to tame or win over the Mumbai builders' lobby, believed to be more powerful than the sugar barons, to succeed in his job.

If you want to run into Mumbai's top builders, the best place to hang around is outside the Maharashtra chief minister's office in the Mantralaya (state secretariat).

If you get tired of it, just stroll across to the state's urban development department on the fourth floor of the same building. You're just as likely to meet the star builders and their top executives there.

For, it is the latter department that frames rules and policies on construction activities. Its offices may be dark and dank, but this is clearly where the power lies. Here's an indication of its importance: every chief minister over the last decade has retained control of this department.

Prithviraj Chavan, the new chief minister of Maharashtra, will have to tame or win over this lobby if he wants to convert Mumbai into a world class metropolis.

Builder-politician nexus

"There is a strong nexus between the government and the builders' lobby. Policy decisions that favour builders have caused a loss of over Rs 5 0,000 crore to the state exchequer," said Leader of Opposition in Maharashtra Eknath Khadse. He didn't mention any time frame over which this loss occurred.

And this nexus allows builders to break laws with impunity, get regulations changed to suit their needs and silence whistleblowers and mavericks.

Chief ministers of other states prefer to retain the home portfolio and, with it, control of the police. But in Maharashtra, things work differently.

The charitable explanation is that control of the urban development ministry allows the chief minister to discharge his social obligation of providing improved and affordable housing and better infrastructure to citizens.

But there are also dark whispers of sweetheart deals with favoured realtors, of big money changing hands and of political favours dispensed.

And as the Adarsh cooperative housing scam showed, willingly or otherwise, several chief ministers, including Sushil Kumar Shinde and Ashok Chavan, took decisions that directly helped builders.

"Rapid urbanisation has created a new special interest group often referred to as the builders' lobby. The vast amount of money at stake in this industry makes it an ideal platform for builders and politicians to come together on it," said political analyst Surendra Jondhale.

Bigger than the sugar lobby

Some politicians estimate that this lobby's clout now matches or even exceeds that of the state's traditional power brokers, the sugar barons and the cooperative chieftains.

Jondhale estimates that at least half the state's elected representatives have some interest in or affiliation to some real estate or construction company. No other lobby can match this.

This close association and financial ties between builders and politicians has meant that legal loopholes have been exploited and rules modified to ensure smooth sailing for building projects.

"Politicians and bureaucrats, who are hand in glove with each builders, dole out undue benefits to the latter and have made housing unaffordable for the middle class in Mumbai," said Vinod Tawde, an opposition legislator.

The game of oneupmanship between various factions of the Congress has allowed this lobby to increase its clout and play kingmaker.

All parties involved

No party in the state can claim its hands are clean. In the early 1980s, then Congress chief minister AR Antulay had to resign for allegedly helping private builders with cement quota.

But this lobby really came into its own in the latter part of that decade when the then government cleared the dereservation of land in Vasai Virar, nearly 60 km from Mumbai.

Then CM Sharad Pawar was accused of favouring builders, but the corruption charges could not be proved.

Sena-BJP opened floodgates

A decade later, the Shiv Sena-BJP government took a decision that changed the dynamics of the game altogether. It decided to build eight lakh houses and distribute them free to slum dwellers.

Though couched in an altruistic cloak, the decision, in reality, opened up hundreds of acres of slum land for commercial exploitation.

Since realtors on their own could not clear slums, politicians joined the industry in droves – mostly through front men or front companies.

The loose ties had developed into a tight clinch.

And the builder-politician nexus was complete.

Their machinations cost Ashok Chavan, who otherwise enjoyed a clean image, his job. Many now question whether new chief minister Prithviraj Chavan can tame this lobby.

"Even Ashok Chavan had Rahul Gandhi's blessings and enjoyed good relations with the Gandhi family. Prithviraj Chavan will have to rely more on his poltical acumen and management skills rather then his relationship with the Gandhis if he wants to tackle the builder lobby effectively," Jondhale said.