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Man sets up land grab from army

A retired junior defence estates officer, once charged with corruption, coordinated the takeover of a south Mumbai army park that is now a 31-storey super-luxury building — cleared on the condition that it would be a six-storey structure housing war veterans and widows — in one of Asia’s costliest swathes of real estate. Samar Halarnkar, Shailesh Gaikwad and Ketaki Ghoge report.Graphic: Money matters

india Updated: Oct 26, 2010 14:11 IST

A retired junior defence estates officer once probed for corruption coordinated the takeover of a south Mumbai army park that is now a 31-storey super-luxury building on one of Asia’s costliest swathes of real estate — cleared on the fake condition it would be a six-storey structure housing war veterans and widows.

India’s defence ministry is now struggling with a request from its Western naval commander to investigate the repeated subversion of various laws that eventually allowed Ramchandra Sonelal Thakur to become general secretary of the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society within the bounds of the Colaba Military Station in south Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade, where flats sell for Rs 50,000 to Rs 80,000 per sq ft.

The flats, including the land, cost the society and its members Rs 26 crore. The market value is anywhere between Rs 500 to Rs 800 crore. The society got an occupation certificate last week.

“There is very big money, and very powerful people involved,” said a highly placed source in the defence ministry, refusing to be quoted given the sensitivity of the case. “Frankly, it is going to be very difficult to probe the complaint (made earlier this year by the admiral heading the Western Naval Command in Mumbai), but we are perusing it.” See Graphic

Once a lush 6,490 sq m of about 100 trees called the Khukri Eco Park (named after an Indian frigate sunk during the 1971 war), the owner’s list in Adarsh now includes a former naval chief, two former army chiefs — among a host of other senior officers — top Maharashtra bureaucrats, members of Parliament and Thakur, who retired this year from the defence estates department.

In 2003, thakur was being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation for the illegal transfer of defence land in Nagpur.

Investigations by the Hindustan Times — which has a list of beneficiaries; fake, past and present — reveal a pattern to this ownership: A collective manipulation of laws that led Thakur’s Adarsh deal to be cleared in stages since 2003 by Congress chief ministers, Sushilkumar Shinde and Vilasrao Deshmukh (both now Union ministers), the then army commander, Maharashtra and Goa Sub Area, Maj Gen T N Kaul, and a host of Maharashtra government bureaucrats, including Managing Director of the Rural Electrification Corporation (REC) and former Mumbai municipal commission Jairaj Phatak.

"I don't remember the case," said Deshmukh, union minister for heavy industry. Shinde could not be reached for comment. Defence Minister A K Antony said the government was “examining the matter seriously”.

Contacted in Nagpur, Adarsh society’s Thakur said “those who failed to get flats” were now complaining, including, he implied, Vice Admiral Sanjiv Bhasin, chief of the Western Naval Command.

“Khatte angoor kaun khaya (who’s eaten sour grapes)?” asked Thakur with a laugh. “He (Admiral Bhasin) should know why he has complained. We told so many people, sorry, you cannot be accommodated.”

"Do you expect me to respond to that statement?" said Admiral Bhasin. He said had been writing to "all authorities concerned for the past six-seven months" to get the clearances revoked. "No one is aware of who the members are. We wrote to the registrar of properties,” said Bhasin, who regards the towering building as a threat to security and naval air operations. “The registrar told us to approach the society. The society did not respond for a month and said the list was being finalised by the government of Maharashtra."

Bhasin said he then requested the Chief Secretary to withhold an occupation certificate until the names are made public. "We want to do a scrutiny of all officers, and if they are civilians, we will ask the police department to verify their antecedants. The MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority) may have been pressured to issue the certificate last week because of the influential people involved." Bhasin has again asked for a revocation of the occupancy certificate.

MMRDA denied any letter from Bhasin requesting a denial of an occupation certificate.

"We (MMRDA) issued the occupation certificate to the building on September 16, 2010, on the basis of structural plan and documents submitted...they had obtained all necessary permissions," said MMRDA spokesman Dilip Kawathkar, who said they did get a letter asking for a list of society members.

"We replied to the letter saying that the list could be obtained by the Collector, who was the appropriate authority for the same."

Chief Minister Ashok Chavan said the Adarsh affair was an "old issue". He then denied knowing any details: "Before ordering any probe, we will have to first look into ownership issue of the plot, whether it is a state government-owned plot or no (sic)."

Since 2004, when the building was first cleared, there has been a spate of additions and deletions to the list of Adarsh society members, often coinciding with their stints in power. The junior officers have been dropped.

Among the “Kargil Heroes” named on the original list of 71 members of the Adarsh Society — there are now nearly 100 flats — are Subedar Ramnarain Achelal Thakur and Major Rajiv Kumar Hitnarain Singh. They never owned flats in Adarsh and army sources told the Hindustan Times they had no record of these soldiers.

They were replaced with senior defence officers, an influential set of politicians, two MPs, an MLC (member of the legislative council) and bureaucrats. That included an IAS officer married to the then Mumbai district collector, who deleted 34 names from the first list questioning their “eligibility”.

With such manipulation and reach, clearances came thick and fast, said the defence ministry source. One of those whose son got a flat was REC MD Phatak.

"My son became a member of the society in 2003-04, when I was the secretary of school education and had no say in land allotment or town planning permissions,” said Phatak. “He met all the eligibility criteria. No sane person would have refused the membership."

But Phatak was municipal commissioner in 2007, when the society got additional floor space and clearance from the municipal corporation, allowing a 31-storey skyscraper in a coastal regulatory zone with restrictive building laws.

Phatak said the land development approvals came from the MMRDA, and the municipal corporation’s High Rise Committee evaluated the building “only because MMRDA does not have in house committee to clear skyscrapers”.(With Shailesh Gaikwad and Ketaki Ghoge)

See Graphic | Towering scandal

First Published: Oct 26, 2010 00:49 IST