MumbaiTwo of Maharashtra’s senior politicians, incumbent industries minister Subhash Desai and his predecessor Narayan Rane, used rampant discretionary powers, overriding opinion of their department and the Maharashtra Industries Development Corporation (MIDC), to denotify thousands of acres of land meant for industry in the state. Former chief minister Rane was recently elected to Rajya Sabha on a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket.This was revealed in an inquiry report by former bureaucrat KP Bakshi – tasked to examine denotification of industries land from 2002 to 2017 following allegations of graft against Desai – although it stopped short of indicting the two politicians.The report was submitted to the state government on March 21 and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis on Wednesday, in the Assembly, gave a clean chit to Desai on the basis of the report. However, the chief minister missed mentioning the other details that have come out in the probe report.The report states that in the past 15 years, from 2002 to 2017, in 160 denotification cases, around 32,000 hectares of land – roughly the size of 118 Bandra-Kurla Complexes – meant for industry was denotified.Denotification of industrial land is controversial as land earmarked for industry, often close of cities and in prime developing areas, gets opened up for development. In many cases, land instead of going back to its original use – largely agriculture – is grabbed by private developers.While the 15-year timespan included stints of various industries ministers, including Congress’ Patangrao Kadam, Rajendra Darda and Ashok Chavan, the report shows that maximum cases of denotification using discretionary powers were during the tenures of Rane and Desai.“There are 55 to 60 cases of denotification by Rane, followed by 40 to 45 by Desai. In majority of these cases, the ministers used their discretionary powers, overriding the opinion of their departments,” said a senior industries official, who accessed the report. “In the remaining instances, ministers did not use discretionary powers to go against opinion of the officials.”Desai has refuted the findings, pointing out that he had overruled the department’s opinion in only a few cases.“Out of 7,000 hectares of land that was denotified in my tenure, the decision of around 5,000 hectares of land was in process when I took over and I found the decision to denotify just,” said Desai. “In only a few cases, I have taken a decision overruling the department’s opinion and that too after considering farmers’ protests and pleas.”Till the time of going to press, Rane was not available for a comment as several calls to him went unanswered and there were no responses to text messages sent to him. The single-man committee led by Bakshi was set up by Fadnavis after allegations of graft against Desai, a senior Shiv Sena leader, for denotifying industrial land in Igatpuri taluka to favour some private developers.Following an uproar in the state Assembly, Fadnavis set up an inquiry in August 2017, but expanded its scope to include industries ministers from 2002.“No, the report does not indict the ministers because they are entrusted with such powers by law. Also, my committee was not asked to unearth a scam, so it does not go into what happened behind the scenes pre and post such denotification,” said Bakshi. “However, my observation is that ministerial discretion in 5% to 10% of cases is okay. Using such powers rampantly may not be appropriate.” The former bureaucrat also blamed the administration, saying in majority of the cases, the officials in the industries department had failed to cite correct rules, which could have deterred the ministers from taking unilateral decisions.The committee was asked to examine if there were similar cases of industrial land denotifications as done by Desai in the Igatpuri (Nashik) case, whether this had been done by following government rules and whether there was any conflict of interest while making the decisions.The report gave a clean chit to ministers over the conflict of interest charge, but pointed out that not all 160 cases of denotifications have happened by following all rules and regulations.The report also observed that in many cases, the industries minister, who functions in two capacities as chairman of MIDC and as a minister, forwarded the denotification petitions selectively to either the MIDC CEO or the industries department secretary. The report observed that this raises suspicion on whether the decision was based on connivance between certain officials and ministers.“The government should decide guidelines to decide which proposal, depending on size of plot, can be forwarded to a secretary and which ones to the MIDC CEO, to avoid such suspicions and a possible nexus,” said Bakshi. Desai said that in 2016, he flagged the issue that denotification of industrial land requires policy framework and cannot depend on discretion of minister or officials.“My decision to denotify has been based on prevailing ground circumstances, largely pleas from farmers, where the land was often not acquired and they continued to till it. Or there were instances where no progress had been done for years on such notified land,’’ said Desai.The report notes that Rane, in his defense before the committee, had said decisions were taken based on “prevailing circumstances and as per his wisdom”. He had pointed out instances of denotification where villagers had been opposed to such acquisition by industries department and even concerned collector had said acquisition costs would be high. Rane was the industries minister in CongressNCP governments from February 2009 to November 2009 and from November 2010 to October 2014. Desai took charge of the industries department in December 2014.