The Maharashtra chief minister is under pressure to drop his housing minister.
Nearly three years after he was elected, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’s administration is facing severe allegations of corruption that could singe him. The opposition in Maharashtra has sensed this and the Congress-NCP combine has finally drawn blood. So severe has been the onslaught against the BJP-led government that Fadnavis had no option but to suspend his favourite bureaucrat Radheshyam Mopalwar, managing director of the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC). Mopalwar is leading the chief minister’s favourite infrastructure project, the Mumbai-Nagpur expressway.
Another, more serious potential scandal is lurking. In an unprecedented move in the country’s legislative history, the government abandoned the legislature proceedings after the Congress-NCP refused to relent and asked hard questions on the behaviour of housing minister Prakash Mehta. In other circumstances this would be termed a walkout. Only, this time it was by the treasury benches.
Although, Fadnavis’s personal reputation seems intact, his image has nevertheless taken a beating by the fact that he has been played for a fool, not once but twice by people supposed to be close to him.
Mehta has been caught making an incorrect statement – lying – and his name has cropped up in not one but two potential land-related scams of gigantic proportions. In the first, he facilitated windfall gains of Rs 500-800 crore to a private builder in a slum redevelopment project in the MP Mills compound in Tardeo in South Mumbai by allotting extra floor space index (FSI) despite warnings by bureaucrats and other authorities.
But his alleged misdeeds were not limited to just over-ruling the bureaucrats – Mehta made notings in the file saying he had apprised the chief minister of the action and had received the latter’s consent. When Fadnavis denied he had ever been told about the extra FSI, Mehta backtracked but the opposition was quick to sense the breach and went for the government’s jugular. Mehta claimed he had taken several files to Fadnavis but did not realise he had not carried the one referring to this particular case. In any other situation a chief minister showed up in this way would have been livid, but Fadnavis says he has accepted Mehta’s excuse.
However, Tardeo by no means is the only land deal where Mehta seems to have had an undue interest. Barely had the chief minister ordered an investigation into the SRA scam on July 31 than Mehta found himself embroiled in another scam favouring another private builder, Nirmal Holdings Private Ltd (NHPL), in Ghatkopar in North East Mumbai. NHPL had been allotted 18,902 square metres of land belonging to the Maharashtra Housing Area Development Authority (MHADA) in 1999 to build a transit camp with some 330-odd units, but when they failed to do so, MHADA cancelled the allotment in 2006. Mehta intervened with MHADA over the re-allotment, which was finally revoked in 2012. But now the Congress and NCP, waving a sheaf of papers, have alleged he re-allocated the plot to NHPL again.
In Mopalwar’s case, the opposition produced audio recordings of him allegedly discussing a payment of Rs 4 crore to clear a plot of land in Mumbai. The clip is apparently from 2009, allowing the chief minister to point out that it happened during the Congress-NCP rule. But the bureaucrat’s misdemeanours do not end there.
He had been put in charge of making Fadnavis’s dream project, the Samruddhi Expressway from Nagpur to Mumbai, come true. The expressway has run into fierce resistance from farmers in the Nashik stretch, and Mopalwar had been visiting the Igatpuri and Sinnar talukas in the district frequently to iron out the problems. During one of his visits, he told some local newspapers that Samruddhi was not getting off the ground because the chief minister was sitting on a file he had sent across for the formation of a special purpose vehicle (SPV) to build the expressway. But apparently, the first Fadnavis heard of this SPV was when he visited Nashik on July 30 along with Union railways minister Suresh Prabhu to start operations for a cold storage plant in Lasalgaon being promoted by Indian Railways.
When Fadnavis was asked by a local journalist why he was sitting on the SPV file he was nonplussed. The accompanying chief secretary, Sumeet Mallick, reportedly said, “What SPV? MSRDC itself is a SPV. Why does Mopalwar want a SPV for Samruddhi?”
Even as Mopalwar has been divested of his charge pending investigation amid allegations that he has amassed wealth in crores, which he has denied, NCP chief spokesperson Nawab Malik told this correspondent, “Why blame Mehta and Mopalwar alone? The chief minister is responsible for this mess. If he had taken sterner action against all his corrupt ministers (on last count there were 17 in his cabinet with various charges, including that of murder, banking frauds and land grab), these guys would not have dared to indulge in such corruption. We demand a judicial inquiry into the entire Samruddhi project – it will reveal how many people close to the government knew the project was coming bought land cheap from farmers and are now making a killing”.
The last time that a Fadnavis government minister was scalped was when revenue minister Eknath Khadse had to quit when his name came up in the sale of land belonging to a government agency. The charges have not yet been proved but Khadse is still not back in the cabinet. Fadnavis, however, has been unwilling to acknowledge that there are many corrupt persons in his cabinet and has been setting up token enquiries that have given these ministers a clean chit, for instance the chikki scam involving Pankaja Munde and a case soon after demonetisation when co-operation minister Subhash Deshmukh was caught with Rs 91 lakh in unaccounted cash in his car.
“This kind of selective corruption and clean chits is even more dangerous,” says Congress leader Sanjay Nirupam, who has tagged Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a tweet asking him to sack Mehta as Fadnavis is “helpless” to do so.
Nirupam may not be wrong about the last bit, for both Fadnavis and the Maharashtra government knew about Mopalwar in January this year and yet failed to take action despite the fact that the PMO, the Union home ministry, the Income Tax department and the CBI had asked them to investigate, and were themselves investigating Mopalwar. No action was taken despite the PMO forwarding a complaint against Mopalwar to the General Administration Department, headed by the chief minister, through the centralised public grievance redressal and monitoring system.
Malik alleges there is much corruption in the government because there is no political will to stop it and Fadnavis wants to brush everything under the carpet. Action would not have been taken by the chief minister even now had it not been for the audio tape of Mopalwar that went viral, he claims.
Adds Nirupam wryly, “Hamara bhrashtachar bhrashtachar aur inka bhrashtachar shishtachar.” (Our corruption is corruption, but their corruption is good behaviour).
Sujata Anandan is a journalist and author of Hindu Hriday Samrat: How the Shiv Sena Changed Mumbai Forever.