Panaji (Goa): Pramod Sawant credits his stint as a government Ayurveda medic in rural Goa for his political awakening. He would have not become chief minister, had he obtained an MBBS or engineering degree, he told an Ayurveda association meet some weeks ago.
Fact is, had the Goa chief minister not chanced upon a full-time career in politics (he was first elected MLA in 2012), it’s unlikely he could have acquired the slew of properties that have brought him into the spotlight in recent weeks. Not on a government salary anyway.
His land-buying spree in Dodamarg, Maharashtra, dug up by the BJP’s new political opponent, the Shiv Sena, compelled the Goa CM to defend his real estate interests across the state’s border. The properties had been acquired for his “personal use”, he told the media, adding later in a tweet that he intended to use the land for “agricultural and medical purpose”.
Dodamarg is close to where Goa plans to set up its new greenfield airport at Mopa. Sawant probably has his eye on the future development of the area, his political opponents say. But the issue snowballed into a major controversy when the Shiv Sena’s Dodamarg leader Baburao Dhuri alleged that the Goa chief minister was behind a move to merge the Maharashtra region with Goa, only to drive up real estate value there. “The Shiv Sena opposes the demand for merger of Dodamarg with Goa. This is a political ploy by Sawant because he whas invested in real estate here,” Dhuri said.
Sawant stoutly denied he had a hand in the merger demand – which has wide support among residents of the backward region – but other opposition parties too latched on to the disclosures, insisting the 46-year-old BJP leader “come clean” on his land deals. Even as the Maharashtra assembly results were coming out on October 24, Sawant and his wife travelled to Sawantwadi to register two more sale deeds for land in Dodamarg, Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera pointed this out. “If it’s all in the clear, why doesn’t he come out in the open with all the details?” Khera told The Wire.
A large part of the controversy over the extent of his real estate investments in Maharashtra was caused by Sawant’s own declaration in the affidavit filed before the 2017 election. It shows he bought 2,966 acres of land in Mauje, Thalekol, Dodamarg, Maharashtra in July 2016 for Rs 38 lakh. The CM told The Wire the figure was wrong, and it was actually 2.966 acres (approximately 12,000 sq metres). He also threatened legal action against opposition parties for “propagating lies”.
What’s significant though is that these personal deals have been transacted at a time when the state is beset by a series of serious economic issues that Sawant’s government has not even acknowledged.
According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, Goa’s unemployment had scaled to 34.5% in November, the highest in the country, against the all-India rate of 7.5%. Goa hasn’t set up any new industry or fast-tracked clearances for new ventures. Under Sawant, the government has no revival plan for mining, nor has it spelt out measures to address the slowdown in the tourism sector. In October, the Centre approved Karnataka’s diversion of water from the Mhadei River – a bone of contention between the two states for years – without even consulting its CM in Goa, leaving the BJP’s state leadership red-faced.
Complaint filed with the ACB
Sawant’s appetite for real estate has been no secret. In early 2017, RTI activist Sudip Tamhankar filed a complaint with the anti-corruption bureau (ACB) of the Goa police asking for an investigation into the BJP legislator’s disproportionate assets. In his affidavit before the 2012 election, Sawant had declared assets worth Rs 62 lakh, liabilities of Rs 44.4 lakh and tax returns for Rs 4.5 lakh. Yet barely two years later, Jay Ganesh Developers and Associates, a real estate company the Goa CM set up in 2014 with three other partners, began to acquire huge tracts of land in Bicholim, North Goa. Over 2014-2015, Jay Ganesh bought 36,500 sq metres for Rs 2.55 crore (The Wire has copies of the sale deeds which show Sawant as partner No 1 in the company). The land has since been developed, subdivided and is being sold as small plots.
What stands out, however, is not the undervaluation of the sale on paper, which by the market value notified by the state government and declared in the sale deed itself should have been Rs 5.7 crore, but that the land transactions coincided with the phase when Sawant sat as chairman of the lucrative Goa State Infrastructure Development Corporation (GSIDC).
The fact that an MLA with a limited source of income was involved in such high-value land deals implied a “laundering of money obtained from illegal gratification and kickbacks,” Tamhankar’s police complaint alleged.
The investigating officer noted that having gone through the sale deeds “the consideration of sale is seen to be at half the market value of the parcels of land purchased”. He also noted that “the sale deeds do not have any mention about the mode of payment of the amounts stated to be transacted”.
Like many other corruption complaints against politicians, especially those in power, this one too died a quick death, wound up in less than four months, by which time Pramod Sawant had become speaker of the Goa assembly.
The police said in its closure report that the complainant (Tamhankar) had failed to respond to several summons to provide more evidence. Tamhankar, a bus contractor, who was with the Shiv Sena for a short stint, told The Wire that rather than investigate the case even after he’d provided so much evidence, the police chose to harass the whistleblower.
Early last week, activist lawyer Aires Rodrigues accessed documents that reveal the Goa CM’s recent attempt to enlist himself as the owner of a property in Cotombi, Bicholim, North Goa, under the state’s Mundkar Act. Sawant filed an application before the mamlatdar of Bicholim on September 26 this year. The move, the lawyer said, “was a ploy to grab the property, and strangely three hearings (in the case) have swiftly taken place over the last three months”.
Under an antiquated system in Goa, a mundkar was a landless person who worked practically in bondage to look after a landlord’s properties and fields. The Act attempted to upend the system by giving mundkars some rights.
Sawant claims in his application that “in good faith” the owner of the land had permitted his parents to live and build a house on the property. According to the plans enclosed, the chief minister now proposes to build a new five-bedroom house on the land.
Devika Sequeira is a freelance journalist based in Goa.