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Exclusive: Bandra plot allotment for National Herald was full of violations, says Maharashtra govt report

Author: Shalini Singh
Publication: Firstpost.com
Date: December 23, 2015
URL: http://m.firstpost.com/india/exclusive-bandra-plot-allotment-for-national-herald-riddled-with-violations-says-maha-govt-report-2555870.html

A recent report on the allotment of a prime Bandra property to the Associated Journals Limited (publishers of the now defunct National Herald) in 1983 has said rules that required the property to be sold in open auction were violated. Listing at least eight violations, the contents of the report suggest a consistent abuse of discretionary powers in the allotment of the plot.

The assessment report has been prepared by the Maharashtra Chief Minister's Office after it came to light that this land, measuring 3,478 sq metres, was part of the assets of AJL that have been transferred to Young Indian, the section 25 company owned largely by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi (38 percent each). Subramanian Swamy, has taken the Gandhi's to court on charges of cheating and breach of trust to grab the assets of AJL, across Lucknow, New Delhi, Mumbai, Indore, Bhopal and Panchkula, valued in hundreds of crores.

Sonia and Rahul had to make a court appearance in New Delhi on Saturday, 19 December, to seek bail in this case.

The report with the CMO quotes Rule 31 of Disposal of Government Lands Rules, 1971, which outlines the procedure for grant of land for industrial and commercial purposes, to suggest that the allotment was in complete violation.

Here is the relevant extract of the Rules which the report quotes: "Except as otherwise provided in these rules, building sites situated outside the purview of Municipal Corporations or Metropolitan Regions shall be granted by the Collector for Industrial and Commercial purposes under section 20 read with section 31, by public auction or by inviting public tenders, to the highest bidder, after getting the upset price of the land in question determined by the competent officer of the Town Planning and Valuation Department, unless for reasons to be recorded in writing, the Collector thinks that in any particular case there are good reasons for granting the land without auction, in which case, we shall refer the matter to the State Government and the land shall then be disposed of in such manner as the State Government may direct."

"In this instant case,” says the report that dug into the allotment history, "any good reasons mentioned by collector are not observed.” This is officialese to say that the collector did not cite any good reasons for preferring allotment over open auction.

That's not all. The report, titled "M/s Associates Journals Private Ltd. Prima Facie irregularities observed in grant of land”, which the writer has perused, lists as many as eight broad instances where the allotment falls foul of other rules governing land allotment. Here's a listing of the eight irregularities:

1. Residential plot allotted for commercial purpose: This particular plot was reserved for Backward Class students hostel, public office, sewage pumping station and a 60 feet road and this plot was allotted to Social Welfare Department on 29 September 1964. However, since the plot was unutilized till 1983, the government withdrew it from the Social Welfare Department and allotted to M/s Associated Journals Ltd. for publication of daily newspapers and for establishing a Nehru Library–Cum–Research Institute on 4 August 1983. "The instant plot at the time of allotment was shown in residential reservation in the Development Plan. Ignoring this fact, the plot was allotted for commercial purpose,” notes the report.

2. Interest dues of Rs 2.7 crore waived: The Revenue Department's memorandum of 30 June 2001, (under a Congress dispensation) gave AJL several relaxations as "a special case”. For one, the lease plot was converted into occupancy, which is against the Government Resolution of 5 May 1999, which provides for procedure and assessment for conversion of lease lands into occupancy. Ignoring this, the assessment for AJL was made on the land rates of year 1983 i.e. the allotment year. During conversion from lease to occupancy, the outstanding interest due since 1983 amounting to Rs 2,78,56,940 was also waived.

3. 100 percent commercial use allowed: A restriction imposed through a Government Memorandum of 22 November 1989, allowing only 15 percent of the land to be used for "other commercial purposes than the purpose for which it was originally allotted as per prevailing policy” was waived and "any commercial use was granted on the whole plot”.

4. Concession in unearned income: As per policy of the revenue department, there is provision for transfer of government land by paying 50 percent of unearned income of prevalent market rate. However for AJL, unearned income payment for transfer of land was allowed at the rate of only 10 percent.

5. No attempt to resume land: While possession of the Bandra plot to AJL was given on 13 September 1983, the land was unutilized till 2014. The government never tried to resume (repossess) the plot and additionally went on to favour AJL with extensions for construction five times. "It would have been proper on the part of the Government to resume the plot and reallot on bonafide grounds if any,” the note says.

6. Land transfer restrictions relaxed: Rule 29 of Maharashtra Land Revenue Code 1966 provides the nature of the Grant of Land like Occupants-Class 1, 2 and Government lessees and various restrictions. Subsection 3 of Rule 29 reads, "Occupants-Class 2 shall consist of persons who, (a) hold unalienated land in perpetuity subject to restrictions on the right to transfer”. Yet, for AJL, the restrictions on the transfer of the plot were relaxed, which is "void in law”.

7. Land revenue not paid: AJL was allotted three adjoining plots phase wise. However records show possession receipt of just one plot. In addition, till 2001 "the plot was occupied as Government lessees without executing lease deed which was mandatory. Even after conversion of plot into occupancy in the year 2001, till date and in prescribed format is not issued. Once plot on occupancy is granted, as per rule non-agricultural (NA) assessment is applicable. In this case from the record it is seen that till date non-agricultural assessment is not paid. Since non-agricultural assessment is a form of land revenue, it's non payment leads to breach of condition”.

8. Free hold instead of lessee: The report also notes that instead of showing the allotment under 'government lessee', the allottee's name is shown in the 'Holder' and quotes: "It is also observed that in the past this plot was also recorded as 'Free Hold' for unknown reasons.”

The report also takes cognizance of the discretionary powers given to the government but says the allotment of land to National Herald does not conform to the rules for exercising discretion either. Quoting Section 40 of the Maharashtra Land Revenue Code 1966 on 'Saving of Powers of Government' the report states: "Nothing contained in any provision of this Code shall derogate from the right of the State Government to dispose of any land, the property of Government, on such terms and conditions as it deems fit.” Stating that these "discretionary powers are to be used in exceptional circumstances” the report notes that no such exceptional circumstances were recorded.

On the contrary, the allotment record reveals consistent abuse of discretionary powers.

Political vendetta card untenable

Subramanian Swamy was the president of the Janata Party, which was merged with the Bhartiya Janata Party on 11 August 2013. It was on 1 November 2012, before joining the BJP that Swamy first filed his complaint against the Gandhis for fraud and land grabbing through the acquisition of AJL. The various hearings of the case and its logical progression in the courts have been entirely a matter of judicial process. In any event, neither the Enforcement Directorate, nor the CBI, nor the courts can proceed in any case without evidence. Given that the evidence that is tumbling out is so incriminating, and given the UPA governments strong history of scams, including 2G and Coalgate, which all resulted in landmark court verdicts against the government in the UPA tenure itself, the vendetta charge increasingly appears a weak and fumbling attempt at self defense.

AJL once published the National Herald, a newspaper founded by Jawaharlal Nehru. When the newspaper folded up in 2008, a company called Young Indian, in which Sonia and Rahul hold more than three-fourths equity acquired all its assets and liabilities allegedly worth over Rs 5,000 crore for just Rs 50 lakh. Significantly, among the liabilities - predominantly an outstanding debt of Rs 90 crore - was written off.

Following the Rs 1.76 lakh crore 2G scam and the Rs 1.86 lakh crore Coalgate scam model, in this case too, the documentary evidence at hand shows how the Maharashtra government in 1983, used discretionary powers to bypass public auctions to allot a prime 3,478 sq metres plot in Bandra along the Western Bypass Highway to AJL, for "no good reason”. In most locations, particularly Mumbai (allotted in 1983), Panchkula (allotted in 1982) and Bhopal (allotted in 1986), real estate was secured from the respective state governments, ostensibly for the purpose of running a newspaper, but no attempt was ever made to construct until recently and only after Young Indian took over AJL, turning this into a pure land grabbing exercise.
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