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Netas and the love for land

Netas and the love for land

In Maharashtra, and arguably across the country, the state is increasingly identified with real estate. Former Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan tells a story of how passing any legislation to regulate land transactions is an onerous task. Once, Chavan attempted to change land rules with respect to multi-storey parking and higher floor space index (FSI) in Mumbai with the aim of ushering in greater transparency. There was total silence in the Cabinet meeting when the proposal was mooted. “Some of my Cabinet colleagues looked at me as if I was committing a sin,” recalls Chavan. The reaction wasn’t surprising: Every floor added to a Mumbai skyscraper guarantees several hundred crore to the builder and his political benefactor.

Like Chavan, the present Maharashtra chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis is an honourable man. As an Opposition leader, it was Fadnavis who highlighted many land scams in the state, including the infamous Adarsh society project. In government too, Fadnavis has earned a well-deserved reputation for personal integrity. But like his predecessor, Fadnavis, too, is slowly learning that individual honesty doesn’t guarantee systemic change. The resignation last week of the Maharashtra revenue minister, Eknath Khadse over land grab charges is evidence that even when governments change, certain bad habits don’t.

Declaring an all-out war on corruption, the prime minister promises, “Na khaoonga na khane doonga”. In an address to NRIs in Qatar, Modi says he is being targeted because he had “stopped the mithai (sweets) of the corrupt”. Few would doubt the prime minister’s intent: On the issue of financial corruption, Modi’s kurta jacket is unstained so far and he deserves credit for at least putting an element of fear in the hearts and minds of those who are prone to misuse their power. But how would Modi account for the prima facie corruption case against Khadse, a senior BJP leader who only just missed out on the big prize of chief ministership?

There are three takeaways from the Khadse episode. First, having an upright man at the top is no guarantee that the entire team he leads will be equally honest. A coalition government, as Manmohan Singh in Delhi and Chavan in Mumbai discovered, makes it even more difficult to act against allegations of corruption involving a cabinet colleague (which is why former Maharashtra PWD minister Chhagan Bhujbal was acted against and jailed only when the government changed). At least Modi and Fadnavis can act against a senior minister because they are secure in the knowledge that their actions will not bring down the government. But the very fact that even today the BJP is hesitant to publicly condemn Khadse for his deeds is a reflection of the limitations of political power: Given Khadse’s status as an assertive OBC leader, the BJP doesn’t want to be seen on the wrong side of caste calculations.

Second, corruption remains the ultimate political equaliser. The BJP can claim to be a “party with a difference”, in contrast to the Congress, only because the latter has spent more years in power. Absolute power corrupted the Congress and reduced a once formidable organisation to a fast disintegrating carcass. Which is why the Congress party today will itself gain limited traction by exposing the BJP’s corruption. However, what is increasingly apparent, is that in states where the BJP has been in power long enough to savour the “mithai”, its leaders are equally prone to manipulating the system for personal benefit. Recent examples in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and even in a post-Modi Gujarat suggest that corruption isn’t an exclusive Congress preserve.

Third, and crucially, land remains a primary source of capital accumulation for the political class across the country. There isn’t a state in India where the ruling elite have not sought to tweak land rules for profiteering. The most favoured route has been to dereserve or denotify agricultural land and free it up for commercial use. By a single stroke of the pen, hundreds of acres of prize land is made available to builders and industrialists: The rate of return runs into several multiples. This model is most lucrative in and around the big metros of the country: Be it Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, or even a Kolkata.

Pune is a classic example of how an entire city’s landscape has been transformed by a thriving politician-builder-bureaucrat-underworld nexus. Once a pensioner’s dream retirement home, it is now a concrete nightmare. A few years ago, the municipal authorities found as many as 66,000 illegal buildings in Pune’s Pimpri-Chinchwad suburb. When the collector attempted to demolish them, he was transferred out.

When the builders sought political protection, the government moved in to regularise the structures. RTI activists who raised their voice were silenced by gangsters, while investigative reports in the media were also quietly buried. While NCP leader Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar is seen as the city’s unquestioned political ‘supremo’, the Pune municipal corporation has witnessed ‘unholy’ alliances between almost every party in the state.

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Read | Yesterday’s illegal building is today legal, thanks to Fadnavis

It’s not just Pune. Last year, I travelled to the Mumbai suburb of Vasai-Virar for a function. Thirty years ago, this was an ideal picnic spot: The lush banana plantations and green cover offered respite from the city’s claustrophobic environment. In 1989-90, I was part of a team of reporters who exposed how agriculture land in the suburb was being dereserved and members of Dawood Ibrahim’s gang were being used to settle disputes. Our investigations almost brought down the then Pawar-led Congress government in the state. Now, nearly three decades on, the banana plantations are almost gone amidst rampant construction. What else has changed, I asked a local journalist. “Well, many of the netas we exposed are now actually builders or partners in private building companies!”

Post-script: One of the more serious allegations against Khadse is that phone records suggest he was in contact with Dawood. The allegations are still not substantiated but let me raise an inconvenient question: What if similar phone records showed that Dawood was in touch with Asaduddin Owaisi or an Azam Khan? How would the “anti-national” narrative play out then?

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