Three weeks after Thane builder Suraj Parmar shot himself leaving behind a suicide note alleging harassment by politicians and officials, it has emerged that those suspected to be demanding payoffs from him allegedly continued pressurising him even after he had set right irregularities in his building projects.
The Indian Express had reported earlier that Thane, Mumbai’s largest satellite town, is home to an alleged cartel of elected municipal corporators and officials known among builders and officials as the ‘Golden Gang’ that uses official forums including the Standing Committee and the General Body Meetings of Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) to stall real estate projects by raising allegations of irregularities and then demanding bribes.
Thane Police are investigating records including minutes of the Standing Committee and General Body Meetings and official correspondence written by at least four corporators regarding Parmar’s projects. The four, belonging to various political parties, have argued that they were well within their rights to raise issues of irregularities in building projects in TMC’s official forums.
The four corporators—Najib Mulla, Hanumant Jagdale (both NCP), Vikrant Chavan (Congress) and Sudhakar Chavan (Independent)—are under investigation after forensic tests concluded that Parmar’s suicide note had named them, though the names were scribbled out.
Official records accessed by The Indian Express show a coterie of corporators exerted pressure on the civic administration in Thane even after Parmar had complied with conditions for regularising deficiencies including payment of penalties.
Investigators are now probing whether the correspondence by the corporators can be linked to demands for payoffs made to Parmar and his firms. Investigators are in particular checking correspondence by these corporators regarding two projects, Cosmos Horizon and Cosmos Pearl. Parmar had specially referred to these in a five-page letter to municipal commissioner Sanjeev Jaiswal on May 30, 2015.
The letter, accessed by The Indian Express, states, “Some so called social workers are unnecessarily harassing me and have targetted me alleging and complaining against the development carried out in each and every one of my projects. These people are forcing municipal authorities to declare the legal development carried out by me as illegal forcing them to cancel the permissions issued or slap ‘stop work’ notices on these. They have explored all means to defame my reputation. Due to pressure from the said persons, civic authorities are now afraid to grant any permission to our projects.”
On May 24, 2010, the then Thane civic chief Nandkumar Jantre first permitted an FSI of 2.5, meaning permissible construction of up to 2.5 times the plot area, for Cosmos Horizon, a luxury residential complex on Pokhran Road.
While residential development on private plots in Thane are generally allowed an FSI of 1, the higher FSI was sanctioned under a special state government scheme in which builders would construct low-cost housing for the Maharashtra Housing And Area Development Authority (MHADA) on 30 per cent of the allotted built-up space.
In the case of Cosmos Horizon, this ran into legal trouble after the state scrapped the scheme on May 11, 2011, prompting MHADA to revoke the letter of intent issued to Parmar’s firm. Parmar challenged it in Bombay High Court, which ruled in his favour on October 19, 2011. But the TMC appealed against the order in Supreme Court, where the matter is currently pending.
Records reveal that a commencement certificate (CC) was issued on August 21, 2010 for Cosmos Horizon, when RA Rajeev was municipal commissioner. The CC, however, restricted the FSI to 1, citing pendency of the case in SC.
Congress corporator Vikrant Chavan, in a series of letters, including two written to the Assistant Director (Town Planning) and the Town Planning Officer on March 12, 2014 and February 3, 2014, levelled allegations of graft against civic officials for “irregular grant of FSI” and seeking a “stop work” notice on construction activity.
Chavan’s lawyer YS Dudaskar also made a representation on February 23, 2014 to the Thane civic chief with the same allegations, and also to the state housing and environment department secretaries. Police confirmed that Sudhakar Chavan, too, had demanded action against Parmar on this count after seeking official documents in December 2012. Further, penalties were levied as per norms to legalise additional construction (beyond the stipulations in the CC) and flats sold by Parmar without occupation certificate in 2012 and 2014.
Vikrant Chavan and other corporators continued to accuse officials of “working in the developer’s interest”. There was uproar regarding the matter during general body meetings held between February and May, 2015 on the issue.
Incidentally, Shiv Sena’s Ashok Vaity had raised a calling attention motion to initiate a discussion on the matter.
On February 6, 2014, the then Thane civic chief Aseem Gupta permitted relaxation of norms for issuance of “part occupation certificate” for three buildings in the complex pending the SC decision. A month later, Gupta also ruled that as a “special case” the builder would be permitted to commence work on an undivided part of the plot for expansion of an existing hospital.
Town planning officials confirmed both concessions were granted after confirming that the total construction won’t exceed the FSI 1 limit. Correspondences issued by Vikrant Chavan dated March 12, 2014 and February 23, 2014, however, argued that the construction permitted was beyond the stipulated limit.
After an official site inspection revealed that the builder had constructed a podium for a portion where the CC was yet to be granted, the TMC collected fines as per legal provisions. Also, on October 6, 2015, the municipality, acting on the directives of Minister of State (Urban Development) Ranjit Patil, waived off road digging charges for a water connection to the complex.
In his suicide note, the 46-year-old builder, who killed himself on October 7, said, “I failed sir. Now I understand. I should have bribed the politicians for completion of the projects on time. I stood firm when politicians were harassing me for bribes.”
Investigators are now focussing on whether the official correspondence regarding irregularities in Parmar’s projects and the continued pressure exerted by the corporators even after official penalties were imposed, could be linked to the bribe demands that Parmar refers to in his suicide note.
Investigators are also scanning data on Parmar’s laptop, office computers and mobile phones to ascertain the role of politicians and officials in the case. A senior police official said that the “key piece of evidence” in the case were minutes of the Standing Committee and general body meetings, along with official correspondences by the corporators. Thane police had earlier seized these records from the municipality.
In the case of Cosmos Pearl on Ghodbunder Road, the TMC withheld a part occupation certificate and served a stop work notice after it was found that the builder was yet to surrender portions reserved for a school and tenements for land declared excess under the erstwhile Urban Land Ceiling Act.
The notice was withdrawn on September 22, 2015, after the builder handed over the school plot and undertook in writing that the ULC tenements would be surrendered before full OC was issued. NCP’s Najib Mulla, who first raised the issue on December 11, 2014, continued to demand stalling of construction work on this and 20 other counts.
Meanwhile, Parmar’s architect Suvarna Ghosh told The Indian Express that the construction work for both projects had been carried out as per sanctioned plans. “He (Parmar) would discuss that he was being harassed immensely,” she added.