Three weeks after Maharashtra Revenue Minister Eknath Khadse was forced to quit in the face of allegations of conflict of interest in a land deal in Pune, there are allegations of similar impropriety against Minister of State for Housing, Ravindra Waikar.
Two weeks after the Shiv Sena joined the BJP government, the minister, who is the Sena MLA from Jogeshwari East in Mumbai, lobbied with Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to lift a ban on construction activity in the vicinity of the Jogeshwari caves, a protected national monument in his constituency.
According to an official note accessed by The Sunday Express, Waikar, while making the case for lifting of the ban, referred to a specific building project. What he did not reveal at the meeting, held on December 12, 2014, was that a key stakeholder in the project was at one time his business partner.
Seven months later, on July 24, 2015, Waikar, as minister, convened a meeting at his official bungalow at which the building project was discussed again, official records show. The records also show that Waikar had lobbied for lifting the ban on the project even as an opposition legislator, and that work on it resumed after he won office.
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“Permissions for the project were given at lightning speed after the minister took over. We have information that the minister was pressuring authorities under him for issuing permissions. The matter must be investigated,” said Mumbai Congress president Sanjay Nirupam.
Waikar’s office has claimed that he sought the lifting of the construction ban for the benefit of local residents. Officials involved in issuing permissions to the project denied being pressured by the minister.
The contentious building project is a 71,600-sq-foot slum redevelopment project undertaken by Aishwarya Avant Builders LLP. According to records submitted by the company to the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), 33.37 per cent stake in the firm was held by Harmeet Singh Gupta, while his brother Gurmeet Singh had 16.67 per cent. The rest of the ownership lay with Avant Infra Private Limited and Avant Ventures LLP.
Harmeet was Waikar’s business partner in another realty firm — Aishwarya Light Construction Company — which has a couple of ongoing construction projects in the minister’s constituency. In a statement issued on his behalf by his office, the minister, who is abroad on a family vacation, admitted to his business ties with Harmeet. But, the statement added, “I retired as a firm partner in 2011, and have had nothing to do with the firm since.”
In his 2014 assembly election affidavit, Waikar had claimed that he had loaned Rs 1.45 crore to Aishwarya Light. Defending this, the minister’s statement said, “I’d pending dues totalling Rs 1.45 crore, in Aishwarya Light, which were subsequently paid off in 2015.”
Harmeet, when contacted, claimed that the firm initially had three partners including Waikar, each of whom held equal stakes. “After he (Waikar) retired, the two of us (Harmeet and one Aasu Nihalini) have continued to exist in partnership,” he said.
A questionnaire sent to the minister on allegations of conflict of interest through his office received no reply for over 24 hours.
According to official records, the project was started in 2006 by another slum redeveloper, Raj Developers, which had obtained building permissions from the SRA. But just as some of the slum-dwellers were being moved to transit tenements ahead of the beginning of construction, the Bombay High Court, on April 26, 2006, banned construction activity up to 100 m around the national monument, saying the very existence of the caves was under threat.
Records show that about 40 per cent of the plot area considered for the slum redevelopment project falls within the 100 m prohibited zone. The rest is in the regulated zone, where the High Court has restricted the extent of construction, and made a no-objection certificate from the National Monuments Authority (NMA) mandatory.
Acting on the court’s directives, the state government denotified nine slum lands in the prohibited area, and issued stop-work notices to all ongoing constructions in the regulated area in the absence of the NMA NOC.
In 2009, the ‘prohibited area’ was marked as a ‘No development zone’ in Mumbai’s development plan. For preservation of the monument, the zone was reserved as a ‘public garden’, which would disallow any construction activity. At his meeting with the CM, and at his official residence, Waikar allegedly pushed for the lifting of this reservation.
Things started to move in February 2015, after Waikar became minister. The SRA, which functions directly under the housing department, of which Waikar held charge, sanctioned the project’s revised building plans on February 14, 2015, permitting a 20-storey highrise.
Earlier, on November 17, 2013, the original redeveloper, Raj Developers, parted with the development rights for the project after executing a development agreement with Aishwarya Avant Builders LLP, in lieu of consideration in cash and kind. Aishwarya Avant was subsequently appointed by the slum dwellers’ collective as their new developer on January 18, 2014. The SRA issued the commencement certificate on April 17, 2015.
Incidentally, a revised letter of intent (LoI) recognising the new builder’s right to take up the slum redevelopment project was approved by the SRA’s then Chief Executive Officer, Nirmalkumar Deshmukh, on October 20, 2014 — the day after the assembly poll results were declared.
A group of slumdwellers has now raised questions on the manner in which the approvals were processed. They have alleged that construction was being taken up even in the prohibited area. “We fear it might eventually stall the project again, impacting all of us,” said Devidas Nar, one of the affected individuals.
The Congress’s Nirupam has also raised questions on the manner in which the NOC was procured from the NMA. “Under pressure from the minister, the SRA has recognised an NOC that was obtained on June 25, 2013 by the previous developer, even as the NOC document itself states that it is not transferable,” Nirupam alleged.
Harmeet Singh, however, claimed, “The same NOC could be used since they had entered into the development agreement with the previous developer. The NOC was for the project, and not the title-holding.”
Harmeet said both he and his brother Gurmeet had exited Aishwarya Avant on February 9, 2015. Records show that two new partners, one Harsh Rajnikant Shah and one Ritesh Naita, were incorporated in the company the same day.
Gurmeet denied allegations that construction was ongoing inside the prohibited area. “This is absolutely baseless. No construction has taken place in the portion inside the prohibited area,” he said. “We are being dragged into the controversy unnecessarily.”
On Waikar’s involvement in the construction projects the company undertakes, Harmeet said, “He (Waikar) retired from the firm in 2011 and has nothing to do with it now. We do approach him to resolve genuine grievances faced by project beneficiaries, but that is only as a local elected representative.”
Officials said guidelines issued by the Bombay High Court were often not followed. “Some projects have managed to get permissions to construct up to 70 metres inside the regulated area, while some of the first ones to be impacted continue to be stalled,” a senior official said. Meanwhile, the caves themselves continue to be in a state of disrepair and damage.