In 2012, days before president Pratibha Patil was to inaugurate a new Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi, the opposition raised allegations about corruption in the construction. The day before the schedule, Patil turned down the government’s invitation. New Maharashtra Sadan was eventually inaugurated by President Pranab Mukherjee, nearly a year after its completion in June 2012.
The charges raised, meanwhile, have been taken up by the anti-corruption bureau and a public accounts committee in the assembly. That controversy has erupted afresh, and fissures within the ruling Congress-NCP reopened, amid the outcry after a group of Shiv Sena MPs forced a chapati into the mouth of a fasting Muslim catering supervisor.
Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan of the Congress has said he will look into allegations that the building contractor had failed to deliver what was promised. “There are some issues relating to incomplete work. That certainly needs to be revisited to fix the problems,” says Chavan.
PWD Minister Chhagan Bhujbal of the NCP, on the other hand, has held resident commissioner Bipin Mallick responsible, alleging he did not allow the contractor in. Bhujbal has questioned Chavan’s competence to run the building. Chavan is being accused of shielding Mallick against charges of mismanagement. Maharashtra Sadan comes under the general administration department, a portfolio held by Chavan.
Bhujbal, for his part, is being accused of having granted alleged favours to the contractor, Avinash Chamankar. Under the 2007 contract, Chamankar built New Maharashtra Sadan, High Mount Guesthouse and a new Regional Transport Office, the latter two in Mumbai, all of these free. In return, the government awarded development rights on 4.5 lakh square feet at Andheri RTO in Mumbai, land whose market price the government then estimated at Rs 1,000 crore, and whose current value the PAC has estimated at Rs 2,500 crore.
According to BJP MP Kirit Somaiya, however, the land at present is worth not less than Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 crore. “How can any government justify handing over Rs 5,000 crore for construction of three projects whose cost was not likely to be more than Rs 150 crore?” Somaiya said.
The PAC, whose report was tabled in the assembly 10 months ago, was headed by senior BJP MLA Girish Bapat and included members from across parties. “The report points at major financial irregularities,” Bapat told The Indian Express. “The contract was awarded to Chamankar Enterprises without inviting tenders. Also, the investment including cost escalation does not exceed Rs 350 to 400 crore. Against that, the government gave the contractor prime land in Andheri whose cost is not less than Rs 2,500 crore. These findings have been endorsed in the legislature, but the government has taken no action.”
“Why is there no probe to find out why Bhujbal favoured Chamankar, or what Bhujbal’s role was?” says Somaiya.
Having planned a state-of-the-art state guesthouse since the 1990s, the government approved the construction in 2007, with 138 rooms spread over six acres on KG Marg. The earlier Maharashtra Sadan on Copernicus Marg had 70-odd rooms and is no longer used, the reasons cited being lack of staff, maintenance problems — and bedbugs. Former Shiv Sena MP Bharatkumar Raut says, “Whether it is the old or the new guesthouse, the administration has been found wanting. They have never bothered about basics like decent food.”
It was during late chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s tenure that the state infrastructure subcommittee took the decision. Details relating to the contract and design were left entirely to Bhujbal and his ministry. Once Chamankar was selected, he sublet the contract to others, including ordering furniture at Rs 75 lakh from a private firm.
Bhujbal argues, “Approval was sought from the subcommittee. It is not as if I have taken an independent decision. Moreover, the government has not invested a rupee in the construction as it was on a PPP model. So, where is the corruption?”
Documents of the infrastructure subcommittee show the initial cost estimate was Rs 52 crore. By the time work began, it had escalated Rs 150 crore.
The chief minister is under pressure not only from the Shiv Sena but also the NCP to remove resident commissioner Mallick. The government has ordered a probe under chief secretary J S Saharia into alleged poor hospitality and lack of quality food. Mallick, who has explained his side to the chief minister, has refused to discuss it with the media.