Mumbai Highrise Controversy: Role of housing minister and retired official under scanner

Senior BJP leader and Maharashtra Housing Minister Prakash Mehta found himself embroiled in a fresh controversy after CM Devendra Fadnavis Tuesday revoked the approval given by the former for utilisation of additional construction rights in a highrise project in central Mumbai.

| Mumbai | Published: July 13, 2017 9:09:16 am
 Prakash Mehra, Devendra Fadnavis, Mumbai Highrise Controversy, Mumbai housing approvals Senior BJP leader and Maharashtra Housing Minister Prakash Mehta (File)

Senior BJP leader and Maharashtra Housing Minister Prakash Mehta found himself embroiled in a fresh controversy after CM Devendra Fadnavis Tuesday revoked the approval given by the former for utilisation of additional construction rights in a highrise project in central Mumbai. Highly placed government sources said the role of 1996-batch IAS officer Vishwas Patil, who retired as the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) chief on June 30 this year, had also come under the scanner.

The controversy is pertaining to a slum redevelopment project being implemented by a real estate major in Tardeo. On June 21, Mehta issued orders to the SRA permitting the developer to utilise the buildable space or the floor space index (FSI) that had been originally sanctioned for the expansion of existing rehabilitation tenements of the slumdwellers, to build tenements for project-affected people. In the process, the housing minister’s orders had permitted the developer to retain the incentive sale area of 71,822 square feet, which it would have had to otherwise forgo.

Official documents show bureaucrats in the housing department cautioned on the file that the government did not have the powers to approve such a conversion or a transfer. “All powers related to the grant of additional FSI (floor space index) in slum schemes were delegated to the SRA Chief Executive Officer (CEO) on May 19, 2015. The government does not have the powers to approve such conversion proposals,” stated a note put up by the department.

Slum redevelopment projects in Mumbai are regulated by Section 33 (10) of Mumbai’s Development Control regulations. The department’s note, also signed by Additional Chief Secretary (Housing) Sanjay Kumar, had also stated, “There was no provision in the said DC regulation that permits withdrawal or transfer of area benefits approved for eligible slumdwellers.”

But when the file travelled to Mehta’s office on June 21, the minister approved the contentious proposal. He wrote on the file: “The said proposal (utilisation of the FSI meant for slumdwellers for a PAP building) could be taken up in the slum society’s general body.” Incidentally, while mentioning on the file that the government will benefit from the PAPs, the minister wrote: “The Chief Minister has been informed. The proposal is approved on accepting the PAPs.”

Two days later, the housing department conveyed the minister’s order to the SRA chief. But while issuing directives in this regard, desk officer Yogesh Gosavi noted down the department’s own position regarding the proposal’s validity, while ordering the SRA chief to act in accordance with the Maharashtra Slum Areas (Improvement, Clearance, and Redevelopment) Act, 1971, and the Development Control regulations while processing the minister’s claim.

However, in a major embarrassment for Mehta, the CM has distanced himself from the proposal. “The proposal was neither sent to me nor signed by me,” said Fadnavis. The revocation order, which was issued by the department on July 11, has cited this as the reason for staying the implementation of the orders. While Mehta had noted that the CM had been informed in advance about the proposal, this order mentions that “it is found that the Chief Minister’s signature is missing on both the noting sections and the file”. Both Mehta and Fadnavis have signed the latest order.

Records show that it was Vishwas Patil, the then SRA chief, who had first approached the government over the proposal on April 13 this year. While senior housing department officials have reasoned that the SRA chief had the powers to decide the issue, Patil had specifically sought the government’s directives under the controversial Section 3k of the Slum Areas Act, which allows the state to issue general and special directions to the SRA on policy matters.

Fadnavis’s predecessor, Prithviraj Chavan, had earlier issued orders prohibiting the use of the provision for individual slum projects, after a controversy had erupted around three slum projects approved under Section 3K when Ashok Chavan was the CM. After the housing department had pointed this out, records show that Patil wrote another letter to the government on May 18. While housing department bureaucrats opposed the proposal, Mehta favoured it. Fadnavis said Wednesday the “entire proposal had been stayed”, and that “no letter of intent had been issued to the developer”.

Mehta, when contacted, refused to take questions on the controversy. He said he was busy in a meeting, and would meet later to personally discuss the matter. Attempts to contact Patil did not elicit a response.

The redevelopment project, which involves rehabilitation of 2,334 slum-dwellers, was first sanctioned in 1996 under the erstwhile Slum Rehabilitation Scheme. It was later converted into an SRA project. While the rehabilitation project was completed in 2009, the slum society sought expansion of the tenement size from 225 square feet to 269 square feet the same year, which was approved under the conversion scheme. An additional 1 lakh square feet would be used for the slum rehabilitation. The builder became eligible for additional construction rights measuring 82,764 square feet in all.

But just as the tenements were being expanded, as many as 1,969 slum-dwellers took a stand that they were no longer interested in the expansion, which would mean forfeiting their claim on the additional area. With the balance rehabilitation area to the tune of 95,762 square feet on the line, the developer was losing over 71,822 square feet in incentive sale area. On March 4, the developer approached the SRA chief with the proposal for utilisation of the balance rehabilitation FSI for buildings for PAPs. The developer is building a luxury highrise project at the site. Sources said another top builder might have had a role to play in the change of stance by the slum-dwellers.

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