When the Bajuhan Vikas Aghadi win 106 of the 115 seats in the Vasai-Virar Municipal Corporation last week, it did not come as a surprise. The party has been controlling the region for decades. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which had not been doing well in the local body polls in the state for the last six months, won only one seat. The BJP, though, had not expected to do well in Vasai-Virar. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and senior leaders had not campaigned.
The BVA is run by Hitendra Thakur, brother of alleged don Bhai Thakur.
“The BVA has controlled Vasai-Virar for 25-30 years,” says Kshitij Thakur, two-term MLA and son of Hitendra Thakur.
When told about BVA’s willingness to offer support in the Vidhan Sabha to whichever party is in power as reason for it retaining its regional supremacy, 31-year-old Kshitij says, “There’s been no poll deal ever, with BJP or any other party.”
The Shiv Sena started late and invested heavily in campaigning, but observers had already predicted a BVA win. In the Assembly election in 2014, former MLA and Thakur detractor Vivek Pandit (contesting on a Shiv Sena ticket) had lost and he had taken a sabbatical from local politics.
The township is Maharashtra’s fifth most populous, larger than Aurangabad.
Vasai-Virar population grew from 6,93,350 in 2001 to 12,21,233 in the 2011 census.
The Thakurs have held sway over the city much before it became a municipal corporation. It has a scenic coast and mountains marred by garbage and snarling traffic. They run a college, propose to set up the biggest local hospital, and operate businesses locally and elsewhere, ranging from real estate and hospitality to film technology.
Manvel Tuscano, Janata Dal member and long-time activist in Vasai’s village Nandakhal says, “The Thakurs control everything in Vasai-Virar, shopkeepers and small businesses fear them, big builders are their associates… They control resorts along the coast.”
BVA was instrumental in the formation of the Vasai Virar Municipal Corporation (VVMC), amid protests by detractor Vivek Pandit. The corporation was formed in 2009. These seaside villages, with quaint bungalows along with winding rainwashed roads could soon be lost to a construction boom backed by BVA, locals fear.
“We are agitating,” says Tuscano. “Some roads are being widened, land is being purchased rapidly, the green zone may be lost for good.”
In the first election to the civic body in 2010, BVA won 64 of the then 89 seats.
Patronage politics aside, detractors cite voter apathy as one of the main reasons for BVA’s control over the region. Voter turnout in the two elections was about 40 per cent and 50 per cent.
Vivek Pandit, the non-BVA politician to make a mark in the region, spoke about the need for the region to vote without fear. But Kshitij says reign of fear is a “media creation”.
Kshitij has roped in urban planners and architects to plan infrastructure projects. One such plan, for which Thakur has roped in real estate consultancy Knight Frank, is to develop a 1,559-acre sprawl near Virar. He is proposing a small 100-acre dedicated clusters for sports, education, healthcare, banking and finance, information technology and so on.
Another proposal seeks to construct a 3.5-km road between Nallasopara and Virar at a cost of about Rs 84 crore, and has included jogging and cycling tracks in the plan. A ‘rent-a-roof’ policy to harness solar energy is in the works.
The Thakur father and son dow owns declared assets of Rs 152.23 crore, according to election affidavits. Kshitij owns farm lands in Manik, Divanman, Barampur, Gokhivare and Koshimbre worth Rs 15.88 crore and non-farmland parcels in Manikpur and Divman worth another Rs 10 crore. His father owns nine farm plots at Manikpur, Divman, Barampur, Gokhivre, Paye, Shirgaon and Virar, worth Rs 38 crore. The value of another three non-farmland parcels Hitendra owns is pegged at Rs 27.13 crore. Thakurs are said to have stakes in real estate companies.
Party members rubbish the theory that Thakurs’ business interests control their politics.
Bharat Gupta, a senior BVA leader says, “We provide an allowance to families of physically challenged persons and divorced women. We have schemes to train women in not just traditional, but atypical skills such as driving.”
In the six years the corporation has been in existence, it has started its own public transport system with a fleet of about 130 buses.
Rivals had alleged that BVA has interests in water tanker business. This prompted the party to promise a Rs 296-crore water supply scheme to add 100 million litres a day to the town’s water supply. Arguing they have no interest in water tanker business, Kshitij says, “Otherwise why would water supply capacity of Vasai-Virar increase from three million litres a day to over 130 now? The project for additional water supply too will be complete in the next 4-5 months.”
For 2015-16, the municipality has included projects such as a 36-km ring road and a ferry service.