Maharashtra government on Tuesday leased a 5.5-acre government-owned land, originally meant to be used for educational training and research, in Mumbai’s Film City to Bollywood film producer Subhash Ghai’s film school, the Whistling Woods International.
The move to allot the land to the institute has been justified by the state’s cultural affairs department, which administers the land. It submitted a report from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), dated February 22, 2018, that had stated that Ghai’s school “eminently qualifies as a higher and technical institute (HTI)”, to the state cabinet, which approved the allotment Tuesday.
The move, however, stirred an intense debate in the state’s political circles, especially since it was the BJP itself that, while still in Opposition, had questioned the original deal between Ghai’s institute and then Congress-led government in the state for the same land parcel.
In 2012, after the Bombay High Court had ordered the scrapping of Ghai’s original deal and the Supreme Court had followed it up with stinging observations against former Maharashtra CM (late) Vilasrao Deshmukh. Current Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who was then a national spokesperson of the BJP, had even sought Deshmukh’s resignation from the Union Cabinet.
“One cannot be treated as a blue-eyed boy for whom Chief Minister can bend or bypass rules to give away the land of the state,” Sitharaman had said then, listing out observations made by a division bench of the Supreme Court.
It was on October 24, 2000, when Ghai’s Mukta Arts had originally signed an MoU involving Maharashtra’s then Cultural Affairs Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, also the then CM, and the Managing Director of the Maharashtra Film, Stage and Cultural Development Corporation (MFSCDC) for running a film school facility on a 20-acre plot, of which the 5.5-acre land is a part. Questions were immediately raised over the allotment, with no government resolution or MFSCDC resolution existing at that time to back it.
After a controversy broke out over it, the MFSCDC, eventually, adopted a resolution to this effect in 2003, informing the board’s members that it would enjoy 15 per cent stake in the joint venture. But the same year, a public interest litigation (PIL) came to be filed in the Bombay High Court, seeking cancellation of the arrangement. Eventually, on February 09, 2012, the HC ruled against the agreement between Ghai’s institute and the state, and ordered its cancellation. It further ordered that Ghai’s firm should return the unconstructed 14.5 acre out of the 20-acre land to the state with immediate effect, while the remaining 5.5 acre land, which had been built-upon, was to be returned free of encumbrances before July 31, 2014. Questioning the “concessional” rates at which the land allotment had been made, the HC had also directed Whistling Woods to pay an annual lease rent of Rs 5.29 crore for the 2000-2012 period, and had levied an additional 6 per cent annual interest on it.
The Fadnavis government’s move on Tuesday also comes at a time when Ghai’s petition seeking review of the HC decision is still pending. Following the HC verdict, Ghai had first filed a Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court, which was rejected. Incidentally, the state government had challenged Ghai’s SLP, even raising questions on the manner of allotment itself.
But Fadnavis, when contacted, clarified that the cabinet’s decision was “subject to the court’s approval”. He added, “The decision will be implemented only after the court’s approval.” Sources said that the government itself will apprise the HC of it’s decision.
Incidentally, in 2013, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India had also strongly objected to the old arrangement, observing that the state’s exchequer had been put to a loss by at least Rs 31.20 crore. To avoid a similar controversy, the Fadnavis government has levied annual lease rent at market rates for the 5.5-acre land, which would work out to Rs 47.18 crore at current rates.
In an official communication, the state’s finance department had earlier raised some objections over the government’s move. While questioning the allotment of a public land to the film school itself, the department had also queried on whether the film school qualified as an HTI. With the state’s higher and technical education department being non-committal over the query, the MFSCDC submitted the TISS’s report in response to the objection.
Fadnavis, meanwhile, said, “The BJP had opposed it at that time because the allotment had not been done in accordance with the law, which the HC has also underlined. But over time, the institute has gained prominence and is acclaimed internationally.” He added, “There aren’t many institutes that provide human resource in the entertainment industry. This one has achieved the status. It came to us a fait accompli with limited choice.”
Fadnavis also said that Mumbai’s entertainment industry provides employment to 28 lakh people and has a turnover of 23 billion dollars. Just as the MFSCDC had resumed the 14.5 acre vacant land, sources said that Ghai has been making repeated request for the allotment of this parcel too. Fadnavis also said that his government had consulted the state’s Advocate General over the allotment. Sources said in November 2016, then Chief Secretary Swadheen Kshatriya had sought the AG’s remarks over Ghai’s request for lease of the land.
“The situation arising here is peculiar. The proceedings before the court are in the nature of a PIL. Considering the fact that the future of a large number of students with the institute is at stake, there could be, in my opinion, following two solutions. One is to wait for the final court verdict, or the second one is arriving at a mutual decision and informing the court about it.”
Later Kshatriya, as CS, wrote on the file, “Considering the AG’s opinion and the proposal from (Ghai’s) institute, there is no harm in considering the proposal.” The estimates committee of the state legislature, too, had earlier demanded that the government resume the 5.5 acre land.