WANTED BY investigative agencies in the multi-crore PNB scam, fugitive billionaire Nirav Modi could have more explaining to do. Farmers from Ahmednagar in Maharashtra want Modi to return the 85 acres they claim they sold to him and his company at “throwaway prices” from 2011 to 2013 after they were “duped” into believing that it would be taken over by the government for a bird sanctuary.
It’s not just the farmers. The Ahmednagar district administration slapped a fine of Rs 10 lakh on Modi’s company, Firestone Trading Pvt Ltd, two years ago for setting up a solar plant on 60 acres of that land “without converting the agriculture land into non-agriculture land”.
Officials say the solar plant is now non-operational. The farmers, meanwhile, ploughed a portion of the land under question in Karjat taluka last month as a “symbolic” re-assertion of their right over it. When contacted, Modi’s lawyer Vijay Agarwal said, “I know about the symbolic ploughing of land that has taken place, but I do not have knowledge about the land deal.”
However, records at the Karjat sub-registrar’s office show that nearly 37 acres were purchased in the name of Modi and 48 acres by Firestone Trading Pvt Ltd in the villages of Khandala, Goikarwada and Kaprewadi on the Karjat-Jamkhed road, about 200 km east of Pune.
The records show that Modi paid Rs 29.31 lakh for the 37 acres — around Rs 79,216 per acre on average — without seeking any change in the use of land. They also show that Firestone paid Rs 1.17 crore for 48 acres — Rs 2.43 lakh per acre on average — while specifying that it was for commercial purposes. The farmers claim they sold their land for sums ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 25,000 per acre to Modi and his company.
“We were told by the people who offered to purchase our land that it would be acquired by the government for a bird sanctuary. We were struggling to survive amid continuous drought and thought it was better to get some money rather than let the government take it for free,” said Suban Maharnavar, a resident of Khandala who claims to have sold 3.5 acres at the rate of Rs 25,000 per acre.
Dhananjay Kare of Khandala claims that his family sold 5.5 acres at Rs 14,000 per acre to “Modi’s men”. “The local media had been carrying reports about the possibility of a bird sanctuary coming up. We sold our land in panic. But now, we are determined to get it back,” he said.
When contacted, the sub-registrar in Karjat, D P Pandit, said there were 17 land transactions made by around 50-60 farmers, some jointly with family members, during that period. “A majority of the transactions were done in 2011 and in the two subsequent years,” he said.
According to officials at the sub-registrar’s office, the land was purchased through “power of attorney” on behalf of Modi for his company.
“Modi set up a solar plant on 60 acres of that land without converting the agriculture land into non-agriculture land. We imposed a fine of around Rs 10 lakh on the company,” said Archana Nashte, Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO), Karjat.
“The plant had a capacity of 5 MW and consumed 6,000 units of electricity every month on an average. Its monthly bill came to over Rs 35,000,” said Anil Borse, Superintending Engineer at the Ahmednagar office of state-owned MSEDCL.
Ahmednagar District Collector Abhay Mahajan said, “This is a private land deal where the sale and purchase took place years ago. If the villagers lodge a formal complaint, we will look into it.”