In February, 46-year-old builder Suraj Parmar sent an SOS to the Maharashtra Chief Minister, seeking help against those who were allegedly stalling his projects in Thane. Fifteen days ago, Parmar reportedly shot himself dead, leaving behind a note that once again alleged harassment by politicians and officials in Mumbai’s largest and fastest-growing satellite town.
Today, with Devendra Fadnavis finally ordering a crackdown and police seizing documents on meetings held at the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC), the heat is firmly on the “Golden Gang” — a cartel of politicians and officials stalling projects to extort money in a real estate hotspot where the industry has invested about Rs 6,000 crore in ongoing projects.
According to several complaints against this “coterie”, the modus-operandi is simple: Identify projects awaiting various permissions, raise “issues” about them on the floor of the TMC during the general body or standing committee meetings, insist that the administration send “stop-work” notices, then wait for payoffs.
It’s not just Parmar’s letter to Fadnavis and Urban Development department secretary Manisha Mhaiskar on February 11, or his 13-page “suicide note”, but complaints of harassment by this “coterie” have also been raised by a BJP MLA, a Congress corporator and several other builders.
“The anti-people activities of the Golden Gang are on the rise. Time has come to rein them in,” local BJP MLA Sanjay Kelkar wrote in a letter to Fadnavis and the Thane municipal commissioner in June.
Sanjay Ghadigaonkar, the Congress party’s group leader in the TMC, complained in a letter dated May 12 to Fadnavis that the floor of the corporation house was being used “for illegal… gains of a coterie of corporators”.
Sources said that even a senior Union Minister had discussed the alleged nexus in Thane with Fadnavis over telephone, at the behest of Parmar.
But when contacted, Fadnavis told The Indian Express: “While I could not order a probe since these letters did not reveal details regarding the nexus, I’d forwarded these to the Urban Development department.”
Fadnavis said he has also asked the Thane municipal commissioner and police chief to crack down on this nexus. “I’ve asked them not to show any mercy, regardless of which political party such people belong to. I’ve also asked the civic commissioner to submit copies of contentious resolutions adopted by the Thane general body.”
According to sources, “stop-work” notices from TMC have currently stalled work in at least 25 major projects that are nearing completion. Builders allege that pressure is usually intensified just as the Occupation Certificate (OC) is about to be sought for a completed project.
”Three years ago, TMC’s general body approved a resolution denying drinking water connection to new buildings that don’t have an OC. The cartel’s plan is to delay the OC or stop work at the construction site. The idea is to corner builders when they are most vulnerable,” said Amol Pataskar, son of R G Pataskar, of Pataskar Developers Pvt Ltd.
According to a BJP corporator, the “Golden Gang” meets once a week at a Thane restaurant to identify the “next target”.
Said Amol’s father R G Pataskar: “They employ a battery of civic engineers, lawyers and activists to get technical details of ongoing projects. Once a minor aberration or other issue is spotted, members raise a ruckus during the standing committee or general body meetings of TMC levelling allegations on the builder and on the sanctioning authorities.”
The Pataskars point to a 25-storey residential tower constructed by them on Thane’s Ghodbunder Road as a classic case. “We faced the courts 36 times to defend frivolous charges, despite having all documents showing that the development was as per sanctioned plans. The court cases led to delays, and the project took eight years to complete,” said Amol Pataskar.
On October 14, the town planning office issued a notice to another Pataskar project, which had obtained an OC one year ago. “The notice suggests that we have built an underground tank on a portion that’s not part of our plot,” said Amol Pataskar. The Pataskars found that the complainant, an activist, had made the same complaint when work began in 2010. According to municipal records, he had also formally withdrawn the second complaint claiming he was mistaken.
When contacted, P L Gohil, Assistant Director of Town Planning, said he would “look into the matter”.
Almost every other builder in Thane knows of the “Golden Gang” or claims to have a first-hand experience to recount.
Dinesh Pachkude, proprietor, Ugam Infrastructure Ltd, alleged that the nexus “has now spread even in the revenue department machinery”.
Official sources confirmed that there have been several instances in recent times of “bogus land title cases” being filed in courts challenging development rights awarded to a building firm. “It is an organised racket. You have to pay them or face harassment,” said a builder, requesting anonymity.
The members of the “gang” include corporators occupying positions of seniority on the ruling and opposition benches in the TMC who “use their official clout for the extortion racket”, alleged another builder.
A third builder said that the demands have grown in the past year. “It doesn’t matter even if your project is being carried out as per sanctioned plans,” he said.
In Parmar’s case, the TMC withheld OC and water connections for four projects after corporators raised allegations regarding irregularities. Documents available with The Indian Express show that the TMC granted the permissions after Minister of State (Urban Development) Ranjit Patil intervened in June.
Parmar had earlier complained that “mental harassment due to frivolous complaints” of various workers had caused delays in various projects. The harassment angle is central to investigations in Parmar’s death, Thane police said.
The suicide note, which has been sent for forensic analysis, may have named at least a couple of politicians and three TMC officials but these appear to have been later crossed out with scribbles as an afterthought, said sources.
Thane police have registered a case of abetment to suicide against unidentified persons, and collected documents pertaining to approvals and notices issued to Parmar’s project by the TMC, besides minutes of standing committee and general body meetings held since last December. They have also sought CCTV footage of movement within the town planning department on specific days.
Incidentally, two senior corporators in Thane, Najib Mulla (NCP) and Vikrant Chavan (Congress), have written to Fadnavis claiming that they suspect their names would be linked to the Parmar suicide. Records show that these two were vociferous in their demand for action against alleged irregularities in Parmar’s project.