The Maharashtra government has used the Land Acquisition Act to acquire office space in the Reliance Centre building at Ballard Estate in South Mumbai, which used to be the corporate headquarters of the Anil Ambani-led Reliance Group until last year. After a long-drawn legal battle, the state acquired a 6,216 square foot premises on the building’s third floor.
Real estate dealers said the acquired space would command rental of nearly Rs 12 lakh a month. Ballard Estate fetches among the highest prices for commercial real estate in Mumbai.
Before it formally shifted its headquarters to suburban Santacruz in 2018, the Reliance Group’s board meetings and press conferences used to be held at Reliance Centre, with top management of various group companies of the finance-to-defence conglomerate, including Ambani himself, working from this office. Signalling that the acquisition of the office was complete, the government has published an award under the Land Acquisition Act, offering Reliance Natural Resources Limited (RNRL), a group company, a total compensation of Rs 22.34 crore in lieu of the acquisition. At the time of filing this report, however, sources confirmed that RNRL had not accepted the compensation.
Official documents obtained by the Indian Express under the Right to Information show that Deputy Collector (Land Acquisition), Mumbai (island city), Sushma Satpute, originally passed the award in this regard on April 16, 2019. That day, RNRL was issued a notice, as mandated by law, giving it time till Friday to submit relevant documents for the transfer of the compensation amount. Satpute’s notice states that the “compensation amount would be deposited with the Bombay High Court if the company failed to submit the documents in due time”.
When contacted, Kailash Pagare, Controller of Rationing and Director of Civil Supplies, told The Indian Express that the “acquisition had been completed”. He added, “We plan to soon take actual possession of the premises.”
In response to questions from The Indian Express, a Reliance Group spokesperson said, “The award is under challenge.” In February 2019, Reliance had demanded compensation of Rs 79 crore.
Built on land owned by the Bombay Port Trust, Reliance Centre, formerly known as Crescent House, was originally owned by ICI India Ltd. In 1970, the Controller of Accommodation — then responsible for allocating office spaces to various government departments — had earmarked the 6,216 sqft space in the building for an Office of the Controller of Rationing.
Later, the property came into Reliance’s possession when the then undivided Reliance Industries took over some ICI businesses in the early 1990s.
The government has contended that the Deputy Controller of Rationing was in occupation of the space on the third floor until January 1997, when Reliance got it vacated temporarily for “repairs and renovation”. Pagare alleged that “when the rationing officers had tried to reclaim their office space after the reconstruction in January 2002, they were denied entry.”
RTI records show that the government first initiated the acquisition proceeding on December 24, 1992, itself. The state’s Food and Civil Supplies Department and Reliance had since been locked in a legal battle, which reached the doors of the Supreme Court. On September 15, 2017, the SC ruled in the government’s favour, arguing that the “acquisition process was legal and valid, and should be taken to a logical end as expeditiously as possible.”
In a bid to retain the space, Reliance had earlier offered the rationing controller an alternate space at the Malkani Mansion in Mazgaon. While the controller’s office was shifted there on May 1, 1998, it was soon relocated to Khanna Building (Worli), and then to Supply House (Parel), but neither of these were found to be “suitable for the controller’s office”. Pagare also argued that these had been offered as temporary accommodation for the “repair and renovation” work.
The Food and Civil Supply Department’s dispute with Reliance was first heard at a city civil court and then at the Bombay High Court. RTI records show that the HC had first stayed the acquisition on October 5, 1994, and later cancelled it on March 3, 2006, after which the government had filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court, which overturned the HC ruling. On May 2, 2019, RNRL filed another writ before the HC, challenging the acquisition, but this too was dismissed. Anticipating another legal challenge after the passing of the award, the state last week filed a caveat in the SC.
While Reliance has suggested alternate sites, Pagare said that these don’t suit the state’s requirements. “We have acted as per the Supreme Court verdict. We were in rightful possession of the property and this cannot be questioned,” he said.
RTI records show that on April 23, 2019, RNRL wrote to the government, offering an alternate 6,200 sqft premises in a residential building adjacent to Hotel Ambassador at Churchgate for the controller’s office, but the government has turned this down. “It is a residential building. It did not suit our purpose. We are acting as per the SC verdict, and were in rightful possession of the property (Reliance Centre premises), and this cannot be questioned,” said Pagare.
Earlier this month, Reliance suggested seven other alternate premises, but Pagare said that “none of these are under consideration”.