Prime Minister Narendra Modi once promised to set up special courts to prosecute lawmakers accused of corruption. Since he came to power, though, the justice system seems to have remained as languid as ever when dealing with powerful people. Five years after a judicial commission pointed to his alleged involvement in the scam, former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan will finally be prosecuted on charges of corruption.
Maharashtra's governor on Thursday gave sanction to the Central Bureau of Investigation to prosecute Chavan for his alleged role in the Adarsh Housing Society scam. The CBI had charged Chavan, along with 12 others, with having approved additional floor space in the Mumbai building meant for war widows and retired defence personnel, so that his relatives could get flats.
The former chief minister immediately termed this action a "political vendetta" against him, and claimed that the CBI's move was illegal. The plice agency had in fact been denied sanction to go after Chavan in 2013, when the then-Congress ruled state's governor turned the CBI's plea down. That obstacle no longer stands in the way of the CBI.
The 31-storey Adarsh tower was built on highly shaky legal and procedural foundations. To begin with, it was meant to be a six-storey building for war widows. According to the development control rules, the maximum height allowed for buildings in the area is 45.6 metres.
In 2007, the Mumbai municipal corporation cleared the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society's request to add extra floors, taking the height up to 97.6 metres. By 2009, the tower had soared to 104 metres.
The increase in height was made possible because authorities repeatedly – and controversially – allowed the Adarsh housing society to increase its floor space index, or the ratio of the area of the plot of land to the floor area of all the flats in the building.
As Adarsh grew taller, it encroached on a 2,669 square-metre plot reserved for the adjacent Backbay Reclamation Depot, a terminus for public buses.
In 2005, the state's urban development department overruled the objections of the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking and granted Adash the FSI that should have accrued to the bus depot.
The tower also violated the state's stringent coastal regulatory zone norms, the panel has found.
On March 11, 2003, the urban development department wrote to the ministry of forests and environment asking for permission to develop the property, which falls under the protected Coastal Regulatory Zone II.
The environment ministry wrote back saying it was the state's responsibility to carry out development in accordance with the coastal zone management plan for Mumbai.
In a baffling move, the department interpreted this as a no-objection certificate from the ministry. It cleared the construction of a tower more than 100 metres high.
Ironically, the Adarsh housing society cited the very same norms to argue that the bus depot could not be constructed on the adjacent plot. In 2003, it had stated that the transport undertaking's use of the adjoining plot was unauthorised, and that the bus depot could not be built because of coastal restrictions.
Eventually, the state evicted the transport undertaking, saying it was using government land and would have to pay market prices for it. The state then sold the plot to the Adarsh housing society for Rs 6.14 crore, far below the market price, the report said.
More state concessions followed, often overruling the concerns of individual departments, such as the high-rise committee and the Mumbai Metropolitan Road Development Authority. (Read the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General report here.)
Adarsh, from its very inception, has been the recipient of government largesse.
As early as 2000, the Mumbai collector told the state that the Adarsh plot was reserved for a road widening project listed in the MMRDA's development plan.
As the CAG audit revealed, the state had earlier rejected requests to develop the plot for ex-servicemen citing this very reason. But the development plan was modified, a proposed road near the plot was deleted, another was narrowed, all so the tower could come up.
Moreover, the existence of the tower, in the middle of the Colaba defence area, poses a security threat.
As the public accounts committee on the Adarsh scam observed in its report tabled in the Lok Sabha, it allows "its residents to observe the number and type of specialised and general performance vehicles" in nearby military workshops.
The Maharashtra government has partially accepted the recommendations of the judicial commission, which means that it will take action against the 12 bureaucrats accused of colluding with the tower's
But former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan had said that no action would be taken against four former chief ministers mentioned in the report. He said that Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushilkumar Shinde and Shivajirao Nilangekar Patil had provided political patronage to the project but were not guilty of any crimes.
The judicial panel found that Ashok Chavan had given clearances for the building on a quid pro quo basis. His relatives – Seema Sharma, whose husband Vinod is Chavan's brother-in-law; Madanlal Sharma, who is brother of Manoharlal Sharma, Chavan’s father-in-law; and the late Bhagwati Sharma, Chavan’s mother-in-law – became members of the housing society.promoters.
Bring it down
These measures, half-hearted as they are in tackling the political corruption revealed by the Adarsh probe, come no closer to resolving the bigger issue: what must be done about the tower itself?
In 2011, Dr Nalini Bhatt, an advisor to the environment ministry, suggested that the tower be demolished and that the land be restored to its original state.
Several precedents for such action already exist, such as the orders to demolish Pratibha and Campa Cola Compound, both in South Mumbai.
Adarsh violates so many regulations, demolition seems to be the only reasonable course of action.