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Associated Journals violated land laws: Maharashtra probe panel

In 2011, Maharashtra govt allowed construction of a 12-storyed building which could be used entirely for commercial purposes

BS Reporter  |  New Delhi 

A Maharashtra government-appointed committee to probe into the alleged irregularities in the allotment and use of a prime plot in Mumbai to the Associated Journals Limited (AJL) has found several violations.

The 20-page report submitted by retired bureaucrat Gautam Chatterjee says the 3,478-square metre plot along the Western Express Highway was allotted to AJL in 1983 for construction of Nehru memorial research centre, library and a publishing house. However, AJL couldn't start construction for decades and paid penalty from time to time.

While initially, only 15 per cent area was allowed for commercial activities, in 2001, during the tenure of Congress Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, AJL was given permission for 100 per cent commercial use. The status of the land was also changed from "lease basis" to "allotment basis".

According to the report, in 2011, Maharashtra government allowed construction of a 12-storyed building which could be used entirely for commercial purposes. AJL delayed construction until all the clearances were in place.

The report says, five or six floors of the building have already been built and now AJL has to apply for transfer of development rights (TDR), which means getting additional built-up area. "This is based on square footage and is currency which can be transferred to anyone," said a top Congress leader, "so that real estate has a degree of liquidity". A revenue department official said, "How could the company, which started construction over 20,000 sq ft for publication purposes, suddenly change its plans to construct on 83,000 sq ft and that too for commercial purposes? If only 15 per cent of the land was to be commercialized for cross subsidisation, then how did the company get permission to make everything commercial? How and under what circumstances were the amendments to the original land allotment made?"

Chatterjee submitted the report on Monday to Maharashtra revenue secretary Manukumar Srivastav. The committee was appointed by the state government in December 2015 to probe the allegations against AJL, which used to own the now defunct Herald newspaper. In December 2015, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice- president Rahul Gandhi were summoned by a trial court in Delhi in the Herald case. The complainant had alleged that Congress leaders illegally acquired properties worth Rs 5,000 crore of Herald after AJL was taken over by Young Indian Pvt Ltd, a firm in which the Gandhis had direct stake. AJL owns three parcels of land in Delhi, Mumbai and Lucknow. All three are being investigated. Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and his Cabinet would decide the further course of action.

State Congress leaders said Fadnavis government was being vindictive on instructions from top leaders in Delhi. "Chhagan Bhujbal is being hounded by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) which is controlled by the Union Finance Ministry. Ashok Chavan's case (Aadarsh Housing society) was reopened by the Governor. Delhi is acting out of vendetta," said a senior Congress leader in Mumbai.

When contacted, Congress spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala said, "I have no access to the committee report. I will be able to comment only after it is shared with us officially."

First Published: Wed, February 10 2016. 00:10 IST