Aditi Phadnis: Building blocks

Last Updated: Sat, Sep 29, 2012 10:50 hrs

The Adarsh Society scam – a building meant for war widows and defence veterans in Mumbai was cornered by bureaucrats, politicians, and retired defence officers – broke in October, 2010. Maharashtra Chief Minister (CM) Ashok Chavan had held offices that sanctioned key decisions. There was no choice: Ashok Chavan had to go.

A reporter called Prithviraj Chavan late on Tuesday, November 9, 2010, with news: “It’s you,” announced the reporter. The CM designate uttered what sounded remarkably like a groan. “Oh my God,” he said, “really? Are you sure?”

Not the most ecstatic reaction to a job most politicians would kill for. It didn’t take long to figure out why. On reaching Mumbai to be elected as the leader of the Congress Legislature Party, Chavan encountered barely veiled hostility. Balasaheb Vikhe Patil got the highest number of votes in that meeting, followed by support for Vilasrao Deshmukh and Sushilkumar Shinde. Not a single legislator directly proposed his name. And yet, he was the one to get the job. He did not fit in with the project of the coalition partner, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP): he had no stakes and was anxious to protect the political capital the Congress party had, such as it was. And there was Ajit Pawar, NCP’s most important man in the government, deputy CM, impatient, aggressive and competitive.

As he settled into the job, Chavan was clear about his task. Adarsh and other scams (four NCP ministers are under investigation and could go to jail) had been possible because of the enormous discretionary powers that the CM enjoyed. Since politics in Mumbai and most of Maharashtra was ultimately around land, if monetised, land and building-related discretionary powers amounted to hundreds of billions of rupees.

If these powers could be clipped and replaced with systems, policies and a rule-based regime, the builder-bureaucrat-politician nexus could be broken. This was not a “sexy” project in that it did not immediately ensure access to a vote bank and the gains were intangible, at best. But if it succeeded, it would ensure corruption would be curbed.

It took no time at all for builders to see what Chavan was doing. If you were a builder you got Floor Space Index (FSI) as incentive if you also built parking lots whether they were needed or not. For instance, Right to Information enquiries revealed that out of 28 proposals to create parking lots in Mumbai, 19 were in a 3-km radius in South Central Mumbai and eight on the Senapati Bapat Road in Lower Parel. This meant that of the over 28,000 parking slots to be created nearly 15,000, that is, over 50 per cent, were on the same road. The policy was framed in 2008 when Vilasrao Deshmukh was the CM but approvals were given during Ashok Chavan’s tenure. Chavan scrapped the policy, limiting FSI incentives and forcing the builder to share 40 per cent of the premium earned through the extra floor space with the state.

In the Assembly, Chavan found several of his party colleagues siding with the Opposition on the demand that builders be allowed to get additional FSI by paying a premium in redeveloping old Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (Mhada) buildings in the city: he said builders would have to share housing stock with Mhada in redeveloped buildings. Builders wanted a “single-window system” to clear housing projects. It didn’t need much imagination to figure out what this meant. The CM had been the single window all these years.

Chavan’s latest move has been to make a housing regulator statutory for Maharashtra. The Bill was passed by the legislature in July and establishes the country’s first housing regulator and appellate tribunal with significant powers to protect the consumer and penalise builders for wrongdoing — if the developer does not comply with the regulator’s order, he can be slapped with a penalty of up to Rs 10 lakh or imprisonment for up to three years or both.

All these moves attracted sharp criticism of Chavan’s tenure from the realty industry for “inaction and policy paralysis”. It was a camouflage: what the industry really wanted was that Chavan should be replaced by one more “reasonable”.

What hasn’t helped is that Chavan hasn’t really been able to get on to a winning election streak. But his priority is to change the rules of political engagement in Maharashtra, not just win elections.

The latest political conundrum caused by Ajit Pawar’s “inner voice” and his subsequent resignation is only a punctuation mark. It is hard to tell whether it is just a family matter, or Ajit Pawar is acting as a proxy for other interests that want to destabilise a Congress-led government that is headed by a man who is not content to be a compliant observer. Either way, with a weak and disorganised Opposition, Maharashtra is heading for difficult times.

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