The Bombay High Court on Saturday, while hearing the petition challenging the controversial Lavasa project, observed that there were irregularities and use of ‘political influence and clout’ by NCP chief Sharad Pawar and his family members in extending largesse to Maharashtra’s only private hill station project in 2002. The bench also observed that Ajit Pawar, who is the nephew of NCP patriarch Sharad Pawar, breached ‘Solemn Duty’ by not disclosing his personal interest in the Lavasa Project at that time.
The judges agreed with amicus curiae, senior advocate Shiraz Rustomjee, that there was a failure to follow a fair and transparent tender procedure. Jadhav said Ajit Pawar took active part in the decision-making process for setting up the Lavasa project without disclosing his blood relations with Pawar and Sule.
“As the minister for irrigation and ex-officio chairman of Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corporation (MKVDC), it was Ajit Pawar’s duty to disclose his direct and indirect interest in the matter, but there was nothing on record to suggest he did disclose his interest… Limited to that extent he is found to be remiss in his duty,” the judges said.
A division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish S Kulkarni made the observations while hearing the PIL filed by lawyer Nanasaheb Vasantrao Jadhav in August 2018. The plea sought to declare permissions as void, arbitrary, unreasonable, bad in law and obtained with undue political interference and breach of trust. Sharad Pawar, his daughter Supriya Sule, and his nephew Ajit Pawar, were made parties to the PIL.
Apart from other decisions, the plea also challenged MKVDC’s Governing Council’s “ex-post facto” sanction on June 20, 2002, and subsequent execution of agreements, which Sharad Pawar followed up on by meeting with the then Chief Minister and Ajit Pawar, among others, in regard to problems encountered in implementing his “dream project.”
“It cannot be said that exertion of influence and clout by Sharad Pawar and Supriya Sule is an unreasonable inference that cannot be drawn from the facts…Sharad Pawar and Supriya Sule being personally interested in the project, it is proved by a preponderance of probability that the allegations are true,” the bench noted.
It added, “… It was the solemn duty of Ajit Pawar to disclose his direct or indirect interest in the matter; but there is nothing on record to suggest that he did disclose his interest… Limited to that extent, Ajit Pawar is found to be remiss in his duty.”
Though the court refused to interfere with the same due to “gross delay” in the filing of the plea and considering that “third-party rights have been created”, it said, “With a deep sense of pain and remorse, we feel compelled to take judicial notice of the malaise of looting of India and its natural resources by its own people in the recent past. The roots of such malaise have, without doubt, set in deep. The country is faced with a situation where uprooting of this malaise seems to be difficult, if not impossible.
“… the mindset of the people needs to change…Above all, concern for the welfare of the people and zero tolerance for corruption must override all other considerations. If the greed and dishonesty for power and money continue unabated, the future does not augur too well for the country,” the court added.
Sharad Pawar and his family at heart of Lavasa scam
Notably, Lavasa was NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s “dream project.” Ajit Pawar was the irrigation minister and the MKVDC’s ex-officio chairman. He presided over a conference at which an ex-post facto approval was granted to build weirs on the backwaters of the Varasgaon-Morse dam, which would supply water to Lavasa. Sule was a shareholder in Lavasa and represents the Baramati constituency, which encompassed 18 villages in Lavasa City in 2009.
In 2001, the Maharashtra government-sanctioned 10,000 acres of land for the construction of this modern city, which would be spread over 20 villages and hamlets. The first phase of construction, Dasve, on 1,700 acres, began in 2005 and has been completed. Work on the second phase, Mugaon, is stalled because of regulatory issues.
In 2012, YP Singh, a former IPS officer of Maharashtra cadre, alleged a scam involving the Pawar family in the construction of Lavasa spread over 3,000 acres and reportedly involving an investment of Rs 3,000 crore.
YP Singh had alleged that Ajit Pawar, irrigation minister and nephew of Sharad Pawar, allotted 141 hectares (348 acres) of land belonging to Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corporation on a renewable lease of 30 years to the Lake City Corporation in 2002, violating a Supreme Court Judgement.
The company which later came to be known as Lavasa Corporation, a subsidiary of Hindustan Construction Company, was allotted the land at a monthly rent of Rs 23,000, Singh said.
According to data disclosed by Singh, Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule, now an NCP MP from Baramati, and her husband Sadanand Sule owned 20.81 per cent of the company.
Sharad Pawar, despite being a Union Minister with no involvement in the Lavasa project, allegedly used his clout to arrange a meeting with Ajit Pawar, bureaucrats, and top corporate officials at a private guest home in the lake city of ‘Ekaant,’ according to the former IPS officer.