इंडियन आवाज़     02 Dec 2023 04:35:22      انڈین آواز

Height of Corruption

The name Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society fits it pretty well as it is truly an "ideal" of corruption, says A.J. Philip

ADARSH is a Sanskrit word which means "ideal". Why the promoters of the scandalous Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society of Mumbai chose that name is not known. In a way, they have proved that the name fits the Society pretty well as it is truly an "ideal" of corruption.

In India, certain practices are considered taboo. For instance, nobody would like to speak ill of persons, even if they were hardened criminals. Tradition expects us to remember only whatever was good in those persons.

In every society, martyrs are revered. Those who die in wars are considered martyrs. When I visited the war memorial at Siachen near the India-Pakistan border, an inscription there attracted my attention: "They gave their today so that we can have our tomorrow".

Having experienced the harsh Siachen climate on that quick tour, courtesy Defence Minister A.K. Antony, a prayer for all those jawans who sacrificed their lives at Siachen came to my lips spontaneously. As I stood there in silence, I also remembered my father who fought in the jungles of Burma, now Myanmar, during the Second World War as a Naik in the British Army.

For me, anybody who dies in action while fighting the Naxalites in Jharkhand or engaging with terrorists in Kashmir is a "martyr". But a distinction was made in the case of the Kargil martyrs. As everybody knows, the Kargil war occurred when Pakistan occupied an area larger than Delhi in the Kargil Sector without India knowing about the intrusion.

It required the heroic efforts of the Indian Army to remove the Pakistani soldiers from those heights and recapture them. A large number of soldiers died in the, strictly speaking, conflict, which would not have happened if the intelligence authorities were alert about Pakistani intentions and taken preventive steps.

When the body bags began to arrive from the war fields, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government made a spectacle of it. The bodies were sent to the villages of the soldiers with great fanfare, enabling millions of people to pay their respects to the departed. Politically, it helped the NDA. The aluminium caskets imported for the purpose helped some in the Defence Ministry to line their pockets.

A study found that in the constituencies where the last rites of the Kargil martyrs were performed, the NDA had a distinct advantage in the elections that followed. In fact, it can be said with certainty that, without the Kargil war, Vajpayee would not have returned to power. To be fair to the BJP-led government, it did a lot for the Kargil martyrs. Situated hundred yards from my flat in New Delhi is a petrol pump allotted to a Kargil widow. It is the Kargil name that has been desecrated by Adarsh.

The promoters knew that their proposal to have an apartment complex at Colaba, one of the posh areas, would never fructify. It was then that they hit upon the idea of using the name of Kargil to push their project. They proposed to the Maharashtra government their plan to build a modest six-storied building to provide accommodation to Kargil widows and war veterans. The year was 1999 and Kargil was fresh in everyone’s memory.

Of course, the officials and ministers could see through the game. Suddenly, the objectives of the society were amended to include government officials. How could so many be accommodated in this six-storied building? It was at this juncture that they hit upon the idea of increasing the height to 30 floors.

Initially, there were 40 members, all of them defence personnel, both serving and retired. This number increased to 71 and eventually to 103. When the file reached a senior IAS officer, who insisted on getting a flat in the building for one of his relations, he increased the height to 31 floors.

This official was so arrogant that he wrote on the file that there was no need to get any special clearance for increasing the height from 30 floors to 31 floors. On their part, the politicians managed to get one amendment made.

Under the amended rules, up to 40 per cent of the membership could be given to private persons, meaning non-Kargil widows and non-war veterans. This was done to favour their kith and kin. Among those who benefited from the amendment were those close to former Chief Ministers Sushil Kumar Shinde, Vilasrao Deshmukh and present Chief Minister Ashok Chavan.
First as Revenue Minister and, subsequently, as Chief Minister, Ashok Chavan had shown excessive interest in obtaining government clearances for the Society. Few knew the reason until the scandal erupted a few days ago. It now transpires that among those owning flats in the Society are the Chief Minister’s mother-in-law, a sister-in-law and a brother-in-law.

This was the height of nepotism. When confronted with the uncomfortable facts, Chavan tried to wriggle out of the scam by claiming that his relatives would voluntarily give up their membership. Astoundingly, he also made the proposition that "in-laws" did not form part of one’s family!

As the Chief Minister was tying up in knots while defending his position, it reminded me of former Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor offering to surrender the sweat equity his girlfriend — now wife — Sunanda Pushkar had received from the promoters of the Kochi franchise of Indian Premier League (IPL).

As in the case of Tharoor, the offer only confirmed Chavan’s complicity. A thief does not become a non-thief simply because he is ready to return the stolen money when he is caught. Several former senior defence personnel, including General N.C. Vij, General Deepak Kapoor and former Navy Chief Admiral Madhvendra Singh, were beneficiaries of the scam.

Not just the Congress, even members belonging to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena are involved in the scandal. Former Union Power Minister and Shiv Sena leader Suresh Prabhu is a member of the society which was floated when Narayana Rane was the Chief Minister.

Many of them, including the Generals, say they did not even know that Adarsh Society was meant for the Kargil widows and war veterans. It is unbelievable that they would invest their "hard-earned money" in a housing project without checking the bona fides of the promoters and going through the rules of membership.

Why did they all join this society? The reasons are not far to seek. Who in Mumbai would not like to have a house in an area like Colaba? A sea-facing flat is the ultimate luxury for the upper middle class in the metropolis. The going rate in the area is reported to be Rs 60,000 per square feet.

At that price a modest three bedroom 1000 sq. feet flat in Adarsh Society would cost not less than Rs 6 crore. Private developers also ask the house owners to pay for external development and common areas like corridors and lifts. So the ultimate price of such a flat would be anywhere near Rs 8 crore.

Since it is a Society and members have to share only the cost of land and construction, each flat would not have cost the members more than Rs 60 to 80 lakh. After all, land was obtained at concessional rate. In other words, when completed, each member would benefit by several crores of rupees.

Since the Chief Minister has three flats, though in the name of his "relatives", he would have gained by a whopping sum! Real estate is big business in Mumbai. A recent report found that a large number of MLAs and members of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation had connections with the land mafia.

This is not surprising as Mumbai is India’s most cosmopolitan city, with a metropolitan area of roughly 20 million people. Migrants have poured into the city during the past decades, drawn by Mumbai’s reputation as India’s "city of dreams," where anyone can become rich.

But it is also a city infamous for its poor: a recent study found that roughly 62 per cent of the population lived in slums, including one of Asia’s biggest, Dharavi, which houses more than one million people.

Real estate prices are among the highest in the world, pushing many working-class residents into slums, even as developers have brazenly cleared land for a new generation of high-rise apartment towers for the affluent.

High-rises are considered necessary, given the city’s limited land, yet the rising towers have further insulated the rich from the teeming metropolis below. Today Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is the world’s tallest building. But the tallest residential building is in Gold Coast (Australia). The Australian building will soon be dwarfed by "World One", a residential complex being planned at Worli in Mumbai.

The "World One" complex, which will have three towers, shall offer 300 exclusive 3-4 bedroom flats, lavish villas with private swimming pools and a few duplex suites. The unique 360 degrees curved design will enable all the residents an unrestricted view of entire Mumbai from all sides. It will be ready by the year 2014.

Of course, the luxuries that the promoters promise in "World One" does not come anywhere near the newest and most exclusive residential tower for this city’s superrich. This is how The New York Times reported about the uniqueness of the house: "It is a cantilevered sheath of steel and glass soaring 27 floors into the sky.
"The parking garage fills six levels. Three helipads are on the roof. There are terraces upon terraces, airborne swimming pools and hanging gardens in a Blade Runner-meets-Babylon edifice overlooking India’s most dynamic city.

"There are nine elevators, a spa, a 50-seat theatre and a grand ballroom. Hundreds of servants and staff are expected to work inside. And now, finally, after several years of planning and construction, the residents are about to move in. All five of them.

"The tower, known as Antilia, is the new home of India’s richest person, Mukesh Ambani, whose $27 billion fortune also ranks him among the richest people in the world."

In the country’s financial capital, where residents bear daily witness to the stark extremes of Indian wealth and poverty, Ambani’s building is so spectacularly over the top that the city’s already elastic boundaries of excess and disparity are being stretched to new dimensions.

Next time I visit Mumbai, I hope to see the building, though I know I would not be allowed to go inside. I want to compare this house with another house that I was shown from Lake Washington at Seattle in the US. The house I refer to is the one where Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, who founded Microsoft, lives.

It is located in a wooded area and in the dim evening light, all I could see was the American flag fluttering in the compound. The local guide told us that the house was "modest" by the standards of the rich. It was smaller compared to the house of Bob Guccione, the founder of the pornographic magazine "Penthouse", who died last month. By the time he died, he had lost his fabulous house and all his properties, including "Penthouse" which is no better or worse than thousands of such obnoxious Web sites.

In comparison, I recently read about Warren Buffett, another superrich and super philanthropist. He still lives in a house he bought in 1958 for $31,500. "In December 2006 it was reported that Buffett does not carry a cell phone, does not have a computer at his desk, and drives his own automobile, a Cadillac DTS".

If Mukesh Ambani’s helipad gets environmental clearance, it would be possible for him and his family of five to live in Mumbai without ever having to touch the ground. Under these circumstances, it is not at all surprising that the Chief Minister thought of ways to accommodate his "in-laws" in a sea-facing skyscraper. Unlike in the case of Ambani who used his own money to build the grotesque Atilia, Ashok Chavan misused his authority to favour his relatives.

So, is this not corruption of the highest order? What moral right does Chavan has in continuing as Chief Minister when his predecessor Vilasrao Deshmukh was asked to go because he allowed a film producer to accompany him when he officially visited the terror-hit Taj Hotel?

Of course, it is a different matter that Communications Minister A. Raja, who is alleged to have made hundreds of crores of rupees when 2G Spectrum licences were sold at predetermined low prices, is an honourable member of the Union Cabinet. Some of those who bought the licences immediately sold them and made a pile of money. Raja would surely have known why real estate companies, which did not have any experience in the telecommunication field, bought those licences.

The monstrosity of the scandal would not have hit the nation but for a different system used for allocating 3G Spectrum licences early this year. Raja caused a loss of not less than Rs 1 lakh crore by selling, rather than auctioning, the 2G Spectrum licenses.

If Raja can survive as minister, despite the Supreme Court making some sarcastic comments on him, surely Ashok Chavan can continue as Chief Minister. But it will be at the cost of the credibility of UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

courtesy Indian Currents

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