Bureaucracy questions legal validity of land allotted at paltry sum to Sharad Pawar-led institute

Sandeep Ashar
Maha Vikas Aghadi, maharashtra government, maharashtra Upcoming polls, sharad pawar, NCP, mumbai news, maharashtranews, indian express news

NCP president Sharad Pawar  (File photo)shah

FRESH DETAILS on the state government’s decision to allot land in Marathwada to an agricultural research institute headed by NCP president Sharad Pawar at nominal rates show that other than the finance and revenue departments, the state law department too had put up strong objections to the allotment. As reported by The Indian Express, the state Cabinet on Wednesday had allotted a 51-hectare plot of government land in Jalna’s Patharwala village to the Vasantdada Sugar Institute (VSI) as a “special case” for a paltry lease rent of Re 1 a year.

The plot is valued at Rs 10 crore. Official records accessed by The Indian Express show that the state’s bureaucracy had raised questions over the move’s legal validity. Official communication show that revenue and law departments had cited Supreme Court rulings and past government orders to stress that the land in question could not be directly allotted to VSI, a public trust founded in 1975 by cooperative sugar barons.

The land, measuring 51.33 ha, was originally acquired for setting up a government-run seed farm and was in possession of the state agriculture department.

On Wednesday, officials of the revenue department, which deals with disposal of government land, in an official communication to the Cabinet, had argued that the plot “cannot be allotted to a private institute in leasehold rights without resorting to the mode of public auction”.

But the Uddhav Thackeray-led Cabinet overruled the department’s objections. Five sitting ministers in the government — Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, Excise Minister Dilip Walse-Patil, Finance Minister Jayant Patil, Public Health Minister Rajesh Tope (NCP) and Revenue Minister Balasaheb Thorat (Congress) — are a part of the Board of Trustees of VSI, where Pawar is the chairman.

Officials said that all the ministers were present when the department’s proposal against the allotment of land was overruled. Congress MoS (Home) Satej Patil is on VSI’s governing council.

The finance department also opined against leasing the land to VSI for a paltry sum. It had advised collection of rents at market rates in lieu of the allotment.

The law and revenue departments had recorded their opinions on the proposal’s file, citing a May 5, 1997, ruling of the Supreme Court that surplus land acquired for a public purpose could either be allotted for other public purposes only or disposed of by resorting to a public auction or bids, with the funds raised from such an auction being utilised for public purposes only.

Commenting on the SC judgment, the revenue department wrote on the file that while it does not prohibit the disposal of land by way of lease, it does not permit disposal of such land without an auction. Echoing the department’s viewpoint, the law department, meanwhile, shared an opinion submitted by the office of Maharashtra’s advocate general in a similar case in 2016.

The law department also argued that the normal mode of granting government lands, under Maharashtra’s land disposal rules, was by public auction or public tenders.

The Cabinet, while overruling the bureaucracy’s objections, appears to have relied on an exception in the same rules that grants the government the power to allot land for permissible purposes to extraordinary, distinguished, eminent or prominent institutions, or persons without inviting bids.
The BJP, meanwhile, accused the ruling coalition of “parceling out government land to the Pawar-run trust”. BJP MLA and spokesperson Ram Kadam said, “Allotment of such a big land to the institute without following set guidelines is making a mockery of taxpayers money. On the one hand, the government has been staying development work after coming to power, then it goes on to allot prime land to trusts run by politicians.”

The NCP was quick to hit back, with senior minister and Mumbai party president Nawab Malik saying, “The institute had sought the allotment of the land for sugarcane research. It is in the interest of the farmers... while Pawar is VSI’s chairman, MLAs across party lines were members in the institute.”

Malik also pointed out that the previous regime had given green signal to the proposal for allotting the land to VSI. Official records indicate that the agriculture department had first handed over the land to the revenue department on July 25, 2017, following the directives of then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.

Citing the nature of the work of VSI, the Cabinet has also determined that land allotment for the institute’s requirement would fall under the definition of public purpose, a contention that both law and revenue departments have objected to.