Fadnavis government accused of irregularities in land leased to trust affiliated to Tamil Nadu governor

(left to right) Chandrashekhar Bawankule, the former energy minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, the state's former chief minister, and Banwarilal Purohit, the governor of Tamil Nadu, at the Ramdev Baba Engineering College in Nagpur, in September 2016. Fadnavis and Bawankule have been accused of committing irregularities in leasing government land to the Nagpur chapter of the education trust, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, which is run by Purohit. PTI
04 August, 2020

Land-revenue records of a ten-acre plot in Nagpur’s Khaparkheda village, which was leased to a trust linked to Banwarilal Purohit, a veteran Maharashtra leader, disclose irregularities, according to a criminal complaint filed by the advocate Satish Uke. The Maharashtra State Power Generation Company Limited, commonly known as Mahagenco, leased the land to an education trust, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, in November 2015. The state-run company had originally acquired the Khaparkheda plot—located in Koradi village, north of Nagpur—to develop the Koradi Thermal Power Station. On 9 July, Uke filed a complaint at the Koradi police station accusing Devendra Fadnavis, a former chief minister, of facilitating the encroachment of the Khaparkheda land by illegally leasing it to Purohit’s education trust.

Purohit has been the governor of Tamil Nadu since October 2017, after serving as Assam’s governor for a little over a year, and is a three-time member of parliament from Nagpur in the 1980s and 1990s—twice from the Congress and once from the Bharatiya Janata Party. He switched to the BJP in 1991 after the Congress ousted him for participating in the Ayodhya kar seva—the movement to build a temple at the site of the Babri Masjid. Purohit is a national trustee and the vice president of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and also serves as the chairperson of the organisation’s Nagpur Kendra—its Nagpur unit.

According to Uke’s complaint, Fadnavis committed irregularities in order to lease the plot to Purohit by failing to follow the legal procedure governing land transfer. The complaint also emphasised that land records continued to identify the ten-acre plot as a lake. Uke added that it was allotted to the Maharashtra State Electricity Board, which was subsequently trifurcated into three entities, and ownership of the Khaparkheda plot fell to Mahagenco for the purpose of power generation. Uke alleged that Fadnavis, Purohit and Chandrashekhar Bawankule—the state’s energy minister at the time—were criminally liable for a conspiracy to usurp the lake, originally meant for allied development plans of the power plant.

The land-revenue record of the plot shows that the land was transferred to Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan on 3 November 2015 on a 30-year lease. The lease deed, annexed to Uke’s complaint, reveals that Mahagenco and the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan agreed to establish a school at the Koradi plot. As per the lease deed, the school would provide preference in admission to students from the families of those employed at the three companies that previously formed the Maharashtra State Electricity Board. The deed further stated that “the Kendra Committee of Nagpur Kendra, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, shall vest with complete control and power to manage all the affairs of the school.” The deed also noted that the Bhavan would pay Rs 20 lakh per year to Mahagenco as rent for the land, and that the lease period of thirty years could be extended for a further period of sixty years.

Uke’s complaint sought the registration of a first-information report against the trio. He claimed that Fadnavis, Purohit and Bawankule had an eye on the plot ever since they came to power in the state in 2014. “The lake was made to disappear and a plan was prepared to construct an expensive private school run by Banwarilal Purohit’s trust and executed this plan through a criminal conspiracy,” Uke wrote in his complaint. “This lake was meant for a power generation centre,” he added.

This  is not the first time that questions have been raised about the manner in which the plot was allotted to the school. In December 2017, Janardan Moon, a social activist and former corporator of Nagpur, filed a public-interest litigation before the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, challenging the 30-year lease. “The land in question being government land, the same cannot be given to any private institution and that too without holding public auction,” Moon wrote.

AR Ingole, an advocate who represented Moon in this case, told me that there was Supreme Court precedent that categorically stated that any such allotment must be conducted through a public auction. In 1997, in the case of State of Kerala vs M Bhaskaran Pillai, the court held:

It is settled law that if the land is acquired for a public purpose, after the public purpose was achieved, the rest of the land could be used for any other public purpose. In case there is not other public purpose for which the land is needed, then instead of disposal by way of sale to the erstwhile owner, the land should be put to public auction and the amount fetched in the public auction can be better utilised for the public purpose envisaged in the Directive Principles of the Constitution.

When asked whether the Maharashtra Land Revenue Code made auctions mandatory, Ingole conceded that district collectors were empowered to hand over a plot to educational institutions at concessional rates. But he argued that the Supreme Court’s decisions had to be interpreted along with the provision. “They can’t favour one particular institution like this,” he said. “There should have been a public auction for other similarly situated institutions. The Supreme Court’s decision is binding.” Uke, too, agreed that the collector had discretionary powers, but added, “He can give away land but he cannot give away a lake.”

Another issue highlighted by Uke and Moon was the fact that the state’s land-revenue records continue to identify the Khaparkheda plot as a lake, and its user as Mahagenco. According to Moon’s petition, the land was allotted to Mahagenco for the purpose of maintaining a lake for the Koradi power plant, and it was identified as such in the state’s development plan. He claimed that the land had been subsequently allotted to the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan under pressure from Bawankule, “without there being any change in user to the private C.B.S.E. school run by” the education trust. But the land-revenue records do not reflect the change in user even though the land was leased to Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for the purpose of establishing a school.

The Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning Act, 1966 and the Maharashtra Land Revenue Code, 1966 are clear on the fact that any change in use or user of a land can only take place with the prior sanction of the state government. But Uke and Moon argued that if such sanction had been formally sought by submitting a new development plan to the state government, then the land-revenue records would have reflected the change in user, in accordance with the Town Planning Act.

Sarjerao Patil, an advocate at the Bombay High Court, also claimed that the land-revenue records suggested irregularities in the manner that Mahagenco leased the plot. He referred to the details of the plot, available on the state’s land-revenue website, in a document called the “7/12 extract.” The document summarises details of a plot of land based on available public records. “In the 7/12 extract, you come to know who is the owner of the land,” Patil told me. “If I want to buy a land, I would want to find out if there are any encumbrances, mortgage and so on. How can I find out? Through land records.”

Patil, too, observed that the change in use and user of the land had not been reflected in the 7/12 extract. “The records show that it's a lake.” Uke also pointed to another anomaly in the 7/12 extract. The lease deed for the ten-acre plot of land covered two plots in the land-revenue records, number 77 and 78. He pointed out that the 7/12 extract for plot 78 recorded that the land was leased to Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan—though the user was still identified as Mahagenco—but the land-revenue record for plot 77 did not even reflect that the plot had been leased to the education trust.

Uke’s complaint also cited a letter from the state’s energy department to demonstrate Bawankule’s push for the allotment to be hurried. On 1 October 2015, Manohar Pote, who was then the officer on special duty in the energy department, wrote to the land-records office in Kamptee taluk stating, “Mahagenco has made the land in Nanda Koradi available for the construction of Bhavan’s school.” Adding that the fee for the measurement of the land had already been paid in the previous month, the official urged the land records office to expedite the process.

“The honourable minister has given instructions,” the letter stated, with reference to Bawankule. Uke told me that this document made it clear “that the minister had a vested interest.” Patil, too, observed that the process appeared to have been rushed. "This whole procedure takes at least two years,” he said. “But they were in such a hurry for the measurement of the land and other permissions.”

On 8 November, five days after the lease was registered, the chief minister’s office posted photos of the bhoomipujan—a Hindu prayer ritual performed before a construction  activity—of the school by Fadnavis, in the presence of Bawankule and Purohit, on its Twitter page. At the function, he told the media that his government planned to open seven schools near the state’s power plants for children of Mahagenco employees.

In July 2016, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s Nagpur unit opened the Bhagwandas Purohit Vidya Mandir on the plot in Khaparkheda for partial classes, even as some construction work continued at the site. By May 2018, the entire construction had been completed at a cost of Rs 42 crore. In December next year, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court dismissed Moon’s petition, holding that it had been filed too long after the project had commenced. The court noted that the school had 1,781 enrolled students in and a staff of 105 people.

“If any interference is to be made at this stage by the Court, it would only amount to turning the clock back and it would result in causing prejudice to so many a number of students and staff, for no fault of their own,” the court held. It also stated that Moon knew about these circumstances since November 2015, because he had placed a newspaper clipping from that time on record, and had intentionally delayed filing the suit. It is unclear whether the court did not take into consideration newspaper archives or how it came to the conclusion that Moon had the news report he had annexed since 2015. The court dismissed the case and imposed costs of Rs 10,000 on Moon.

In January 2020, Moon filed a review petition against the dismissal before the same court. The review is still pending, Ingole told me. Meanwhile, on 19 July, Anil Deshmukh, the state’s home minister, forwarded the complaint to a deputy commissioner of police in Nagpur “for enquiry and necessary action.”

I called and emailed questionnaires to Fadnavis, Bawankule, Purohit, Mahagenco and the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan seeking their responses on the allegations of flouting of government procedures in the land allotment. Bawankule responded to me on WhatsApp, emphasising that the “allotment process was fair, transparent and in public interest.” He referred to the Bombay High Court’s dismissal of Moon’s petition, and said that the case documents made it “crystal clear that the land allotted for school was a barren land and was not reserved for lake as has been erroneously mentioned.” Bawankule added, “The documents also reveals details of series of meetings, deliberation at the highest level and transparency with which the entire issue was diligently handled by the Mahagenco and even by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, which is an internationally reputed organisation.”

He also claimed that the Nagpur Metropolitan Region Development Authority had categorised the plot of land on which the school lies as a “public utility.” However, the development plan available on the NMRDA’s website identifies the plots 77 and 78 as industrial and agricultural. An August 2016 document on modifications to the development plan, also available on the NMRDA website, lists the permissible public utilities, and it does not include schools or educational facilities. The list appears restricted to activities related to public services such as water and electricity generation, waste management and communication, among others.   

Bawankule then proceeded to describe the popularity of the school, which he said was in the process of “constructing a Cultural Centre dedicated to Ramayana on the lines of Vivekananda Rock memorial at Kanyakumari at the cost of Rs 40 crore to make holy town of Koradi a centre of attraction for tourists.” Bawankule dismissed Uke’s complaints about the rushed allotment as “hollow, scandalous, malicious, mischievous, devoid of any merit and aimed at maligning the image of this nationally reputed institution and personalities involved in establishing this institution.” He added, “The entire allegation is about alleged favouritism towards school run by Purohit during Fadnavis regime, has been made without providing an iota of evidence to prove this serious charge, and is an attempt to throw stones at a project adored by citizens and even political class cutting across party lines.”

Fadnavis piggybacked on Bawankule’s response. He wrote, “I think former power minister Mr. Chandrashekhar Bawankule has given you a very detailed reply with the copy of the order of Hon. High court.” Dismissing Uke’s complaint as “a publicity stunt,” Fadnavis concluded his message stating that he was “seriously contemplating on filing a criminal defamation against such malicious and utterly false campaign by the complainant.”

When I pressed Bawankule about the government’s failure to hold an auction, he claimed that the government had issued an expression-of-interest notice inviting applications for the plot of land. He said he would send me the notice, but had not done so despite reminders by the time this piece was published. Purohit, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and Mahagenco did not respond to my emails and messages. The story will be updated if and when they respond. Umakant Nikhare, who was a chief engineer at Mahagenco when the lease deed was executed and who signed the agreement on behalf of the company, told me, “I have retired, I have forgotten everything about Mahagenco.”