High court orders CBI probe into Pune land scam

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

MUMBAI - The Bombay High Court Tuesday transferred the Pune land scam probe to the CBI and directed the agency to book former Maharashtra minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Raj Purohit and others for the alleged Rs.3 billion fraud, a lawyer said.

The division bench of Justice B.H. Marlapalle and Justice U.D. Salvi ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to take over the investigations from the state police into the alleged irregularities committed in Pune under the Urban Land Celing and Regulation Act (ULCRA).

The court order came during hearing on a petition that claimed hundreds of bogus orders were passed by government officials ostensibly exempting prime chunks of land in Pune from acquisition under the ULCRA for building houses for the poor.

The judges told the CBI to register the first information reports (FIRs) within six weeks against all the revenue officials involved in the case as well as against Purohit, at present Mumbai city BJP chief, said lawyer for petitioner Govind Sovani.

The judges said that according to a report of the one-member inquiry committee of Sudhakar Joshi, retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer appointed by the state government, Purohit and other revenue department officials abused their powers and passed fraudulent orders.

Purohit’s lawyer Nitin Pradhan said they would challenge the high court order.

Maharashtra state BJP spokesman Madhav Bhandari had initiated the public interest litigation alleging that between 1976-2005, as many as 11,894 returns (the statements comprising property and other details of people having interest in land) had been filed under the ULCRA for urban areas in Pune. The ULCRA has now been repealed.

The PIL claimed hundreds of allegedly bogus orders were passed by government officials exempting prime chunks of land in Pune from being acquired by the state under the ULCRA.

“Accordingly, on the basis of the fake ULCRA orders, lakhs of square metres of land, which could have been used for public housing for the poor, had been rendered for private use,” Bhandari’s counsel Sovani said.

Sovani said in the petition that a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) probe into the land scam, which was exposed in 2005, failed to make much headway.

Under the ULCRA, an individual could only hold 500 square metres land. Anything in excess of this, had to be surrendered to the state to house the poor.

Sovani contended that fake bogus orders were issued showing large tracts of land as “non-surplus”, and the owners were exempted from surrendering it to the state.

Senior officials connived with builders to grab huge chunks of prime land in and around Pune, the petitioner alleged.

Moreover, 29 cases filed by the CID last year and early this year failed to name a single revenue department official, he alleged.

When the scam was first exposed in 2005 and later the state CID was handed over the probe, one of the beneficiaries had to pay a fine of Rs.8 crore.

“If the penalty from one accused could enrich the state exchequer by Rs.80 million, the 300 files awaiting scrutiny by the state CID can yield a lot of money for the state coffers,” the petition said.

The figure from this could run well over Rs.3 billion and the matter needed to be probed thoroughly, Sovani said.

This land irregularity could be even bigger than the Adarsh society (in Mumbai), the division bench observed during the last hearing earlier this month.

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