An old news item in Indian Express

Indian Express Nashik
Sunday, February 12, 2006
Map for lost cities
In 2003 Nashik collector Mahesh Zagade broke its biggest land scandal, exposing the dark underbelly of development. Today, Nashik shows the country how to build a city
Anuradha Nagaraj
Nashik
THE Nashik
collector likes a fresh flower arrangement on his desk every few days. He also likes to strictly adhere to the law. While the fresh flowers have been no problem, Mahesh Zagade’s ‘‘go by the rule book’’ anthem has unearthed a multi-crore land scandal, brought black magic to his doorstep and exposed the underbelly of urban development.
‘‘For the first time in the annals of history, there is foreign funding for urban centric development,’’ the bespectacled collector begins. ‘‘There is exponential growth expected in cities across the country as the highways come up and money pours in. This is the time to take a step back before it is too late. And Nashik is the best example to learn from.’’
Zagade knows what he’s talking about. Four hours on an under construction four-lane highway from Mumbai is one of India’s fastest growing urban centres. Known for hosting the traditional Kumbh Mela every 12 years and simultaneously speeding down the development highway with an annual growth rate of over five per cent, Nashik is waiting for its chance to grow up to become a ‘‘megacity’’.
In the race to cash in on the saturation of cities like Mumbai and Pune, Nashik has set a punishing pace for itself — expanding infrastructure, marketing its wine, kick starting its airport and making sure it is on the chosen list of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal mission.
On the surface, the city seems to be doing fine. Like all other ambitious small cities across the country, the Nashik skyline is also dotted with haphazard construction, its streets littered with malls and multiplexes. As it opens up to MNCs, in the narrow bylanes of the old city, the kirana store still flourishes.
But below the promising surface, a bubbling cauldron of corruption, deceit and deception was making Nashik’s megacity ride a very bumpy one. And as residents watched, their ‘‘pilgrim city’’ was threatening to turn into a monstrosity they didn’t really want.
IT all began in the ’90s and slowly spiralled out of control. It was during the mad rush of the Kumbh Mela in 2003, a few months after Zagade took charge, that an innocuous meeting with a builder first exposed the darkside of development.
‘‘During those hectic days, I had a visitor who wanted some permission regarding land,’’ Zagade remembers. ‘‘Without giving me much of a chance to react, he started talking big money and caught my attention.’’
And then companies started applying to him for permission to convert agricultural land into non-agricultural (NA) land. Going by the book, Zagade started rejecting the applications, stating that only farmers were allowed to buy agricultural land.
Alarmed builders barged into his office, demanding an explanation, offering bribes and threatening dire consequences.
‘‘Seeing their desperation, I started digging deeper,’’ Zagade says. ‘‘And I quickly realised that for almost 10 years, all land laws in Nashik had been on holiday. Every rule had been broken and every law twisted to help a handful of people buy property worth crores in the city.’’
As the district collectorate started investigating suspicious land deals, they found a ‘‘systematic failure of the revenue department’’ and about 350 companies were found to have prima facie involvement. These companies were floated by land sharks to acquire agricultural or reserved land for commercial purposes.
In the last 30 years, about 300 cases of serious irregularities in transfer of agricultural land have been detected. In most of the cases, private companies have bought agricultural land in violation of rules, while in some cases, land reserved for public purposes has been illegally transferred to builders.
TIPS FOR A PLANNED TOMORROW
Tips for a planned tomorrow
HAVING battled the collective might of the builder lobby and politicians, Zagade has now written to Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, asking his government to review the Maharashtra Land code. In his proposal, Zagade has recommended a far-sighted approach and a law that clearly defines ownership rights. And most importantly, he has asked for the law to be written in simple language, so that even a farmer is clear on his or her property rights.In one of the most audacious violations, a prime plot of land reserved for building a new complex for various government offices in the city was cut into plots and sold by a private builder. As the inquiry progressed, it showed that besides buying up land and pushing real estate prices up, the land mafia had also evaded stamp duty worth crores, left behind hundreds of landless farmers with little money in hand and ensured that planned growth remains a dream for the city.
Almost two years into the land scam probes, Zagade continues to get threats. On two occasions, his house has been broken into. The third time round, black magic voodoo dolls, each one with a needle sticking in it, were left at his doorstep.
BUT that hasn’t stopped Zagade’s zeal or the city’s growth. ‘‘Nashik has become an eye-opener for others,’’ says Zagade, self-indulgently. At a time when bulldozers are razing down buildings in Delhi and the course of the Mithi river is being debated in Mumbai, Nashik is putting its building blocks together.
After the Nashik land scandal broke, the administration got cracking. The district collectorate started boldly stamping ‘‘illegal transaction’’ on all 7/12 rights of record documents. It also gave farmers the right to buy back land they had sold to industries. All stamp duty evasions were brought under the scanner and heavy fines imposed on defaulters.
To ensure that the accused did not slip through some legal loophole, collector Zagade used the knowledge he had gained during his stint in the Law and Judiciary department to successfully argue the cases in court.
Over 16,000 cases, where NA approvals were given by the government are being scrutinised again to check whether the permission to convert agricultural land into non-agricultural land was correctly given. Is Amitabh Bachchan a farmer? And if he is not then can he buy agricultural land (he owns land near Pune)? These questions were thrown up during the Nashik land scam investigations and have initiated a nation-wide debate. In Nashik, the government has appointed a special tehsildar to look into all such cases and submit a report.
Often invited to speak on land laws, Zagade’s only tip is ‘‘follow the law’’. ‘‘Government officials have permitted the chaos in Mumbai and Delhi to build up. Now they want to break it down. My question is, why allow the illegalities in the first place?’’
And the answer to that, Zagade believes, holds the key to planned development of tomorrow’s megacities.
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