THE allure of real estate, while low in Mumbai's business circuits, is currently high in the political arena. The corruption cases that are causing much dust to fly in political circles are at present centred around dubious property deals. The most high profile of these charges are traded by Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and Opposition leader Chhagan Bhujbal.
Thackeray's daughter-in-law Smita, Bhujbal alleged, had bought a flat measuring 1,800 sq ft for Rs 3.10 crore through her company Smita Exports Pvt Ltd. The flat, in Silver Beach Apartments located in the central Shivaji Park area, belonged to noted film publicist Bunny Reuben, claimed Bhujbal. The Opposition leader made the accusations on March 15 just before the budget session of the state legislature, and the same day sent a letter to Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram seeking a probe into Smita's company.
Bhujbal also demanded that a list of beneficiaries of the 10 per cent housing quota since the Sena-BJP came to power be made public. "You will find that the beneficiaries are mainly from the Thackeray, Vaidya and Chitra families. That is, the families of Bal Thackeray, his wife Meenatai and his daughter-in-law Smita," says Bhujbal, who has taken on the Sena and its ruling family ever since he left the party a few years ago.
Thackeray's accusations came a day before Bhujbal's. Thackeray alleged that a former chief minister had been paid Rs 5 crore by a builder. He also claimed that he had handed over details of a scandal involving Sharad Pawar to Chief Minister Manohar Joshi. Thackeray also spoke of corruption in the 10 per cent housing quota reserved for government nominees when Bhujbal was the housing minister. "He is trying to silence me during the session," retorted Bhujbal. Those accused by Bhujbal are not far behind in registering outraged innocence. Smita Thackeray denies having an export company; Bunny Reuben, who now lives in suburban Powai, refuses to comment.
Both sets of accusations have a familiar ring. Throughout Mumbai, from its high-rises to its pavements, there are a variety of land-grab and eviction stories being played out. Quite a few are carried out by individual operators, but the larger picture is a network that includes the politician, gangster, builder and/or landlord in an unholy coalition. Says architect and former Congress MLA Chandrasekhar Prabhu: "Practically all of Mumbai is for sale." There are variants in the nexus story. The politician, the builder, the gangster, the landlord or even the tenant could be the main villain in a systematically executed plot. The villains vary, the results don't. Here's how:
In many cases, gang involvement turns ugly for builders and businessmen who take their help. Especially for those who get involved in inter-gang rivalries. For instance, textile tycoon Sunit Khatau (Khatau Mills) and builder Om Prakash Kukreja were gunned down by the underworld. MLAs belonging to the saffron alliance who were killed before the combine came to power are said to have been involved in gang-related property disputes. "Play with fire and get burnt. Being a politician does not save people involved in such dealings," says a Sena legislator.
Other politicians are victims of the stickiness of real estate allegations. Sharad Pawar survived accusations linked to land deals, but the Thackerays have not managed to brush aside their share. A series of charges of extortion and eviction have dogged them in the last year. Thackeray's son Jaidev was linked to a couple of cases of eviction while his nephew Raj was questioned in connection with the Kini case.
A prime example of an individual operator in nefarious land dealings is that of Saleem Lakdawala and his Saudi Arabian wife Fatima Kimbasa who, between 1972 and 1996, are said to have snatched 14 flats worth over Rs 30 crore in expensive south Mumbai areas. Over the years they allegedly moved into many flats owned by old people, saying they would move out in three months. "The stakes are much higher in real estate than in other areas in the city. It is still seen as an area where funds can be parked
easily. Wherever the prices are higher, the stakes are much higher," says a city-based real estate consultant. Some builders feel that it is not just high rates that attract the darker elements to real estate. Says Mohan Deshmukh, secretary of the Maharashtra Chamber of Housing Industry: "Crime exists in every field, but is more so where there is more money. Plus, in real estate, it is also related to the vulnerability of the individual owners". Land and property, the oldest cause of power conflicts, is still where politicos pick their easy meat.