National Herald case: Publisher wanted to use Bandra plot commercially

Associated Journals was allotted prime land at Bandra (east) for a Nehru memorial library and research centre; the publisher of the now defunct National Herald wanted to build a co-operative bank and commodity exchange on this property

Making the controversy involving the Associated Journals Limited (AJL) even murkier, it has now been revealed that the company, which was allotted a prime piece of land in Bandra (east) 32 years ago, wanted to develop it for commercial use before the recent debate started. AJL, the publisher of the now defunct National Herald, wanted a large-size cooperative bank and commodity exchange to be built by a private company, which had even paid money to the suburban collector in 2004 for claiming occupancy rights to the plot.

Congress workers stage a protest against the BJP government at Kherwadi junction, accusing the ruling party of targeting its leadership and resorting to vendetta politics in the National Herald case. FILE PIC
Congress workers stage a protest against the BJP government at Kherwadi junction, accusing the ruling party of targeting its leadership and resorting to vendetta politics in the National Herald case. FILE PIC

The 3,478 sq m of land
in Bandra, which the Maharashtra government had allotted to AJL in 1983 for building a Nehru memorial library and research centre off the Western Express Highway, was originally reserved for a hostel for scheduled caste students. It remained vacant for around 30 years after being allotted. AJL had sought permission to build a commercial complex there, but the proposed library does not find a place in the revised plan, which was moved in the BMC in 2012. The BMC granted AJL permission to start work in 2013.

Residential use
Earlier, a portion of this land was allotted to a housing project in which many top Congress politicians reside currently. This splitting of land is also under the scanner.

Probe ordered
The BJP has demanded the scrapping of the allotment on the charge that the use of the land had been changed for building an 11-storey commercial tower. On Friday, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis appointed Additional Chief Secretary Gautam Chatterjee to probe the matter and submit a report at the earliest.

The probe is crucial in view of the case now being fought by the Gandhis, Sonia and Rahul and some other senior Congress leaders, in a Delhi court. All these leaders were summoned to the court last week, following which the Congress staged a countrywide stir, accusing the BJP governments at the Centre and State of pursuing a political vendetta.

RTI documents
Right to Information activist Anil Galgali, who has been digging into the Bandra plot controversy for many years, has laid his hands on documents that indicate that AJL has been trying to commercially exploit the land for windfall gains. Galgali told mid-day on Friday that AJL had entered into an agreement with the Swarup Group of Industries, which made a payment of Rs 10 lakh with the intention of developing an academic library for research work along with a cooperative bank in Maharashtra on the Bandra plot. Galgali also gave mid-day all the documents that he has procured under RTI from the suburban collector’s office.

Swarup Group of Industries told the collector that it had been directed by AJL to clear outstanding dues for the plot and hence sought to know the amount. It also sought an instalment option for clearing the dues (Rs 99,71,894). Swarup Group of Industries also enclosed a letter addressed to the company by the Forward Markets Commission, which had authorised it to start an SGI Commodity Exchange in Mumbai. Apparently, the company wanted the exchange to be operated from its Bandra premises.

Occupancy rights
In February 2005, a law firm M/s Pirani and Co sought to verify the claims made by Swarup Group of Industries that it had been given the occupancy rights to the plot. The law firm had taken this step following a public notice for investigation of the land title. It told the suburban collector that the Swarup Group of Industries had refused to provide the details it had asked for, and hence it would not be able to grant a title verification certificate. The government follows this kind of procedure whenever property transactions are conducted.

Galgali said the matter might have been buried then and there because of incessant inquiries. “However, AJL moved a proposal to change the use of land again in 2012 and got permission to start work on the plot next year. Interestingly, this time the permissions were sought in the name of AJL. I have not been able to get more information as to who has invested the money in the project,” he said.

Maharashtra Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant accused the government of witch-hunting. “AJL and our party have done no wrong. Whatever we did is under the law and the government should wait for the building to come up. The structure could be inspected thoroughly once we get it erected.” mid-day has independently learnt that a city-based construction major which has expertise in building infrastructure and commercial/housing projects has been awarded a construction contract for the 11-storey building. mid-day tried to contact Swarup Group of Industries on the telephone numbers that are given on its letterhead. Most numbers elicited no response. When an unidentified person answered one of the lines, he denied that it was the company’s office. M/s Pirani and Co could not be reached for comment.

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