While declining to interfere with permissions given for development of Lavasa hill-station in Pune district in 2002, the Bombay high court on Saturday referred to the “influence and clout” used by NCP chief Sharad Pawar and his family in the project. It also said Ajit Pawar was found to be “remiss in his duty” as irrigation minister and ex-officio chairman of Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corporation.
“Having regard to the gross delay (in filing of petition) and development that has taken place subsequently, we have taken a judicial hands-off view and not granted reliefs as sought by the petitioner,” said Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish Kulkarni. They upheld the validity of an amendment to the Bombay Tenancy and Agricultural Land Act, 2005 after permissions were given for purchase of lands by Lavasa Corporation.
Their verdict came on an August 2018 PIL by advocate Nanasaheb Jadhav to declare permissions as void, arbitrary, unreasonable, bad in law, and obtained with undue political interference and breach of trust. Sharad Pawar, his daughter Supriya Sule, and his nephew Ajit Pawar, were joined as parties to the PIL.
Although the Pawars were represented by advocate Joel Carlos, only Ajit Pawar refuted the allegations. In the absence of effective denial by Sharad Pawar and Sule, Jadhav argued the allegations must be deemed to be admitted. The judges added, “All with a view to give shape to Shri Sharad Pawar’s dream project of Lavasa, it can’t be said exertion of influence and clout by Sharad Pawar and Supriya Sule is an unreasonable inference that cannot be drawn from the facts.”
Lavasa was Sharad Pawar’s “dream project.” Ajit Pawar was irrigation minister and ex-officio chairman of MKVDC. He chaired the meeting where an ex-post facto sanction was given to construct weirs on the backwaters of Varasgaon-Morse dam which would supply water to Lavasa. Sule was a shareholder in Lavasa, and she represents Baramati constituency in which 18 villages were included in 2009 in Lavasa City.
The judge said in view of the unrebutted allegations, the court is left to judge the veracity of the allegations on the tests of probability without anything more substantial by way of answer. ” Pawar and Sule being personally interested in the project of the hill station, it is proved by preponderance of probability that allegations are true,” the HC said.
The judges agreed with amicus curiae, senior advocate Shiraz Rustomjee, that there was failure to follow a fair and transparent tender procedure. Jadhav said Ajit Pawar took active part in the decision-making process for setting up the Lavasa project without disclosing his blood relations with Pawar and Sule. “As the minister for irrigation and holder of a constitutional office, it was Ajit Pawar’s duty to disclose his direct and indirect interest in the matter, but there was nothing on record to suggest he did disclose his interest… Limited to that extent he is found to be remiss in his duty,” the judges said.
In conclusion, they said although the PIL is designed to espouse the cause of farmers, they felt “a judicial hands-off approach is best suited in the present case having regard to the gross delay as Lavasa came into existence over a decade ago.”