Thursday, May 2, 2013

Scam-hit Lonavala is losing the plot

All infrastructure projects in Mumbai’s favourite getaway stalled after residents unearth Rs 1.5-cr scam
Trouble’s simmering in Lonavala, which has for long been a picturesque getaway for a majority of Mumbaikars, and where some of the city’s richest and the most glamorous boast of opulent holiday homes.

The hill station, famous for lush green ghats, waterfalls and ponds, sports a rough look these days, with heaps of garbage strewn all over its narrow lanes, and several pockets of stalled infrastructure projects.

For the past one year, no development project in Lonavala-Khandala has come through, and event he ongoing public amenities projects have been stalled, following a few scams that snowballed into a major political battle in the Lonavala Municipal Council.

Things have come to such a pass that for the past few months, the municipal council has been forced to return the grants released by the state and the Union governments, as there is nothing to show in the name of development.

Recently, the municipal council had to return Rs 75 crore that the Centre had sanctioned for the hill station under the Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small and Medium Towns (UIDSSMT) Scheme, after the warring corporators failed to pass a resolution needed to accept the grant.

The problems surfaced early this year, when the residents of Lonavala-Khandala came to know of a scam wherein a contractor was paid an advance of Rs 1.5 crore for a Rs 20 crore project to lay underground drainage system. The scam was unearthed after an activist, Jagannath Naidu, managed to get hold of the relevant documents under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, which revealed the contract was awarded in 2011 to a firm called Sunil Farm Engineering Company.

The firm was sanctioned the advance, allegedly by the Lonavala Municipal Council president, Surekha Jadhav from BJP, despite the council’s engineering department turning down the request, the residents said. A few months after the advance money was disbursed, the firm abandoned the project, and didn’t bother to repay the amount, the residents said.

“The contractor simply vanished,” Naidu said, “Going through the contract documents, I was shocked to see that he was issued an advance without any legal provision for such payments.”

Following Naidu’s complaints to the state authorities, an inquiry revealed the firm had allegedly cheated other civic bodies as well. The bank guarantees provided by the firm for the Lonavala contract turned out to be fake, and the owners were arrested recently.

With the scam out in the open, politicians controlling the Lonavala Municipal Council played the blame game, resulting in the council being split down the middle.

A few corporators from Surekha Jadhav’s party joined the opposition ranks, while a few from the opposition crossed over to her side. Currently, Jadhav has the support of 11 corporators, while the opposition, has 13 corporators.

One of the reasons for the mess in the Lonavala Municipal Council is the new political alliances. “While the BJP-Sena combine has the majority, several of their corporators are now supporting the opposition. At the same time, a few Congress corporators have crossed over to the other side,” the source said.

The Centre grant was sanctioned under the Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small and Medium Towns (UIDSSMT) Scheme, which required the municipal council to pass a resolution.

Sources said to avail the grant, the state government and the Lonavala Municipal Council were required to contribute 10 per cent of the infrastructure projects costs. The resolution never went through, and the municipal council had no option but to return the grant, sources said.

Blaming her opponents for the troubles, Jadhav told Mumbai Mirror, “The allegations that I sanctioned an advance of Rs 1.5 crore to the contractor are just lies. All I did was sign a piece of paper which the administration had approved of. My political opponents have resorted to disgraceful tactics to remove me,and I will not bow down to such intimidation.”

While the political tug-of-war is on, the residents said the existing infrastructure too is on a decline. The Lonavala-Khandala Citizens’ Forum had filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay High Court more than six years ago, demanding better infrastructure, following which the court issued several directives to the state, most of which have not been followed.

Tanu Mehta, secretary of the citizens’ forum, said: “People are suffering because of political battles. There is a lot of land in Lonavala-Khandala that is under development but the infrastructure just doesn’t match up.”
Yogesh.Sadhwani TWEETS @yogeshsadhwani