In order to appease voters of housing societies, members of legislative assembly (MLAs) and members of legislative council (MLCs) of various political parties divert their local area development scheme (LADS) funds, given by the state government to carry out civic and beautification works in these private premises. This, however, is illegal as per the state government resolution (GR) of 2016, that mandates the money be used only on government land.
Pune-based MLA, Sunil Tingre of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), through blaring advertisements, declared the bhoomi puja of 20 projects in private housing societies of Pune in 2020 and 2021 which included the concretisation of inner roads, repairing of tar roads and the making of footpaths in various housing societies amounting to a cost of Rs2.3 crore. These works were undertaken in Mr Tingre’s constituency, thus directly relating them to the garnering of votes in the impending Pune municipal corporation (PMC) elections which are yet to be held.
Right to information (RTI) and civic activist Qaneez Sukhrani filed a series of RTI applications to the district development planning committee (DDPC) office of the Pune collectorate as well as the land acquisition department of the PMC.
After careful scrutiny of the 2,236 pages, which she received through RTI applications between 10th and 17 March 2021, Ms Sukhrani found that work has been done on private land without documentary evidence of acquisition from private owners or handover by private owners. This, in effect, meant that public funds under the MLA’s LADS funds have been misused on private properties.
In Ms Sukhrani’s case, the Lokayukta of Maharashtra recently directed the state government to constitute a special investigation team (SIT) comprising a town planning expert, collector and principal secretary, urban development department (UDD); directed that the divisional commissioner/ collector must not pay to the contractors who have done work in private premises for Mr Tingre out of public funds and that the government of Maharashtra must consider the report of the SIT and issue an appropriate government resolution.
The Lokayukta, which is an ombudsman in every state, has the authority to suggest punishment against government officers if found guilty. It was created to quickly address the working of the government or its administrative service (public servants). However, it is up to the state to either accept or suggest or modify the Lokayukta’s decisions. In this case, it has made recommendations to various arms of the state government. Ms Sukhrani said she is happy that the Lokayukta has found Mr Tingre guilty of misusing the LAD funds and has given appropriate directives to the Maharashtra government.
Ms Sukhrani said that, armed with proof through RTI, she decided to file a complaint with the Lokayukta. She elaborates that “There existed a major discrepancy in co-relation of documents as it is obvious that procedure has not been followed by concerned officers/ authorities. Despite these lacunae, internal roads, footpaths and drainage in private societies have been constructed using public funds.”
Ms Sukhrani, in the absence of documentary evidence, had demanded that the officers responsible for illegal permissions for work be suspended and penalised for the misuse of public funds.
Why the knock at the Lokayukta’s door…
7 March 2021: Informed about the invite for the bhoomi puja of 20 projects by Mr Tingre.
8 March 2021: An email sent, stating that public funds were being used for 20 projects under the local development funds in private societies which was illegal. Demanded that this allotment approval be cancelled.
10 March 2021: Submitted two applications under RTI Act 2005 to the collector and chief officer, district planning committee asking for copies of specific documents. Submitted letter of objection to the collector and chief officer, district planning committee.
11 March 2021: Email sent to the collector, Pune district with copies to the deputy chief minister and guardian minister for Pune, state of Maharashtra and Uddhav Thackeray, the then chief minister of Maharashtra, detailing 20 projects which were inaugurated by Mr Tingre. All these projects totalled Rs2.33 crore.
16 March 2021: Forwarded the complaint email to the principal secretary, housing for unknown reasons as he has never responded.
17 March 2021: Submitted an application under the RTI Act 2005 to the chief officer district planning committee asking for specific named documents related to the allocation of work for 20 projects.
18 March 2021: Email sent to the collector, Pune district and principal secretary, housing, state of Maharashtra with a copy to Ajit Pawar – deputy chief minister and guardian minister for Pune, state of Maharashtra and Uddhav Thackeray – chief minister, state of Maharashtra.
She states, “I asked the collector for cancellation of tenders or halt of work pending granting an appointment for clarity, explanation on how public funds can be used inside private societies.”
24 March 2021: An email sent to the collector asking for an appointment once again for explanation and clarity being the duty of the public authority when she had given proof that corrupt practices were followed by the chief officer of the district planning committee for MLA local area development funds to be used in private properties.
Ms Sukhrani finally filed a complaint with the Lokayukta.
She argued, “Sunil Tingre tried initially to divert the blame to the collector and the divisional commissioner, who was to blame undoubtedly as approving designations. However, he is also to blame as he should have scrutinised the rules of GR 2016 before recommending Rs2.33 crore diversion of public funds into private societies. Diverting public funds into housing societies was clearly a way to garner votes in the impending corporation elections.
“These projects are inside private society gate or land and hence, public funds cannot be used. MLA local development funds can only be used on government-owned land. I was bringing the matter of misuse of public funds under MLA local area development fund before the district collector. I further demanded investigation by the district collector and, pending enquiry, I asked for cancellation of allocation for 20 projects and stated that if it is not stopped and/ or payment released, then legal action will be initiated.”
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain Award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book "To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte" with Vinita Kamte and is the author of "The Mighty Fall".)