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Prithviraj Chavan should use the Adarsh embarrassment to press for greater real estate reform

The Maharashtra government has been publicly shown up by Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi's remarks on the Adarsh housing scam. Now, ally NCP has vocally backed a review of the state cabinet's decision to summarily reject a judicial panel's report on irregularities in land clearance and allotment of flats. While the Justice J.A. Patil-headed commission had identified networks of political patronage, and named Congress leaders like Sushilkumar Shinde, Vilasrao Deshmukh and Ashok Chavan, it had not spelt out any course of action for the government, given that the CBI was also conducting an investigation into who benefited from the decisions, the nature of quid pro quo etc. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan is now placed in a difficult bind, of having to take on powerful predecessors in Maharashtra or contradict Rahul Gandhi's posture and feed the public anger over corruption. The question, though, is why it should take Narendra Modi's taunting or Rahul Gandhi's prodding for the state government to give the judicial commission's report a full hearing.

While the Adarsh case made big waves because of the allegation that it involved politicians, bureaucrats and their cronies cheating war veterans and widows of their due, it was later revealed to be a more mundane affair, of the kind that is replicated across south Mumbai. Land and real estate remain riddled with discretion, giving state governments great power over decisions like changing use or bending a building norm, with huge implications for their market value. Inevitably, insiders benefit. Political parties extract much of their resources from their land deals, giving them less incentive to reform the system.

Prithviraj Chavan had taken some modest steps towards reducing this murk. He tried to dilute the chief minister's discretionary powers, which allowed him to allot a certain share of flats built by the Maharashtra Housing Area Development Authority, and on land given under the urban ceiling act a power intended to expand housing for the public, but one that ends up serving government officials and their families. He had also tried to make concessions transparently available to builders on the payment of a premium, taking away the BMC's power to allow relaxations on a case-by-case basis. But ultimately, only auctions can establish the best price for land. Now that Chavan has been forced to respond more sincerely to the Adarsh case, he should use the chance to press for more far-reaching reform in land and real estate, despite the short-term political costs.

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