MUMBAI: A plot owned by the Sahara Group in the western suburb of Versova and valued by global property consultant Knight Frank at a jaw-dropping Rs 19,300 crore may actually be worth nothing.
The 106-acre plot, with mangroves, mudflats and a creek, falls under the stringent coastal regulation zone ( CRZ) I, where no development is permitted. It forms part of a 500-acre sprawl; one of the city's largest land owners, the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy family, owns the remaining 400-odd acres.
Last month, the Sahara group submitted land documents to market regulator Sebi following a Supreme Court order directing it to return Rs 20,500 crore to its investors. The Versova plot was one of two land parcels Sahara showed as collateral to settle the case. Following objections from Sebi, Sahara earlier this month replaced the Versova plot with other land parcels (such as a part of Aamby Valley, a resort along the Mumbai-Pune expressway) in its submission to the SC .
For over 12 years now, local citizens' groups have successfully fought off attempts to dump debris, destroy mangroves and level the land. A TOI expose in 2002 and subsequent public interest litigation led the Supreme Court to halt construction of a golf course, club house and residences.
Early this month, a local NGO, Oshiwara Lokhandwala Citizens' Association, complained to Sebi about "environmental damage at a mammoth scale" and mangroves and mudflats being "blatantly destroyed". It also criticized Knight Frank for valuing the land without adequate background check and site visit. A Knight Frank spokesperson refused to comment.
A Sahara group official said: "The local citizens' organization is nothing but an environmentalist group. They were alleging that in 1978 or so there were mangroves, but nobody ever had any proof. There are no mangroves for last 10-12 years from when we know about this land."
The NGO, in its letter addressed to Sebi chairman U K Sinha, said: "Sahara has offered Sebi land in Versova to fulfil its legal obligations. This land is already in litigation and involves environmental damage on a mammoth scale. Mangroves and mudflats have been destroyed and a devastating number of birds, animals and their homes destroyed."
Film-maker and activist Ashoke Pandit, who heads the NGO, said till six months ago, several trucks tried to dump debris in the plot. "We complained to 18 authorities before it stopped." He added that due to the efforts of NGOs and citizens over the past decade or more, "the sea has once again begun to reclaim the Sahara land". "This has led to a huge number of migratory birds including flamingos coming from far away and descending on their old habitat," he said.
The NGO proposed that the whole mangroves, mudflat and wetland belt be converted into a Birding Area.
Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Properties, owners of the plot, had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Sahara group to jointly develop the property in 2001. In 2002, the environment ministry revoked permission over alleged destruction of mangroves. The apex court later stayed the project.
Sahara group's statement
In the Supreme Court, the Sebi counsel made a big noise that in 'no development zone' nothing can be constructed, which is so very wrong. All over India now, residential, commercial and IT buildings are coming up in 'no development zones' for which FSI differs from city to city, place to place. However, we have dropped this proposal and now documents relating to other properties, situated in various districts throughout India at more than 70 locations, were submitted to Sebi between December 3 and 10, 2013. The Supreme Court has allowed time to Sebi to examine and respond on these properties.