Pune: Will Southern Command “Value” brave and honest defence estate officer to secure their prime properties?

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Mubarak Ansari

Pune, 10th February 2024: Honesty always comes with a price. And sometimes, the reward for honesty is humiliation.

If you face both while performing your duty with the ethos of the constitution of your cadre, you tend to feel down – not mentally but emotionally.

Ditto happened with Saurav Ray, the director of Defence Estates of the Southern Command. On Friday, he was transferred for ‘administrative exigencies’ as well as ‘public interest’ and relieved by his so-called ‘superior’ immediately on the same day.

What was so urgent? The former must know the better reason.

Many honest, upright, strong-headed and diligent officials face this fate in their service. But what remains with them is their true character, nature, spirit and determination.

Ray has carved out his niche by exposing a well-established nexus of ‘white collar’ people within a few months.

Top builders, politicians, cantonment board members and defence estates officials have been exploiting systems. They could usurp prime defence land properties in the Pune Camp for the last two decades.

Ray has exposed this in the last few months.

But what did he do differently this time? He did not collect papers, make hefty files and keep the record in the cupboards of the office. He acted on what he found/unearthed in his investigation.

He minutely studied each file and understood that these properties worth hundreds of crores have been sold illegally to land sharks over the years in Pune.

What is worse he found that the racketeers are on the verge of looting more such defence properties in the Pune camp and Khadki cantonment board limit.

Ray started acting against the violators and sealed four OGBs within a few weeks, sending a stern message to them. It was no less than a bolt from the blue for the land sharks. Before they could formulate their strategy, Ray had launched an investigation into multiple land deals.

“If you do not use your power, you are as good as powerless,” said a senior official from the defence estates department.

“Mr. Ray utilised his power for a good cause. His courage was totally against the well-established and conventional method of the defence estates department. No official in the department has openly acted against violators in this manner in Pune. But he did it bravely. He was, perhaps, aware of the consequences. But he did not stop himself from doing his duty,” added the official.

How could only Ray do it?

Ray, the defence estates official of the 1994 batch of Indian Defence Estates Officer (IDES), has served significantly in other services on deputation in his career.

He has even served with the country’s premier intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

After the successful tenure with the agency, he served in the Ministry of Home Affairs. He headed the almost sidelined and defunct but crucial Office of the Custodian Of Enemy Property for India (CEPI) from 2020 till May 2023.

While at the helm of affairs, Ray had shown a similar approach towards illegality.

He had again dug out old complicated cases at multiple locations and established illegality in them.

Because of his action, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed an FIR against 53 people, including government officials, for leasing out enemy properties across Uttar Pradesh (UP).

“The dormant department of the home ministry suddenly became active under the leadership of Ray. He could establish the new identity of the department. As a result, the ministry has resurrected the department by allocating required funds for infrastructure projects in major cities, including Mumbai,’ said a senior official from the estate department.

“This type of impact one can get only after resorting to an aggressive strategy. The risk-taking factor officials often ignore it for several reasons. But Ray loves to swim against the tide. That is why he could create an impact wherever he served irrespective of service, department, cadre and place/location of the posting. This approach and outlook does make a difference in working method,” added the official.

Why does Pune need an official like Ray to save defence properties?

Pune and Khadki cantonment is on the cusp of becoming military stations as the excision exercise of civil areas is in progress.

Prime land plots in these cantonment boards are one of the main reasons behind this exercise.

The state government will demand land pockets from the MoD during the negotiations.

“And if that happens, the state government will get empty defence land plots. One does not need to explain what happened to land once it is with the municipal bodies. So securing prime land pockets before they go to the state government is the need of the hour. Thus, investigation into illegal land deals and resumption of old grant sites in time is necessary. Once the properties are in the custody of the Local Military Authority (LMA) then it would be difficult for the state government to demand,” said the official.

Also, the ‘no-nonsense’ policy adopted by Mr Ray achieves the desired results on the ground. The operators and agents could do little when Mr Ray initiated legal actions against them in Pune Camp.

Why does Southern Command need to step in?

The activeness of Ray not only shook the defence estates office but also woke up the ‘real custodian’ of the land in Pune Cantonment.

A series of reports about the old grant sites and OGBs in newspapers evinced interest in the senior army hierarchy in the command. It directed their units to go deep into the matter and ‘knock out’ at the earliest.

The military intelligence units of the command actively swung into action in response.

But it has a cursory knowledge of the land records and their frauds. It is not any other case that they handle and deal with usually. Land deals and matters are complex as multiple agencies are involved in them.

In this case, the defence estates office, cantonment board, Principal director of defence estates, directorate general defence estates, local military authorities and the Inspector General of Registration of the state government. So, officials should have sound knowledge to pinpoint the exact flaw in the document and land deals.

Besides, they should have documentary evidence to ascertain links and establish the connections to expose the racket or find out the involvement of officials.

“This could only happen if an official like Ray is on the army side. He could provide them with necessary documents or help them to understand the issue logically on records,” said an official.

A senior Army officer pointed out that the cross-appointment of the military officer at the defence estates office is needed to prevent this kind of ‘fiasco’ in the future.

“Earlier, the estates’ officer (was from the armed forces) used to handle cantonment land matters. But over the years this appointment got scrapped. Now, it is difficult for our officials to understand ‘nebulous’ deals of old grant cases and OGBs. Thus, they are struggling badly in investigating the cases,” added the officer.

A section of officials pointed out that the situation in other cantonments, particularly big cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, and Secunderabad, must be worrisome.

“We need proper management of the land pockets in these cities because of the high value for real estate due to the rapid expansion of cities,” added the officer.

Southern Command has 19 cantonment boards and most of them are now part of big cities. They are now in the heart of the cities. Hence, real estate value is of crores of rupees. Thus, land sharks are eying for these plots.

“Hence, the command needs strict and honest officials in the defence estates department to safeguard and secure these plots for military purposes and their future projects. And in such endeavors as, we need officials like Ray who would work in the favour of the government, not against it,” added the officer.

Why Ray’s transfer is crucial for politicians, builders and racketeers in Pune?

Ray’s multi-pronged strategy to circle fraudsters and their allied partners working in various departments, including the defence estates officials, does not have a concrete answer.

They were left with the only option to transfer him to shut the matter for the final time. They had even tried to send him an indirect warning when they attempted to transfer the previous active defence estates officer last month.

“That was a clear message to Ray to stop his investigation in old grant sites and OGBs cases. But he did not pay to heed this warning and continued his work. That disturbed not only private players but also the hierarchy in the system. They presented and projected Ray’s case differently. Some even linked it with the current political scenario and tried to prove how it might go against the present dispensation/ order. All these factors played a major role in his transfer,” said another official.

Ray’s investigation has also established that some politicians have even fraudulently bought OGBs in prime locations of the Pune Camp in the last few years.

“Some politicians even met him and tried to persuade him to stop the investigation. But Ray sought details of more properties from the IGR office in the last week of January. The IGR records would have helped him to expose the established nexus. That would have helped the Southern Command authorities to safeguard their land plots, particularly in their military zone in the Camp,” added the official.

A senior politician wants to usurp prime bungalow plots in the Khadki Cantonment Board limit. This particular site is spread over six acres of land.

“The agents working for the politician have managed HORs of this property in the last few years. Now, he has fielded a doctor to get this property. Through him, it will go to him after a few years (as if naturally). However, Mr Ray, the army authorities and some senior officials from the DGDE have opposed this deal. They had given negative reports from their side. That has disturbed several stakeholders involved in the matter,” said another defence estate official who is aware of this development.

Likewise, there are several properties that the builder’s lobby wants to acquire by tweaking, moulding and killing the system.

“Only the active role of the Army authorities in tandem with the defence estates officials will break this ‘well-oiled’ nexus. And to achieve this objective, the officer of Ray’s stature must be in a team,” said an activist from the Camp, who is afraid of quoting on the record.