She says she never suppressed the fact that she owned land near proposed dam

While admitting privately that it was a goof-up to declare that its president Nitin Gadkari did not meet India Against Corruption (IAC) activist Anjali Damania, the Bharatiya Janata Party has now gone into damage control by publicising letters she wrote to the Maharashtra Irrigation Department on the Kondhane dam and the fact that the government has ordered that all the land owned by her family and friends be taken back.

The material sent out by the BJP also corroborates Mr Gadkari’s meeting with Ms. Damania last year since he seems to have taken up the Kondhane dam issue with irrigation authorities.

Ms. Damania said she met Mr. Gadkari in August 2011 and also once in New Delhi, seeking his help in shifting the location of the dam 700 metres south so that about 38 acres of property belonging to her, her family and friends would not be submerged.

Mr. Gadkari seems to have obliged her. In a letter to E.B. Patil, Principal Secretary, Irrigation Department, on August 7, 2011, he asked the authorities to consider shifting the Kondhane medium irrigation project, located in Karjat taluk of Raigad district, 700 metres south since there were Buddhist caves in the vicinity. These caves were protected archaeological monuments and the dam would submerge access to the caves and inconvenience foreign and local visitors. He said the residents in the vicinity of Kondhane made a representation to him. He requested the department to pay special attention to their demands and take suitable action.

Before that, on June 10, 2011 Ms. Damania and two others wrote to Ghalial in the Irrigation Department in Karjat, objecting to the proposed dam. The letter said she and her associates bought 30.28 acres in 2007 after selling their gold ornaments and breaking fixed deposits and life savings. The dam would submerge their land and she requested the authorities to consider shifting it.

They ended the letter, saying: “Sir, it is a matter of shifting the dam line by 500-700 metres and that will give us back our life and it will also save the approach to the caves. You can have a survey of this place, beyond 700 metres, there is no private land and it will only be adivasi land and we are sure they will be adequately compensated.”

The BJP strongly objected to the suggestion that Adivasi land could be submerged. Party spokesperson Madhav Bhandari told The Hindu on the phone that when Ms. Damania met Mr. Gadkari last year, she did not show him this letter in which she suggested that Adivasi land be taken away instead of private land. “At any cost, we don’t want Adivasi land to be acquired for projects. Ms. Damania only asked Mr. Gadkari to help her retain her land. As a goodwill gesture, Mr. Gadkari did so,” he said. Mr. Bhandari added that she used improper documents to buy land first in 1994 and she had actually no landholder status in India.

The Irrigation Department, in February and May this year, said the shifting of the dam would entail making it longer and higher and this would increase the extent of forestland to go under water. Also, the caves were 58 metres above the impoundment and there was a proposal to build a walkway or access road and develop a tourist site, where both the dam and the caves would become attractions. It was not technically feasible to shift the dam as storage would also be reduced by 30 per cent.

Meanwhile, Ms. Damania said she had never hidden the fact that she owned land near the proposed dam in Karjat. “I have been very clear that I and my family and friends own about 59 acres in Karjat taluka in two villages. In May last year, I heard about the Kondhane dam and I was worried and I wrote to the Irrigation Department but they did not get back. I also sent a legal notice, but no one replied to me. Then in August, some contractors came to my house and offered me Rs. 12 lakh per acre, but we decided not to accept the money. Instead, we decided to fight and I was inspired by Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption crusade, which was launched just then,” she said.

Ms. Damania said, “I had gone to meet Water Resources Minister Sunil Tatkare and while I was there in the visitors room, the name of someone from F A Constructions was called out. This is the same contractor who has got more than 10 dams around Mumbai, one of them being Kondhane,” she said adding Mr. Tatkare promised to survey the area, but did nothing.

Ms. Damania started filing RTI petitions in August and had to appeal after initial refusal. Finally, she approached the Chief Information Commissioner, who granted her access. On April 10, 2012, she filed a petition in the Bombay High Court, challenging the “faulty” process of awarding contracts for the dam and the clearances. The dam project was stayed by the court and later, on the Governor’s intervention, the contract was cancelled after huge cost escalations and other irregularities.

Ms. Damania clarified that she bought land first in Mangaon taluk in Raigad district under the horticulture policy, which had relaxed rules of land purchase. Later, in 2006, she bought land from Anil Gogate and his family, who are not tribal farmers as media reports stated, she said. However, after she filed her case in court in April this year, the local revenue officers sent her notice, saying she bought land illegally, and finally in August, the tahsildar issued an order taking her land back. “This is all because I took action against an illegal dam, which was coming up without proper permissions.”

Mr. Gogate, who lives at Kondhane village, told The Hindu on the phone that he was not a “tribal” farmer and he and his family sold land to Ms. Damania, who was supposed to start a project on medicinal plants and create local employment.

Ms. Damania said she bought land because she had a dream of becoming an agriculturist and all her income and transactions were transparent. She called for some kind of a whistle-blower protection Act.