Fresh fracas over Jal Mahal restoration project in Jaipur

Forlorn and neglected, it was never a part of the regular tourist itinerary.
The lake itself was a stinking muddy swamp most of the year and the palace out of bounds for the public. Jal Mahal, built by Sawai Pratap Singh in 1799 in the middle of the picturesque Mansagar Lake as a summer palace,  was in a state of decay hastened by a lake progressively choked by tonnes of filth released into it by two of Jaipur’s biggest drains, Brahmpuri and Nagtalai.

As part of the restoration effort Jal Mahal, along with Mansagar Lake was leased out in 2005 for 99 years to Jal Mahal Resorts Pvt Ltd (JMRPL) --  a firm jointly owned by Kalpatru Group and Jaipur jeweller Navrattan Kothari and Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC) under a public private partnership during the previous Congress government headed by Ashok Gehlot.

The government had provided 100 acres of land and permitted reclamation of 15 acres of land from the lake for the construction of  resorts and hotels for a nominal fee of Rs 2.5 crore per annum. The project due to be completed in several phases promises to be a destination in itself with a monument and a resort with entertainment, food courts, shopping areas, hotels and conference centres attracting and boosting both the leisure and the market.

Green leisure destination

The other features of the project include the creation of Jal Tarang, a green leisure destination for visitors and locals alike along Mansagar Lake that will include environment-friendly accommodation, independent galleries and boutiques, and lake-side dining along a tree-lined promenade, all in keeping with Jaipur’s heritage as the artistic heart of India.

The project had to be completed in three phases. The first phase of work is now concluded and includes the restoration of the lake and the monument. The work on second and third phases have now commenced. The second phase will include retail and entertainment facilities and will open to public in January 2013. The third phase includes the development of upscale hotels and will conclude by January 2014. The total investment in the project is estimated at Rs 1,000 crore. 

The resort would have a lot to offer to its guests including, a restored monument with an exhibition, boat rides to the monument, a newly created habitat for birds in the form of wetlands acting as an observation and educational platform on flora and fauna, art and craft retail precinct and demonstration areas for artisans, food and beverage facilities of varying size and cuisine, open and covered entertainment facilities for the public, themed dining and wedding venues, large conference centre etc.

Revised plan

But the project has courted its share of controversies delaying the ambitious multi crore tourism project. The state government now wants fresh approval for a revised plan that permit increasing the number of rooms from 200 to 435 in two proposed hotels, but the bureaucrats are reluctant to toe the government line. The bureaucrats have refused sanction to fresh proposals which they say grossly violate the original conditions of the contract.

At a recent meeting, senior tourism and forest department officials had reportedly expressed their disapproval to the new proposal. At a meeting held on June 9 to approve the proposal for basement and a relaxation in height were opposed by the bureaucrats.

A tourism department official on condition of anonymity said ‘the bureaucrats developed cold feet as the Rajasthan high court is seized of the matter and it had asked the government to explain why a CBI enquiry should not be ordered in to the project.” The court was hearing a petition filed by one Bhagwat Gaur who had challenged the lease to the Jal Mahal Resorts Pvt Ltd (JMRPL).

According to the complaint the government is accused of bending rules to favour the group. The Ashok Gehlot government is accused of reversing the previous government's restriction of 35,000 sq m of built-up area as mentioned in the bid proposal to increase it three times, thus allowing hotel capacity to increase from 200 rooms to 435 rooms with a likely provision of one more hotel.

Also, the developer is accused of grossly undervaluing the property at Rs 35 crore and paid up Rs 1.43 crore as stamp duty. The state’s Director General Stamps reassessed the property at Rs 1,600 crore in July this year and asked the company to deposit Rs 63 crore as stamp duty which has not yet been complied with.

Complaints about violation in construction plan in the first phase and acquiring 15,000 sq m additional land have also been made against the company.

Compounding the matter, the Rajasthan pollution control board has mentioned in its audit report that even after the implementation of a centrally sponsored Rs 20 crore projects for cleaning up the Mansagar Lake, the quality of the water in the lake has not improved to the desired level which contradicts the claim of the JMRPL.

The project has become a political issue with the opposition BJP targeting the chief minister over his close association with the Kalpatru group chairman Mofatraj Munot. Gehlot and Munot have admitted to being friends for 30 years but deny their friendship influenced any decision. The firm however claims that the contract was awarded to them through a global tender and there was nothing fishy about the project.

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