Housing bubble

Print edition : February 27, 2009
in New Delhi

Laxmi Narayan Meena, the prime accused in the DDA housing scam, being taken to court in New Delhi on January 10. He allegedly forged more than 1,000 applications in the names of villagers in Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan.-PTI

EVERY year lakhs of people, most of them middle-class, queue up to buy flats that the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) sells by drawing lots. Last year was no different; the DDA got 5,67,000 applications for 5,238 flats under Housing Scheme 2008. The hopefuls now feel cheated after knowing that the allotment process could have been rigged.

Initial investigations point to a major scam in the allotment process. Emotions are running high following apprehensions that the allotments made by drawing lots on December 16, 2008, would be cancelled. Vikas Sadan, which houses the DDA office, has been witnessing rather unusual scenes for the past couple of weeks. Two different groups of people the lucky allottees and the others have been sitting in two makeshift tents on either side of the building agitating for their respective demands. Both groups are, however, united in their protest against the apparent failure of the government in checking the alleged malpractice. According to the Delhi Police, a group of property dealers, bank agents, chartered accountants and government officials used their nexus to file fake applications first to buy the flats from the DDA and later sell them at higher prices. The plan went unhindered until a property dealer, Deepak Kumar, also a part of the group, decided to blow the whistle on it.

The Economic Offences Wing (EOW) of the Delhi Police has arrested five people, including M.L. Gautam, a retired DDA employee, Laxmi Narayan Meena, a former State Bank of India employee from Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan, and Deepak Kumar. The police have named L.N. Meena, who allegedly forged more than 1,000 applications in the names of villagers in Jhunjhunu, as the prime accused in the case. Gautam was found to have made 1,800 fake applications. The EOW is also interrogating 18 others, whom Gautam named during the probe.

Police inquiries and independent media reports now show that a few property dealers in Delhi and Rajasthan also got loans approved in fictitious names from 12 different banks in Delhi with the help of a bank agent and a chartered accountant based in Chandigarh. A few officials in the Revenue Department allegedly helped them get fake PAN (Permanent Account Number) cards so as to apply for the flats.

In some cases the people in whose names the applications were made did not exist; in some others the addresses and mobile phone numbers were false. And some people who were allotted flats were even unaware of it.

The whiff of a scam came on October 31, when Udit Raj, president of the Indian Justice Party and chairman of the All India Confederation of S.C./S.T. Organisations, acting on information given by Deepak Kumar, filed a complaint at the Malviya Nagar police station accusing the DDA of mishandling the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe quota in the housing scheme. Of the total number of flats, 15 per cent goes to the S.Cs and 7.5 per cent to the S.Ts. He also complained against Suresh Kumar Meena, a property dealer, saying that he had created a fracas in his Indian Justice Party office in Delhi and threatened to kill him. Udit Raj said he had informed the police about the whole scam and Suresh Kumar Meenas involvement in it.

On November 5, Udit Raj filed a petition under the Right to Information Act, seeking information from the DDA Housing Commissioner about all the S.C./S.T. applicants. There has been no response from the DDA on this until now.

Five days later, Deepak Kumar lodged a complaint at the Pashchim Vihar police station about the scam. Again on December 2, Udit Raj sent letters to Asma Manzar, DDA Housing Commissioner, and Alok Kumar Verma, Joint Commissioner (Crime Branch), Delhi Police, citing the alleged nexus between the property dealers, DDA officials and financial agents in filing fake applications for houses. This time, on the basis of information given by Deepak Kumar, Udit Raj also named ICICI bank agent Manish, who worked in a Chandigarh-based chartered accountant firm, for his alleged involvement in the scam. He also urged the DDA not to conduct the draw as scheduled.

The Housing Commissioner wrote back to Udit Raj saying that the DDAs task was only to sell forms and any scam like this should be informed to either the Income Tax Department or the respective banks from which the alleged scammers had got loans sanctioned for the purpose. Despite all this, the DDA went ahead with the draw on December 16. The police, too, Udit Raj alleged, did not take notice of the complaint until early January.

At the DDA headquarters in New Delhi on January 12, members of DDA Housing Scheme 2008 Allottees Association demanding early release of flats to genuine allottees.-ANU PUSHKARNA

After the draw, Udit Raj invoked the RTI Act again to get the details of the whole procedure from the time applications are submitted to the final allotment. He also wrote to the Commissioner (Personnel), Chief Vigilance Officer, and Financial Adviser (Housing) of the DDA to know the number of applications in the S.C./S.T. category and the number of final allottees. No information had been made available, he said.

According to Udit Raj, of the 900 successful allottees in the S.C. category, around 300 were from Rajasthan. The EOW team in Jhunjhunu and Jodhpur found that seven persons in one family had been allotted houses. Most of them have not even come to Delhi and are really poor even to think of a flat here. However, what is worth taking into account is that some of their relatives are employees of the DDA. The EOW team in Bayana and Bharatpur [both in Rajasthan] also found that as many as 50 fake forms had been filled in with the names of people from one village, he said. He furnished more shocking information: The numbers, at random, of all the 144 waiting list allottees in the general category were between 1,77,668 and 1,79,186. This, it is assumed, is a clear lead to the apparent manipulation of the software in the draw. The police have sent the DDAs computer for tests, but this happened only on January 9, almost a month after the draw, said Udit Raj. Three independent judges are present for the draw where application numbers are taken out from a box and matched with the corresponding name of the applicant in a computer. Many have raised suspicions that the software could have been programmed to show a particular result despite getting random application numbers from the lots. The lack of transparency in the internal functioning of the DDA has drawn a lot of flak.

But Asma Manzar said there was absolutely no possibility of any wrongdoing as far as the draw was concerned. We can assure you that no demand letter would be issued to any undeserving candidate. We had made it clear earlier that verification of documents would be done after the draw is completed. Before the draw, we scrutinised the forms on the basis of photographs, addresses and PAN cards.

Neemo Dhar, DDA spokesperson, said that if anyone was found with fake documents, their allotment would be cancelled, the amount forfeited and an FIR registered against them. The case took an eerie twist on January 9 when Hari Singh Kohli, one of the successful applicants, was found dead in Bayana under mysterious circumstances. Kohli, as the Bharatpur Superintendent of Police Rohit Mahajan said, was one of the three people in Bharatpur the Delhi Police team had questioned.

That pressure seems to be rising on the authorities is clear from the fact that Union Minister of State for Urban Development Ajay Maken, under whose jurisdiction the DDA operates, has been constantly reassuring people about resolving the case. The High Court, too, has asked the DDA for an update on the steps it has taken with respect to the alleged scam.

Meanwhile, the arrest of Deepak Kumar on January 11 has caused outrage in some circles with the complainant, Udit Raj, questioning the need to arrest him when the police knew all along that he had been a part of the alleged racket and that is where his information came from. He said Deepak Kumar switched sides after gauging the degree and dimension of the scam. This is a bid to punish him for speaking up. Deepak is a property dealer who was initially involved in the scam, but then he switched sides. Neither Deepak nor I ever kept this information away from the police. It is their inefficiency that the draw was allowed to happen on December 16. After this no citizen will ever come forward to confess something he has done in the past and thus help unravel rackets, he said.

But the police said they had incriminating evidence against him. His name cropped up during the interrogation of Lakshmi Narayan Meena, the prime accused, said a police officer. The police said Deepak Kumar had five sets of PAN cards, apparently in different names but with the same photograph and other details.

Deepak Kumars arrest has led to discussions in legal circles about the need of a whistle-blower law instead of an interim arrangement that is applicable at present to ensure the protection of the complainant. A government resolution in 2003 had authorised the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) to act as the designated agency to receive written complaints of corruption or misuse of office and recommend appropriate action. It would also be the responsibility of the CVC not to disclose the identity of the complainant. This was in response to a public interest petition filed in the Supreme Court following the murder of Satyendra Dubey in 2003 after he exposed the misappropriation of funds and corruption in the Golden Quadrilateral highway project in Gaya, Bihar, in a letter to the Prime Ministers Office.

However, the jurisdiction of the CVC is restricted to any employee of the Central government or public sector companies. Obviously, Deepak Kumar cannot avail himself of this rather limited protection. In the DDA case, had the whistle-blower been a DDA employee, he/she could have got the protection of the law.

The concept of whistle-blower, which originated in the United Kingdom, too, applies essentially to an employee and not to an outsider. The whistle-blower law is more advanced in the United States where it applies not only to government servants but also to corporate employees in publicly traded companies.

While remanding Deepak Kumar to judicial custody until January 31, Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Digvinay Singh said: The accused cannot claim amnesty merely because he made complaints. The law recognises the possibility of someone trying to escape the consequences of his own complicity in a crime by turning into a complainant. But in order to be treated even as an approver, it is said, Deepak Kumar will first have to be listed as an accused.

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