A closed club

Print edition : November 19, 2004

The Punjab and Haryana High Court orders the closure of the illegal golf course near Chandigarh and directs the CBI to probe the nexus between its promoter and certain public servants.

in New Delhi

The Forest Hill Golf and Country Club at Karoran village near Chandigarh.-

IT is an outrageous story of how an individual, intending to make a fast buck through a mix of manipulation and enterprise, could easily subvert the restrictions imposed by laws and regulations to protect the environment. Unless, of course, an alert judiciary stops him in his track and exposes the blatant manner of his operations as revealed by the facts of the case.

Col. B.S. Sandhu, a non-resident Indian (NRI) and the promoter of the Forest Hill Golf and Country Club (also known as Forest Hill Resort or FHR) at Karoran village in Rupnagar district of Punjab, about eight kilometres northwest of Chandigarh, was declared bankrupt in Canada in 1996-97 and he continued to be insolvent until May 2, 2000. But that did not prevent him from acquiring 378 acres (151.2 hectares) in the village in violation of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) and claim the possession of about another 100 acres (40 ha) in neighbouring villages through benami ownership (Frontline, May 21).

A two-Judge Bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, comprising Chief Justice B.K. Roy and Justice Surya Kant, and assisted by amicus curiae Anupam Gupta, in its October 12 judgment in the Golf Club case, revealed how Sandhu managed to subvert the system by influencing members of the lower judiciary, the administration and the police. The case was the result of a public interest petition filed in the wake of a suo motu notice by the Bench following an expose in the Chandigarh edition of The Hindustan Times on January 22.

The Shivalik hills, where Karoran village is situated, have highly erodable soil and constitute one of the most fragile ecosystems in the country. As overgrazing and mutilation by the villagers would cause soil erosion, which would lead to floods and consequently failure of crops in the plains, closure of the hills under the Indian Forest Act by declaring them a forest area was considered. The Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA), 1900, is an instance of State legislation that imposes suitable restrictions on the use of the hills for non-forest purposes. The Central law, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, was enacted to check further deforestation and consequent ecological imbalance.

THE Bench found that the land "owned" by Sandhu and his family and the companies floated by them were part of the total area of 3,700 acres (1,480 ha) of Karoran village notified under the PLPA. Despite this unambiguous status of the land, Sandhu went on "owning" the land by asserting that it was agricultural land as per revenue records. The Bench revealed how on a single day, June 28, 1995, the records were changed to show the ownership of the land in favour of Sandhu and his associates.

In the revenue records of Karoran, most of the land "owned" by Sandhu and his associates up to 1991-92 is not only shown as Gair Mumkin Pahar (uncultivable forest area) but also as "owned" by shamilat deh (additional land of a village which is in common ownership of landowners of that village).

While shamilat deh lands are vested in the gram panchayats under the Punjab Village Common Lands Act, 1961, on June 28, 1995 the entries in relation to "ownership" of this land in Karoran were changed from the gram panchayat to shamilat deh, and from shamilat deh to Mushtarka Malkan (jointly owned by the proprietors of the village).

On that day itself this huge chunk of land was proportionately "distributed" among the landowners of the village, and soon thereafter one after the other they executed sale deeds of the land in favour of Sandhu and his associates. In 1996, entries in relation to most of the land were changed from Gair Mumkin Pahar to "agricultural land".

The State Forest Department admitted to the court that the sudden change in the nature of the land's ownership in 1996 was nothing but a favour secured by Sandhu by exerting pressure on officers of the Revenue Department. Not surprisingly, the Bench found the manner and the circumstances of the ownership change to be ex-facie glaring.

Having claimed that the land owned by him in the village was agricultural land, Sandhu contradicted himself in his application in 1998 to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests for the diversion of 4.94 ha of forest land in the village to set up a farm house and a resort. The Conservator of Forests (Central) visited the site in June 1998 and found gross violation of the FCA by the Dasmesh Educational Society, floated by Sandhu, even prior to the submission of the application. In October 1998, the Conservator of Forests rejected Sandhu's proposal. In April 2003, Sandhu made another unsuccessful attempt to get the approval of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests for the diversion of 2.25 ha of forest land for non-forest purposes.

Again, in February this year, Sandhu informed the Sub-Divisonal Magistrate-cum-Collector (Agrarian) of Kharar that of the total 378 acres (151.2 ha), 309 acres (123.6 ha) was forest land. The land described as forest would not come under the definition of "land" in the Land Reforms Act, and therefore the State government would not have any ground to appropriate the "surplus" land owned by him over the legal ceiling, Sandhu argued.

THE Bench disagreed with Sandhu's submission that the golf course, launched in 2002, was an eco-friendly project. "Cutting of grass, lopping of trees, and sizing of shrubs are the regular features of a golf course to maintain its scenic beauty. Huge quantities of water are consumed for maintaining the greenery over the course. It cannot be overlooked that the project has come up at the cost of a natural and wild forest," the Bench observed.

The Bench expressed its dismay over the claim that it was an ecofriendly project in the light of what was being done at the site. The site plan revealed that it would include palatial buildings, more than one restaurant, a bar, sitting areas, offices, residential quarters, a huge entrance gate and a wall around the entire area.

Sandhu had also advertised on his website residential houses exclusively meant for NRIs, who were lured to pay in foreign currency to enjoy the luxury of "American-style houses". The lavish parties and the hundreds of customers who parked their vehicles within the club premises convinced the Bench that the resort was nothing but a "township of elites". The Bench felt that the grassy area of the golf course could not be separated or utilised without the aid and support of the massive structures built unauthorisedly and in violation of the laws.

The Bench was surprised by the manner in which the State government authorities succumbed to Sandhu's pressure. Sandhu, the Bench observed quoting from an internal communication between the Chief Conservator of Forests (Hills) and the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Punjab, refused to permit the revenue, civil and forest authorities even to enter the premises for carrying out an inspection of the alleged violations of forest laws.

The Bench said he could do this because of the backing of top police functionaries in the State. It pointed out how agencies of the State government vied with one another to provide various facilities to the resort.

The judgment reveals that the Centre asked the State government to take disciplinary action against officials guilty of being negligent in permitting Sandhu to continue "large-scale violations of the environmental and forest laws". Admittedly, no such action was taken by the State government.

Was there any quid pro quo for the illegitimate birth of the resort project? Sandhu placed before the court a list of highly placed functionaries to whom the Forest Hill Resort distributed "honorary" and "ex-officio" memberships. Certain government officials were offered membership for a fee substantially less than that for others. The Bench was dismayed to find amongst the honorary members most of the highest level executive functionaries of the State, including the Chief Minister, some Ministers, top bureaucrats including a former Chief Secretary, the Director-General of Police, the Home Secretary-cum-Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, and seniormost Indian Administrative Service/Indian Police Service officers of Punjab and Haryana.

Sandhu had obtained an injunction from a civil court against the demolition of the structures built by him. The Ropar District Court dismissed the State government's appeals against the injunction. The Bench indicted the District Court Judge who dismissed the appeals without considering its merits. There was no injunction with regard to the remaining land on which there were no structures built, which Sandhu claimed constituted 97 per cent of his land. The State Forest Department could have taken over the control and management of this land under the PLPA.

In a strong indictment of the then Chief Secretary, who was an ex-officio member of the FHR, the Bench observed: "It might not be a coincidence that power supply was provided to the FHR along with the installation of a `separate transformer' during his tenure as Chairman of the Punjab State Electricity Board. We fail to understand as to how a State authority could grant such privilege to a commercial venture which established itself in the teeth of the State and Central laws."

The Bench directed Sandhu and his companies/societies to close down the Forest Hill Country Club Resort and Golf Course and demolish all the illegally erected buildings within three months and to hand over the management and control of the land to the State Forest Department.

It also directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to constitute a special investigation team to probe the question of accountability of top executive and administrative functionaries of State and Central departments and register cases if necessary.

The Bench, however, excluded from the CBI's ambit of probe the two High Court Judges whose names figured in the list of honorary members of the FHR. If during the investigation the CBI found any incriminating material against any of them, it should bring the same to the notice of the competent authority for appropriate action, the Bench said.

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