The Bhondsi project

Print edition : August 04, 2001

The Supreme Court orders the return of 500 acres of land given by a panchayat to a pet project of former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar in Haryana.

IN what appears to be a minor setback to the interests of former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar and the Bharat Yatra Kendra (BYK), a trust that he set up, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court has ordered the Haryana government to take possession of some 500 acres (200 hectares) of land which was originally 'gifted' to him by the Bhondsi panchayat in Gurgaon district. The State government has already initiated re-possession proceedings.

Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The Bench, comprising Justices M.B. Shah and R.P. Sethi, also directed the State government not to allot the land to anyone without the permission of the court and the Central government until the proceedings were completed.

Chandra Shekhar's ashram in Bhondsi and the land 'gifted' to him have been the focus of public attention for some time (Frontline, January 4, 1991). On December 5, 1999, B.L. Wadehra, a lawyer, petitioned the apex court alleging misuse of the land by the former Prime Minister. The court has given its ruling on the question involving the alleged misuse of the 500 acres and a verdict is awaited on some other plots of land gifted to Chandra Shekhar at various stages of his political career.

The story dates back to 1983 when Chandra Shekhar, then a Member of Parliament, went on a much-publicised padayatra (march) from Kanyakumari to Rajghat in New Delhi, covering 4,260 km. Subsequently he set up the BYK with himself as chairman. The then panchayat of Bhondsi village gifted 33 acres of panchayat land to the BYK and specified certain conditions for its use.

These included the construction of a civil dispensary building consisting of three rooms and a verandah; the appointment of residents of the village as non-technical employees; taking one representative of the village on the trust's managing body; a bar on the sale or transfer of the donated land; use of the land only for the purposes mentioned in the constitution of the trust, failing which the panchayat could take back the land; and release of the land from the Forest Department through proper channel.

The Haryana government endorsed the gift in March 1984. The same year, in another display of largesse, the panchayat transferred 19 acres of village land to the BYK. The State government endorsed this decision in June 1990 subject to the earlier conditions and a few more: a college and polytechnic should be constructed by the BYK and the sarpanch should be an ex-officio member of the managing committee, which would have two other members, one elected and the other nominated. Later that year, Chandra Shekhar became the Prime Minister and Devi Lal the Deputy Prime Minister.

The petitioner alleged that within 24 hours of Chandra Shekhar assuming office as Prime Minister the Bhondsi panchayat gifted him another 16 acres, taking the area of gifted land to 68 acres. In addition, some 500 acres was given to the BYK for greening the Aravalli Hills. On April 9, 1990, the Border Security Force (BSF) filed a complaint with the State administration that the BYK had encroached upon some 10 acres of its land which was part of its firing range. The area was deemed to be sensitive, where weapons and electronic gadgetry were tested. The petitioner stated that neither was the BSF's land returned to it nor was the gifted land used for building a hospital and a polytechnic for women.

Instead, Chandra Shekhar got built a sprawling farmhouse, a multi-storey conference complex, a guest house and a temple, the petitioner stated. A centre for sculptures was set up on the land and artists were brought from Ballia, Chandra Shekhar's hometown. Bhondsi's sarpanch Anita Raghav, who was supposed to attend all the meetings of the BYK, reportedly stated that she was never called to any of the meetings.

The land, Wadehra alleged, was being used for personal, political and commercial purposes. He sought action under Sections 405 and 441 of the Indian Penal Code relating to breach of trust and trespass.

Chandra Shekhar stated in a detailed counter-affidavit that the charges were baseless and were made to settle political scores. The BYK, he stated, was committed to dealing with five issues: provision of drinking water, tackling malnutrition among children and expectant mothers, provision of education for all, solving the problems of Adivasis and members of the Scheduled Castes and maintaining communal harmony.

Inspired by its programmes and objectives, he said, the Bhondsi gram panchayat urged him, as the chairman of the BYK, to undertake development programmes in the area. The dispensary was constructed within the village but not on the land given to the trust. This was at the request of the then sarpanch that it would be more convenient to the villagers, he said. The dispensary was handed over to the State government, which now managed it. He also contended that afforestation was carried out and a polytechnic for women was started to provide training for employment.

Denying any encroachment of BSF land, Chandra Shekhar contended that following the dispute the matter was taken up with the Deputy Commissioner, Gurgaon, for demarcation of the land. As for the 500 acres, he said that the land belonged to the gram panchayat and that it had been given to the BYK only for greening and afforestation. The fencing was done only to prevent animals from destroying the plantations.

He stated that the total areas of land gifted initially by the gram panchayat was 52 acres and not 68 acres. Certain infrastructure had, however been created to achieve the objectives of the BYK, stated the counter-affidavite.

The Deputy Commissioner, Gurgaon, in whose administrative jurisdiction Bhondsi lies, stated in an affidavit on April 27, 2000, that the total area of land gifted to the BYK was 52 acres and not 68 acres as stated by the petitioner. He held that the Stree Niketan that the BYK had set up was not recognised by any agency or affiliated to any university. He stated that some eight acres held unauthorisedly by the BYK had been delivered to the BSF.

A Deputy Inspector-General of the BSFposted at the headquarters in New Delhi, submitted in an affidavit that despite the fact of the encroachment being reported periodically to the Deputy Commissioner, Gurgaon, since March/April 1991, no action was taken until February 15, 2000. Meanwhile, in July 2000 the Central government asked the State government led by Om Prakash Chautala to examine whether there was any violation of rules in the matter of the donation of land and whether the conditions fixed had been complied with.

On the Supreme Court's directive the government set up a two-member committee comprising a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs and an Inspector-General of Police (BSF), which submitted its report in March. It reportedly noted that the extent of afforestation carried out by the BYK on the 500 acres was minimal as the land was already forested.

The Haryana government, now forced to take a stand on the matter, issued a show-cause notice to the BYK asking why the conditions laid out in the allotment letter of June 6, 1990, were not complied with.

At the moment only a part of the petition, that pertaining to the 500 acres, has been disposed of, and the land, in a manner of speaking, has been "restored" to the State government. The question of the remaining land is still to be decided. The next hearing is on August 7.

However, the larger issue of the cavalier transfer of public land into private hands, for whatever purpose it may be, needs to be examined.

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