In-house feud

Print edition : August 04, 2017

Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways. Photo: PTI

Trivendra Singh Rawat, Uttarakhand Chief Minister . Photo: PTI

The Uttarakhand Chief Minister ignores Nitin Gadkari’s advice and orders a CBI probe against officials of the Union Ministry for Road Transport and Highways.

UTTARAKHAND, which is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is currently embroiled in a battle with the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways over a land scam which allegedly involves hundreds of crores of rupees. The Ministry is headed by former BJP president and senior party leader Nitin Gadkari. Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat has ordered an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the scam in which, in addition to the State’s revenue officers, officials of the Ministry have been implicated. Gadkari had apparently asked Rawat to keep his Ministry’s officials out of the probe, but the latter did not comply.

A senior official in Rawat’s secretariat said: “The Chief Minister stands for zero tolerance to corruption, and there will be no compromise on this, irrespective of who is involved. The BJP had promised a CBI probe into this land scam during campaigning, and the Chief Minister is only fulfilling that promise. Let there be a probe and the truth will come out.”

The scam relates to land that was acquired during the previous Congress regime of 2011-16 in Uddhamsinghnagar district for the widening of National Highway No. 74 between Haridwar and Bareilly. The BJP, then in the opposition, went to town over it in the hope of putting senior Congress leaders in a spot. The party took it up enthusiastically during election campaigning in the State earlier this year. A preliminary inquiry conducted by the then Kumaon Commissioner has named senior National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) officials, besides State revenue officers. Rawat ordered a CBI investigation on the basis of this inquiry. This now causes embarrassment to the BJP. The NHAI functions under the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways.

According to the charges, the land use pattern was allegedly changed from “agricultural to non-agricultural, in the back date” to benefit certain owners at the time of acquisition. It is important to mention that compensation for non-agricultural land is higher than for agricultural land, and at times the difference is over 20 times. Those who benefited were handpicked for the favour, while some people who truly owned non-agricultural land received considerably lower compensation. The Kumaon Commissioner’s report found such irregularities in 11 villages of Rudrapur, Kashipur, Bajpur and Sitarganj tehsils.

The power to change the nature of land use resides with the Sub-Divisional Magistrates (SDMs). Hence, five SDMs, Surendra Singh Jangpangi, Jagdish Lal, Bhagat Singh Phonia, N.S. Nagnyal and Himalaya Singh Martolia, who were posted in these areas during that time, were implicated. They were suspended on March 25, a week after Rawat took over as Chief Minister. One of them, Martolia, has since retired. So proceedings are now on against the other four.

The compensation is calculated and decided by special land acquisition officers (SLAOs). The former SLAOs of Udhamsinghnagar and Nainital districts, D.P. Singh and Anil Kumar Shukla, respectively, were suspended, also on March 25.

The NHAI officers who are responsible for the development, maintenance and management of national highways and also for scrutiny and release of compensation amounts have been implicated, too. The report says they failed to refer the alleged irregularities to the process of arbitration and are hence assumed to be guilty.

In a strongly worded letter dated April 5, Gadkari asked Rawat to refrain from taking action in the matter, especially against the NHAI officers. The letter said: “The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has taken up upgradation and expansion of the national highways in a big way and we have also paid special attention to road connectivity projects in Uttarakhand, especially Char Dham. However, I am greatly concerned that recent developments in the State: firstly an FIR [first information report] was lodged in the district Udham Singh Nagar in the matter of awards finalised by the CALA [Competent Authority on Land Acquisition] (SLAO), who is a revenue functionary of the State government, not only that, a CBI enquiry has also been ordered by the government of Uttarakhand on the matter in which NHAI officers are being implicated.”

Gadkari added: “I am constrained to say that the above action by the government of Uttarakhand are bound to have an adverse impact on the morale of officers and would impede the execution of projects.” In what can be construed as a veiled threat, Gadkari wrote: “In this background we would have to examine the usefulness of taking up more projects in the State.” He asked Rawat to “take immediate corrective measures to resolve the impasse”.

Interestingly, the Chief Minister not only ignored the letter but declared, following a meeting with Gadkari shortly afterwards, that there would be no “compromise with corruption”. Moreover, Gadkari’s letter became public and the local media went to town with it, deepening the controversy.

Meanwhile, the State government went ahead with the filing of an FIR, which also implicated NHAI officers. NHAI Chairman Y.S. Malik wrote to the Chief Secretary of Uttarakhand on May 26 that the inclusion of NHAI officers’ names in the FIR was wrong because they had no role in the matter. Malik pointed out that revenue officials of the State government, SDMs in this case, were responsible for deciding the land use pattern in the acquisition process and notifying it. The CALA, which in this case would be the SLAO, decides the amount of compensation. SLAOs, too, are State officials.

The NHAI project director of Rudrapur and his subordinates and the regional officer of Uttarakhand should not have been included in the FIR, Malik wrote. He pointed out that the guilt of the project director and his subordinates was assumed on the basis of their “failure in filing appeal before the Collector/arbitrator which led to expeditious disbursement of compensation”, while that of the regional officer was on the ground of “disbursement to such landowners on a pick and choose basis”. He argued that both these grounds were not tenable. The NHAI has instructions from the Ministry not to go into too many unnecessary arbitrations because that would impede the progress of projects. He added that compensation could not be disbursed on a “pick and choose basis” because the money was kept in an account with the CALA. He also said that the NHAI referred award cases for arbitration wherever irregularities were noticed, and such cases numbered 74 out of a total of 150.

Malik asked the Chief Secretary to re-examine the issue and warned that the NHAI would find it difficult to post and retain officials in the State if the charges were pressed. The Chief Secretary did not reply. Now, the inclusion of the NHAI officials in the case has been challenged in the Uttarakhand High Court.

The way in which the communications between the Union Ministry, the NHAI and the State government were made public was extraordinary. The Chief Minister appears determined to have his way in the matter. A senior official in his media team said: “The Chief Minister is saddened that his ‘crusade’ against corruption has been portrayed as a personal battle with the Union Minister. It is not as if he is deliberately defying the Minister or trying to implicate somebody for personal gains. It is just his commitment to zero tolerance against corruption, and if indeed somebody is not guilty then that would come out in the CBI inquiry. Why make a fuss about it and why paint it as a State vs Centre fight?”

The official added that the special investigation team (SIT) instituted by the Chief Minister to conduct simultaneous inquiries had hinted at a scam running into Rs.240 crore. “This could just be the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Local BJP leaders are dismayed by the publicity that the case has drawn. “He [Rawat] is inexperienced, wish he had handled the matter with more maturity,” one of them said.

Two suspended SLAOs, D.P. Singh and Anil Shukla, told Frontline that an inexperienced Chief Minister had made a mountain out of a molehill. If anyone was at fault, it was the SDMs alone because they decided whether land was agricultural or not, they said. SLAOs only decide the compensation in accordance with defined norms and have no discretion in the matter, they added.

“I am happy that the CBI is now investigating…. In the meantime, I am enjoying my time as paid leave, having a picnic with my family and children,” said D.P. Singh. Anil Shukla said the allegations were a fallout of old grudges. “The CBI inquiry will establish if any wrongdoing has been done. I am clean, and I know it, so I am not bothered,” he said.

The NHAI regional officer declined comment, saying that the matter was now in court. The controversy is interesting because Uttarakhand is ruled by the party that also holds power at the Centre. Rawat is known to be close to the RSS, while Gadkari's name has often been mentioned in other controversies in the past.