Haryana’s land deals: Hooda’s Nemesis?

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(L-R) Former Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda on a hunger strike at Jantar Mantar in Delhi earlier this year (Photo: UNI); Many CLU permits were given in the high-value NCR area, particularly Gurgaon, where real estate is booming.
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The former Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s deals have divested thousands of poor farmers of their land, and these have now come to haunt him as law enforcing authorities close in on him

By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh

Former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s decade-long reign from 2005 to 2014 was often referred to as land-license raj. His “generosity” in doling out permissions for Change in Land Use (CLU) by the thousands was legion. Each such permission would jack up the price of that land by crores. In almost all cases, the land was notified for acquisition in the name of public projects and then released after panic-stricken farmers sold it out to builders and other land sharks.

In several cases, barren land and those categorized as agriculture land were allowed to be used for commercial purposes with the beneficiaries raking in crores. A majority of CLU permissions was given in the high-value NCR area, particularly Gurgaon, when real estate was booming.

AS PER LAW

The chickens have now come home to roost for Hooda as the dragnet of law enforcing authorities is closing in on him. Hooda’s predictable defense is short: “Political vendetta”. He has repeatedly asserted that he has done no wrong and that every decision was “as per law”. He has also been asserting that the BJP government in the state, in collision with the central government, is out to get him and to “finish me politically”.

Predictably again, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has been maintaining that the “law would take its own course” and has been denying any vendetta. There is, however, no let-up in the regularity with which cases are being probed and registered against Hooda.

He is currently under the lens for such land deals as allotment of prime industrial land to those close to him, showing special favors to the National Herald group of newspapers owned by the Congress and helping a shady deal between Robert Vadra, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, and the DLF.

AGRICULTURAL LAND

The latest incident, in which the CBI has searched 24 premises, including several residences of Hooda, pertains to the Manesar land deal in which farmers were allegedly cheated of Rs 1,500 crore. Residences and offices of several senior retired officers were also raided. These included his then principal secretary ML Tayal, then additional PS, Chattar Singh and then Director, Town and Country Planning, SS Dhillon.

The Khattar government will take a call on a probe indicting Hooda in a dubious Rs 58-cr deal by Robert Vadra's (left) firm, Skylight Hospitality
The Khattar government will take a call on a probe indicting Hooda in a dubious Rs 58-cr deal by Robert Vadra’s (left) firm, Skylight Hospitality

The Manesar land scam and its execution make for a fascinating story. Ironically, the first notification for acquisition of land at Manesar was issued in August 2004 by the then Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) government led by Om Parkash Chautala. It wanted to set up a Devi Lal Industrial Model Township at Manesar. A notification under Section 4 (preliminary notification showing intent) of the Land Acquisition Act was issued to acquire 912 acres of land.

After considering objections under Section 5-A of the Act, a total of 224 acres was excluded and a notification under Section 6 of the Act (Declaration that the land is required for public purpose) for the remaining 688 acres was issued.

Subsequently, the Hooda government issued a notification under Section 9 of the Act on August 2, 2007. It pertains to sending notices to the owners that the government intended to take possession of the land and claims of compensation be made to the collector. This triggered panic among villagers who owned land in the area and land sharks and builders stepped in. They purchased land from the villagers at low rates as government compensation rates were too low.

Then barely 22 days later, in a reversal of its earlier decision, the government dropped the plan to acquire land. By that time, most villagers had sold their land to builders at throwaway prices. The release of land from the acquisition process at that juncture was allegedly in violation of government norms. As per the FIR registered by the CBI, private builders and others bought the land for roughly Rs 100 crore, while its market value at that time was Rs 1,600 crore. Later, most of the builders who had purchased land from the villagers were granted CLU permissions to convert agriculture land to commercial land.

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The DLF case came into the limelight when the mutation of land was cancelled by Haryana IAS officer Ashok Khemka but he was overruled by the Hooda government. Even a CAG report had indicated irregularities in the deal.

After a preliminary inquiry, the Gurgaon Police registered a case against unknown persons (FIR No 510). This was evidently done to ensure that the CBI, which was subsequently handed over the case, does not dither on registering a case.

VADRA CONNECTION

The other much-talked about case involving Hooda is the Robert Vadra land case. Vadra’s company, Skylight Hospitality, had purchased about three acres of land in Manesar for about Rs 7 crore which was sold to real-estate giant DLF for a whopping Rs 58 crore after only a few months. In the intervening period, the Hooda government issued a CLU permission for the land which had sharply enhanced its value.

The case came into the limelight when the mutation of land was cancelled by Haryana IAS officer Ashok Khemka but he was overruled by the Hooda government. Even a CAG report had indicated irregularities in the controversial deal.

In several cases, barren land in Haryana and those categorized as agriculture land were allowed to be used commercially with the beneficiaries raking in crores.

The Khattar government later appointed a Commission of Inquiry under Justice SN Dhingra but Hooda had declined to testify before it. The Commission submitted its report to the Haryana government on August 31 this year. Although the details of its findings have not been disclosed, it is believed to have indicted Hooda. The government is yet to take a call on how to proceed further in this case.

In addition, a few months ago, an FIR was registered against Hooda by the Haryana Vigilance Bureau in a case involving allotment of land to National Herald in Panchkula. The FIR stated that he had illegally re-allotted land to the newspaper, in which Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and some others had a stake in 2005. The land on which a building has now come up is spread over 3,360 sqm in the upscale Sector 6 of Panchkula.

The initial allotment of land in this case was made in 1982 by then chief minister Bhajan Lal with the stipulation that the building had to be completed in three years. However, Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) had ordered resumption of land and cancelled the allotment after the Associated Journals Limited (AJL), the publishers of the newspaper, failed to construct the building during the stipulated period. After Hooda came to power in 2004, the publishers asked for its re-allocation, which was granted by him. Its market price at the time of re-allotment in 2005 was estimated at Rs 23 crore which was given away to it for Rs 59 lakh.

Hooda not only overruled the advice of the Joint Legal Remembrancer of Haryana, Jagdeep Jain, not to re-allot land to AJL, but he himself signed all the papers and ensured that the entire procedure was completed within one day—something unthinkable by any government.

PANCHKULA PLOTS

Only a few months ago in another case, the CBI registered a case against Hooda relating to allotment of 14 prized industrial plots in Panchkula at the fag end of his tenure as chief minister. Hooda has been directly implicated in the allotments through decisions taken by him as the chairman of HUDA.

It is no coincidence that all the 14 plots were allotted in 2013 to persons who were either related to Hooda or were known to be close to him. The plots measuring 496 sqm to 1,280 sqm were alleged to have been allotted at a throwaway price by HUDA.

The Haryana vigilance department in its preliminary report to the state government had said that though applications were invited and a formal evaluation process was undertaken, changes were subsequently made in the rules evidently to help the favored applicants. Even the then Haryana Advocate General, Hawa Singh Hooda, in his advice to the state government had stated that “the criterion was approved after the last date of inviting applications had expired and that the changed criterion was not advertised afresh”. Among the beneficiaries were Renu Hooda, wife of a nephew of Bhupinder Hooda’s, Nandita Hooda, wife of a former senior additional advocate general, Mona Beri, daughter-in-law of an Officer on Special Duty (OSD) to Hooda and Aman Gupta, son of a former Congress MLA. Again, it was no coincidence that several of the project reports submitted by them were either identical or incomplete. Income criteria and experience was changed to favor these people after the last day of submitting applications.

The FIR registered by the CBI on May 19 does not include Hooda by name. It is registered against the then chairman of Haryana Urban Development Authority who was none other than Bhupinder Singh Hooda.

There are some more instances of land deals where Hooda is likely to face the heat. The Haryana Lokayukta earlier this year recommended registration of FIRs against five former MLAs for allegedly accepting bribes for getting lucrative CLU permissions. The directive followed a sting operation and the CDs with the recordings of the operation were submitted to the Lokayukta.

The way the noose is being tightened around Hooda, it is clear that he will be busy defending himself in the coming years.

Lead picture: (L-R) Former Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda on a hunger strike at Jantar Mantar in Delhi earlier this year (Photo: UNI); Many CLU permits were given in the high-value NCR area, particularly Gurgaon, where real estate is booming.

 

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