Empyrean Enclave

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The regularisation of the Sainik Farms has long been a political hot potato. But for the Capital’s power pack, its lack of legality has never stopped the party, finds Shantanu Guha Ray

Illustration: Naorem Ashish

IT’S AN over 4000-acre tract of land in the Capital’s posh south district, riddled with enormous bungalows that look like Spanish haciendas, Mediterranean villas, or just typically mammoth Delhi odes to Mammon. Inhabited by some of the most nouveau of the Delhi riche, its suburban villas groan with manicured gardens, gallons of gilt and objets d’art. Parties here are incurably massive and invariably opulent. The only problem with Sainik Farms, of course, is that the entire colony — gargantuan farmhouses, acres of gardens, etc — is completely illegal and successive governments have been unable to sort out the mess.

Last week, Saugata Roy, minister of state for urban development, spoke of his inability to resolve the vexing Sainik Farms issue. Roy was adroitly sidestepping a question raised by Congress MP Prabha Thakur. He said in Parliament that it was not for his ministry to solve the problem. But what didn’t get addressed was the question that has been hanging fire for more than three decades: why have successive governments dithered over whether or not to regularise it?

“It is a shame in the heart of Delhi,” Thakur told TEHELKA. A note prepared by her team and submitted to the urban development ministry estimates that more than 35,000 people routinely violate every rule in these 6,000 acres on the southern fringes of New Delhi.

Created in the 1960s as a cooperative society for defence staff and their families (hence the name), Sainik Farms is not among the list of 1,218 illegal colonies in Delhi that have been provisionally regularised, but Roy did tell Parliament that the government was not contemplating any kind of demolition in the near future.

The fact is that no one really wants to take charge of Sainik Farms. Two months back, senior officers of the Finance Ministry were denied an appointment with Minister Pranab Mukherjee to discuss Sainik Farms because he wanted the Prime Minister to react first. Mukherjee, say insiders, remembered how Delhi Lt Governor Tejinder Khanna had personally pushed a move to regularise Sainik Farms, but failed in the face of hostile opposition from almost all political parties. Privately, Khanna has told his confidants that no one should raise this issue with him again. When the BJP was in power, then finance minister Yashwant Sinha was once offered the file by bureaucrats in his ministry. He returned it the same day, reportedly asking them whether they wanted to get him into trouble with his Cabinet colleagues. Sinha’s hint was loud and clear: no one wanted to touch this particular political football. It might end up in a self-goal. In fact, Jaswant Singh, another FM from the BJP, also refused to act on the file. And worse, PM Manmohan Singh, then a FM in Narasimha Rao’s Cabinet, also ignored the Sainik Farms issue.

Yashwant Sinha was given the file on Sainik Farms but he returned it the same day

Once Mukherjee refused, the file was sent to the Ministry of Urban Development with a note that the ministry should ask both the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and Delhi Development Authority (DDA) to look into the issue and do a survey as to how many people live there. MCD Commissioner KS Mehra didn’t react; equally silent was DDA Vice-Chairman Ashok Kumar.

Was Kumar aware of the fact that former DDA vice-chairman KS Bains was a resident of Sainik Farms? In fact, Bains’ residency is said to be one reason for the DDA’s stoic silence on the illegally constructed homes. “Bains was not keen on any intrusion into Sainik Farms,” says a top official of the DDA.

But Kumar is in good company: his predecessors, Madhukar Gupta, Anil Baijal and Subhash Sharma, all routinely avoided seeing files pertaining to Sainik Farms. Meanwhile, not only is there constant illegal construction — mostly in the dead of night — after a 2004 Supreme Court order banned construction, but official figures of tax evasion have crossed the Rs 10,000-crore figure. And that’s a conservative estimate. As finance ministry, MCD and DDA officials earnestly pursue their survey of the land and those who occupy it, the figure is likely to double.

No entry Homes in Sainik Farms are synonymous with high walls and iron gates
No entry Homes in Sainik Farms are synonymous with high walls and iron gates
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

RESIDENTS OF Sainik Farms want the illegal nightmare to end. Ready to pay 100 percent fines (ranging from Rs 35-50 crore) for regularisation, they want the crisis to end, once and for all. “The government must regularise the homes,” says Kedar Banerjee, a businessman who has lived in Sainik Farms for over two decades. Others say that though they’ve broken building rules, it’s the civic authorities who constantly demand bribes to stay quiet and want the status quo to continue.

Over a decade and a half ago, the MCD had recommended implementation of the Janak Juneja Committee Report to regularise Sainik Farms. The glitch then: residents were not keen to surrender 40 percent — on average — of their property, for the creation of necessary infrastructure such as roads and sewage lines. Neither were they willing to deposit a fee of Rs 2,000 per square metre, as regularisation charge. That was in 1995. Nearly 14 years later, the file is still gathering dust.

Now the colony, once developed by Sanjay Gandhi crony Akbar ‘Dumpy’ Ahmed, has homes belonging to prominent people such as former Bihar governor Raghunandan Lal Bhatia (a long-standing patron of the Sainik Farms Residents’ Welfare Association); former Cabinet secretary Surinder Singh; former Lok Sabha secretary Subhash Kashyap; fashion designer Rina Dhaka; Bangladesh High Commissioner Tariq Ahmad; former petroleum minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, noted lawyer RK Anand, a host of Delhi high court judges and top army officials. The list is a virtual who’s who of celebville.

The seemingly endless list of VVIPs is a deterrent for the Cabinet, the MCD, the DDA and the police, who have routinely avoided prosecuting those violating laws.

The kingpin of an online liquor selling group operated from his Sainik Farms home

And there are other violators too. There’s Dhul, mastermind of ‘Whisky on Wheels’, an online liquor selling group on social networking sites and the son of a customs warehouse official. He operated from Sainik Farms and was not raided, despite complaints. Last week, IB officials traced a major sex racket there, involving women from Russia. And two months ago, the supply chain of India’s notorious wildlife poachers was tracked to more than a dozen houses in Sainik Farms that demanded deer, leopard and tiger skins and stuffed heads of wild buffalo to decorate their walls.

INTERESTINGLY, DELHI’S first illegal captive power plants, 56 of them, came up in Sainik Farms more than two decades ago: residents hired farmhands to dig huge bores and hide diesel generator sets underground. In the 90s, power was sold at Rs 16 per unit (when power from the Delhi Vidyut Board was available at Rs 2 per unit). “Water is still carried from outside, but now BSES has started offering electricity to Sainik Farms,” says Anthony Jesudasan of Reliance ADAG, who once lived in the neighbourhood. “A curiosity value pushes up the price because no one can see what is happening inside.”

While every agency skirts the issue, regularisation — and, therefore, tax collection — is in the limbo. Behind the high walls of its mansions, meanwhile, the party continues. Supposed to be only for defence personnel, Sainik Farms today houses only defendants — but ones that don’t really fear prosecution.

WRITER’S EMAIL
shantanu@tehelka.com

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