Hooda in tight spot over land largesse


There was one aspect of the decade-long Congress rule under Bhupinder Singh Hooda in Haryana that stood out: He was generous to a fault as far as the real estate was concerned. Whether it was the grant of the lucrative Change of Land Use (CLU) or the allotment of land for industry or the allocation of land for housing projects, Hooda was not found lacking. Even if it seemed he cared two hoots for the law.

Thus, thousands of CLU permissions were granted to builders and individuals and each stroke of the pen led to the value of land escalating several hundred times. Barren land and that categorised as agricultural were allowed to be used for commercial purposes with the beneficiaries making crores of rupees. The number of such permissions granted run into thousands over his 10-year rule. A majority of CLU permissions were given in the NCR area, particularly Gurgaon when real estate was booming.

CLU permissions had emerged as the most important money-spinning tools in his regime. In several cases, land notified to be acquired under Section 4 was denotified after alleged deals between villagers and builders. Vast tracts of land were allowed to be sold for building housing colonies and commercial establishments after the grant of such permissions.

These permissions are now coming under a scanner, besides several other shady real estate deals. Of course, this includes the land purchased and then sold by Priyanka Gandhi’s husband Robert Vadra to DLF following a CLU permission, prime land allotted to favourites for industry and the alleged irregularities in the land allotted to National Herald, run by the Congress with majority stakes of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.

The latest step taken by the Haryana government to tighten the noose around Hooda is the registration of an FIR by the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) against the former chief minister in the case relating to allotment of 14 prized industrial plots in Panchkula during Hooda’s tenure as chief minister. Hooda has been directly implicated in the allotments through decisions taken by him as the chairman of the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA).

CBI conducted raids at 16 places and searched premises of some of the 14 beneficiaries, named in the FIR, as well as some officials. Hooda’s residence and other premises owned by him have not been searched so far.

It is no coincidence that all the 14 plots were allotted in 2013 to persons who were either related to Hooda or were related to persons known to be close to Hooda. Plots measuring 496 to 1,280 square metres were alleged to have been allotted at a throwaway price by HUDA. The Haryana Vigilance department in its initial report to the state government had said that though applications were invited and a formal evaluation process was undertaken, changes were made in rules, evidently to help the favoured applicants. 

Haryana Advocate General in his advice to the state government had stated that “the criterion was approved after the last date of inviting applications had expired; the changed criterion was not advertised afresh.” He specifically pointed out that most of the allottees were either related to Hooda or were connected to him.

Among the beneficiaries were Renu Hooda, wife of a nephew of Bhupinder Hooda, Nandita Hooda, wife of a former senior additional advocate general, Mona Beri, daughter-in-law of an Officer on Special Duty (OSD) to Bhupinder Hooda and Aman Gupta, son of a former Congress MLA besides other persons known to be close to Hooda. Interestingly, several project reports submitted by them were either identical or incomplete. Income criteria and experience were tweaked to favour these persons after the last day of submitting applications.

The FIR registered by the CBI on 19 May does not include Hooda by name. It is registered against the then chairman of Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) who happened to 
be Hooda.

BJP’s incumbent Chief Minister, Manohar Lal Khattar, ordered a vigilance probe and later recommended a CBI inquiry into the case.

Earlier this month, Hooda was booked by the Haryana Vigilance Bureau in the case involving allotment of land to the National Herald in Panchkula. The FIR registered against him stated that he had illegally re-allotted land to the newspaper in which the Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and some others had a stake, in 2005.

The 3,360 sq m property is located in upmarket Sector 6 of Panchkula. The initial allotment was made in 1982 with the stipulation that the building had to be competed in three years. However, construction was not even started, so HUDA ordered the resumption of land and cancelled the allotment. After Hooda came to power, the Associated Journals Limited (AJL), publishers of the defunct newspaper, asked for its re-allocation, which was granted by him. Its market price was estimated at the time of re-allotment in 2005 at 23 crores but AJL got it for 59 lakh. Interestingly, the entire process from re-allotment to mutation was completed in one day.

Hooda not only over-ruled the advise of the Advocate General of the state not to allot land to AJL, he himself signed all the papers.

In yet another case involving real estate, 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 was based on a series of sting operations conducted against some former MLAs. Their video recordings allegedly demanding and accepting bribes were submitted to the Lokayukta, which conducted its own inquiry. After the authenticity of the videotapes was established by forensic examination, the Lokayukta declared that a prima facie case was made out and further investigations should be initiated.

The Damocles sword is also hanging over him on the Robert Vadra land case. Vadra’s company, Skylight Hospitality, had purchased about three acres of land in Manesar for about 7 crores which was sold to the real estate giant DLF for a whopping 58 crore after a few months. In the intervening period, the Hooda government issued a CLU permission for the land, which had sharply enhanced its value.

The controversial Haryana IAS officer Ashok Khemka had cancelled the mutation but he was over-ruled by the Hooda government. Even the CAG report had indicated irregularities in the controversial deal. The Khattar government appointed a Commission of Inquiry under Justice SN Dhingra, who also summoned Hooda. This particular issue is certain to snowball into a major controversy mainly because of the involvement of Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra. With so many cases involving real estate, the former chief minister is likely to keep dousing fires all around him. It would be interesting to see how many of his party colleagues and those who benefitted by his action would stand by him. In what could be a complete turn of the wheel, he may have to head to where his predecessor Om Parkash Chautala is lodged. It is high time politicians learn that power in democracy does not mean unchecked profligate behaviour.