Noose tightens around Hooda over land largesse

Former Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda generously handed out land parcels to cronies.
Former Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda generously handed out land parcels to cronies.

The dragnet is slowly but surely closing in on former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda for the several shady land deals that took place during his decade-long rule over the state. Several skeletons are tumbling out of his closet as multiple investigating agencies have been unleashed at the behest of the
BJP state government led by Manohar Lal Khattar.

While Hooda was very generous when it came to granting permission for the lucrative Change of Land Use (CLU) and land allotment to individuals and organisations, several decisions of his government had caused huge losses to the state exchequer as well as to thousands of villagers who were forced to sell their land at throwaway prices. Among the major beneficiaries were land sharks and builders, who rolled in wealth at the expense of poor land owners.

The modus operandi for eliciting huge benefits out of the grant of CLU permissions was to issue the necessary notification for the government’s intention to acquire land for public purposes. This in itself would come as a catastrophe for poor villagers who had been tilling the land under question and on which their livelihood and that of their families depended entirely. Given that the compensation offered by the government for the acquired land was a pittance, the notification would spread panic among farmers. It was then that the land sharks would fish in troubled waters and purchase land from farmers at a rate slightly more than what was offered by the government. Simultaneously, they would start working on the government to either denotify the land or to grant them CLU.

The latest move by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) is a case in point. The organisation, earlier this month, registered a case of money laundering against Hooda and others for alleged financial irregularities in the acquisition of land in Manesar near Gurgaon. The alleged scandal had cheated farmers of about
Rs 1,500 crore.

The ED case under the provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) was based on an FIR lodged by the CBI which also conducted raids at nearly two dozen premises in the region. Residences and offices of several senior retired officers, who held key positions during Hooda’s regime, were also searched. These included his then principal secretary ML Tayal, the then additional PS, Chattar Singh and the then Director Town and Country Planning SS Dhillon, all senior retired IAS officers. The ED had announced that it would shortly summon Hooda and others for questioning.

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 Prakash Chautala. It was to be acquired for setting up Devi Lal Industrial Model Township at Manesar. However, before the then government could go ahead, it was defeated in the Assembly elections and the Hooda government took over. It decided to continue with the project and issued a notification under Section 9 of the Act on 2 August 2007. The notification entailed that the villagers should make claims of compensation to the district collector.

This was the last straw for the villagers, who thought it prudent to sell land to builders who were offering quick payment at a slightly higher rate. It was then that the government, within a space of 22 days, reversed its decision and decided not to go ahead with the acquisition proceedings. The government took the plea that it had received representations from villagers against the acquisition of their land and had therefore decided not to acquire it. By then most villagers had already sold off their land. As per the FIR, the market price at that time was Rs 1,600 crore while the farmers were paid only 100 crore collectively by land sharks.

Some leaders of the Opposition INLD had conducted sting operations on some of the ruling party MLAs as well as Independents to prove they were taking money for CLU

Subsequently, most of those who had purchased the land were granted CLU permissions to convert the agricultural land to commercial use, which raked in crores for the beneficiaries.

The liberal grant of CLUs had in fact become a well-oiled machinery during Hooda’s regime. Some leaders of the opposition INLD had also conducted sting operations on some of the ruling party MLAs as well as independent MLAs to ‘prove’ that they were accepting money to facilitate CLU permissions. Following a complaint by party leaders to the Haryana Lokayukta earlier this year, it had recommended registration of FIRs against five former MLAs for allegedly accepting bribes for getting lucrative CLU permissions. The Khattar government is yet to take a decision on the recommendation but the way it is probing all such deals, it is a matter of time before it orders registration of cases against accused in the sting operations.

Another much-talked-about case involving Hooda is the Robert Vadra land deal. Vadra’s company, Skylight Hospitality, had purchased about three acres of land in Manesar for about 7 crore which was sold to the real estate giant DLF for a whopping 58 crore after only a few months. The only significant development that took place during the period pertaining to the land was that the Hooda government had granted a CLU permission. The Khattar government had appointed the Justice Dhingra Commission to probe the deal. In the report submitted on 31 August, the Commission has indicted Hooda. The government is bound to initiate action on it soon.

Hooda was also booked by the Haryana Vigilance Bureau in a 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 2005, in which Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and some other Congress leaders had a stake. He is alleged to have re-allotted the ‘resumed’ prized land for a sum of 59 lakh against the market rate of estimated Rs 23 crore.

In yet another instance relating to shady land deals, the CBI had registered a case relating to allotment of 14 high-value industrial plots in Panchkula at the fag end of Hooda’s tenure as chief minister. Hooda has not been directly named in the case but the decision was taken by him in his capacity as the chairman of the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA). Evidently all the 14 plots were allotted to persons considered close to Hooda and most of them did not meet the basic criteria fixed for allotment of industrial plots.

Obviously this is not the last of such cases for which Hooda would be booked. Given the liberal use of his discretionary powers and effort to please all and sundry, Hooda has a lot to answer for. He has been attributing all these cases against him to “political vendetta unleashed by the BJP government” but clearly he cannot hope to escape the law of the land. At the same time, he should be provided fair opportunity to defend himself.