As Details of Priyanka Gandhi's Land Deal Surface, RTI Petitioner Alleges Foul Play

Dev Ashish Bhattacharya says there are four major flaws in the deal, including lack of approval by the mandatory board and non-issuance of notice despite an inordinate delay in construction.

Priyanka Gandhi. Credit: PTI

Priyanka Gandhi. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: The nearly three-year-old battle of a Noida-based RTI activist to obtain details of Congress leader Priyanka Vadra Gandhi’s land deals in Chharabra – about 13 km from Shimla in Himachal Pradesh – ended abruptly when in a surprising move, the deputy commissioner of Shimla, who had till now vehemently opposed sharing information, revealed all the important details of the deal.

According to the activist, Dev Ashish Bhattacharya, the deputy commissioner, Rohan Chand Thakur, had revealed all the details about Gandhi’s land deals in a letter sent to the branch head of the Central Bureau of Investigation, Shimla.

What the letter contains

Bhattacharya said the letter sent by the deputy commissioner has revealed that Gandhi was allowed to purchase land three times between 2007 and 2013. He said in all 0.45.52 hectares (nearly 4.25 bighas or 4552 square metres) of land was purchased by her for horticulture and residential purposes in three tranches.

Out of this, 0.31.84 hectare was purchased in 2007 for residential and horticulture purpose – 0.09.22 hectare in 2011 for horticulture purpose and 0.04.46 hectares of land in 2013 for horticulture.

Stating that the supporting file notings of the case have still not been provided to him, Bhattacharya said he would try and obtain them with the assistance of the court.

DC Shimla Letter by The Wire on Scribd

The four major flaws in the case

According to the RTI activist, the information provided by the deputy commissioner reveals that there are four major wrongs that have been committed as far as the land deal goes. He charged that the deputy commissioner tried to cover up these aspects in his letter to the CBI.

Irregularity 1: Three land deals are not permissible

Bhattacharya said under section 118 of the H.P. Tenancy and Land Reforms Act, 1972, land can be purchased only once for one purpose irrespective of the quantum of land purchased at the first instance. “In this case, Priyanka Gandhi was allowed to purchase 0.31.84 hectare of land in 2007 for residential and horticulture purposes. Thereafter she was again allowed to purchase land twice for horticulture purposes which is not allowed as per the rules,” he insisted.

Irregularity 2: Purchase only allowed with permission of board, which was never constituted

The second count on which the deal was faulty, Bhattacharya charged, was that under section 118, the land for horticulture purposes can be allowed to be purchased only in special cases when a board consisting of horticulture secretary, horticulture director and others are convinced that the person who is seeking the land for horticulture purposes is an expert in horticulture trade and has some experience in it. “What kind of experience Priyanka Gandhi had in horticulture trade?” he asked, adding that in her case no board was constituted to ascertain this fact.

Irregularity 3: Construction not completed in two years

The RTI activist said in his letter that the deputy commissioner of Shimla stated that “the provision of Section 118(2)(H) stipulate that the non-agriculturist shall put the land to use within a period of two years or a further period not exceeding one year as may be allowed by the government of Himachal Pradesh.” However, in the case of Gandhi, Bhattacharya alleged that the deputy commissioner tried to cover the non-compliance to this guideline by stating that “the applicant had taken steps to put the land to use for the purpose for which permission was granted in her favour within the stipulated period, as such no notice was required to be issued to Priyanka Gandhi”.

Bhattacharya said attempts were still being made to protect the Congress leader. He said “the construction of the residence is yet not finished in 2017 whereas it was supposed to be completed by 2009 and at the most by 2010 with special permission. There was no horticulture activity too which took place by 2010 for the land purchased in 2007.”

Irregularity 4: No notice served to Gandhi

The petitioner said the deputy commissioner of Shimla has accepted that no notice was issued to Gandhi for not putting the land to use within the stipulated period. Stating that the deputy commissioner of Shimla had also not stated a word about any extension been given to her to put the land to use within the stipulated period, Bhattacharya demanded to know if the deputy commissioner believed that a person who had purchased land under Section 118 was allowed an indefinite timeframe to construct on the said plot.

On how the information just landed on his lap after the deputy commissioner had in the past refused to part with it, forcing him to go to court, Bhattacharya said: “I had filed a complaint with the CBI on June 20, 2016 informing them about various irregularities being committed by the officials of Himachal Pradesh government in allowing three time purchase of land by Priyanka Vadra Gandhi.”

He said the CBI headquarters in Delhi had transferred the complaint to its Shimla branch for further necessary action. “The head of the Shimla branch of CBI forwarded my complaint to the additional director general of police of the State Vigilance and Anti Corruption Bureau and Directorate of Land Records, Department of Revenue for further action.”

The RTI activist said it was after he filed two RTI applications on February 10 in the offices of the ADGP (SV& ACB) and Directorate of Land Records to get the copies of the action taken that the PIO of the Directorate of Land Records provided him the information and file notings. “This letter of the PIO also contained the certified copy of the letter dated 18/10/2016 written by Rohan Chand Thakur, DC Shimla, to the branch head of CBI Shimla,” he said, adding that it was the DC’s letter which contained much of the information he had sought in his original RTI petition.

In the past two months, this is the second time that Bhattacharya has been left pleasantly surprised by the turn of events. Last month, the Himachal Pradesh high court had appointed senior advocate R.K. Bawa – who was an attorney general when BJP’s P.K. Dhumal government was in power in the state – to assist the court as the lawyers of Bhattacharya had quit the case citing personal reasons. The move was important for Bhattacharya as the lawyers he had approached for a replacement were reluctant to counsel him.

Apart from fighting a legal case against Gandhi – in which he has alleged that a plot of land in Chharabra, 13 kms from Shimla, was wrongfully allotted to Gandhi – Bhattacharya has also repeatedly raised several issues regarding the manner in which the case has been fought in court.

At one point of time last year, he even urged the state’s high court to send a reference to the Supreme Court to transfer the case out of Himachal Pradesh. Citing the fact that Gandhi is based in Delhi, he said, she “should not have any objection if the case is transferred to Delhi high court”.

Additionally, he had stated that Justice Tarlok Singh Chauhan, who was the presiding judge in the case, was compromised due to a “conflict of interest” as Chauhan’s wife had contested the election for Shimla Municipal Corporation in 2012 on a Congress ticket.

Prior to that, in July 2016, Bhattacharya had cried foul about how a court order pertaining to the case had been announced by the public relations officer even before it had been formally pronounced.

A year before that, in July 2015, the state high court had stayed the state information commission order directing Shimla’s deputy commissioner to disclose information about Gandhi’s land. She had purchased over 4.25 bighas of land between 2007 and 2013 in relaxation of section 118 of Tenancy and Land Reforms Act that bars any non-agriculturist from purchasing land without the permission of the government.

The Wire has sought Gandhi’s response in the matter and the story will be updated once it’s received.