In Jaspur, adjacent to a signboard that reads “Thana Kunda”, lies 2.5 hectares farmland. It is one of a number of plots whose acquisition, followed by compensation, has led to allegations of a scam along National Highway 74 in Uttarakhand’s Udham Singh Nagar district. “There are stories that a huge amount was paid to the owners [of the 2.5 hectares in Kunda] as compensation,” said Balwinder Singh of village Baksora, about a kilometre from Kunda police station. The owners of the 2.5 hectares live outside Uttarakhand, and could not be contacted for comment.
At Baksora, on the other hand, villagers say they have “not been paid a penny” even several months after acquisition.
This is the allegation at the root of the controversy — that the land use pattern was changed to benefit certain owners while others were allegedly poorly paid. The process of paying compensation slowed down towards the end of 2016 after such allegations started to surface.
“It has been 10 months since our land was acquired for the NH-74 project, but even after paying several visits to the Jaspur tehsil office I haven’t received any compensation money yet… I haven’t even been able to grow crop on the land and earn [since the acquisition],” says Mahender Singh of Baksora.
According to a preliminary report prepared by former Kumaon commissioner D Senthil Pandiyan in March this year, there were at least 18 cases where “agricultural” land was fraudulently shown as “non-agricultural” for higher compensation. “Undue compensation” up to Rs 240 crore was paid in these 18 cases between 2013 and 2016, for land acquired for the widening of NH-74, the report said.
In the acquisition of the 2.5 hectares in Kunda, the report says the compensation should have been Rs 2.64 crore since it was “agricultural” land; instead, the land was shown as “non-agricultural” and the owners were compensated with Rs 23 crore, or nine times what it should have been.
At Tanda Azam village in Bajpur tehsil, Dharampal Chaudhary runs ‘Haryana Dhaba’ on land acquired for the NH-74 widening project. The compensation offered was “too little”, he alleges. “We had the land use changed to non-agricultural in 2012 itself. That’s when we built a dhaba here. Even then we were offered less money than we should have been,” says Chaudhary, who runs the dhaba on land belonging to his widowed daughter-in-law Seema Devi.
Chaudhary’s lawyer Vijay Garg said that in 2015 they had appealed to the Udham Singh Nagar district magistrate against the Special Land Acquisition Officer’s (SLAO) and National Highways Authority of India’s decision on compensation. NHAI approached the Uttarakhand High Court, where the case is pending.
In March, Chief Minister Trivendra Rawat has sought a CBI probe into the matter. A letter from Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari dated April 5 told Rawat that a CBI inquiry was “bound to have an adverse impact on the morale of the [NHAI] officers”. As a result, the controversy is being seen as having the form of a dispute between the state and the Centre.
In yet another case, Vinay Kumar gave up his “non-agricultural” land in Rudrapur and claims to have received Rs 4.3 lakh. “We were cheated. The authorities paid us less considering the land to be agricultural. We approached the Udham Singh Nagar district magistrate last year, but he said that all files pertaining to the acquisition for NH-74 had been locked up, and that our issue would be resolved only when the files are unlocked,” Kumar’s father Rohtas Agarwal said.
D P Singh, who was the SLAO for Nainital and Udham Singh Nagar districts between January 2016 and March 2017, was suspended following allegations about a scam. He said, “The SLAO has the power to decide the compensation. If NHAI had problems with the decided compensation, it should have approached the district magistrate for arbitration and shouldn’t have released the compensation money. But NHAI released the compensation money and now it’s putting the blame on us.”
Another suspended officer, Anil Shukla, who had served as SLAO before Singh, said, “Nothing is done without proper consultation with the NHAI. NHAI officials know as much about the acquired land and compensation as the SLAO.” Ajay Bishnoi, project director of NHAI at its project implementation unit (PIU) in Rudrapur, said, “The allegations have been raised against change of land use [from agricultural to non-agricultural] being made from a back date. The NHAI has no authority over evaluation of the land use details, or change of land use.”