Days after Union Minister of Road Transport & Highways (MoRTH) Nitin Gadkari asked Uttarakhand Chief Minster Trivendra Singh Rawat to reconsider the demand for a CBI probe into an alleged scam in farmland acquisition for widening of National Highway 74, National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) Chairman Y S Malik has asked state Chief Secretary S Ramaswamy to “remove” the names of NHAI officials from an FIR on compensation paid for the acquired land. In a letter to the Uttarakhand government on May 26, Malik wrote that “dragging NHAI officers in such incidents is bound to be counter-productive” and the Authority might find it “extremely difficult to post and retain officers” in the state.
“It would be very difficult to expect NHAI officers to deliver of NH projects in Uttarakhand where the work has come to a complete standstill,” he stated. On April 5, Gadkari, in his letter to the newly elected Chief Minister, stated that a CBI probe into the alleged scam “would have an adverse impact on the morale of the officers” and the Ministry “would have to re-examine the usefulness for taking up more projects in the state”. Apart from some revenue officials of Udham Singh Nagar district — seven face suspension — NHAI officials too have been named in the FIR for their alleged involvement in disbursement of compensation money. It is alleged that the compensation was increased up to 10 times while acquiring land for the highway project.
In the FIR, allegations have also been raised against officials for allegedly changing land use from agriculture to non-agriculture on an earlier date so that a higher compensation amount could be paid for the acquired land. Malik, on his part, wrote that “for expeditious implementation of road projects, the NHAI is under informal directions from the MoRTH to avoid laying challenge” to the compensation awarded by state authorities “unless a patent abnormality or irregularity is noticed”.
According to Malik, NHAI officers had raised questions with the Competent Authority for Land Acquisition (CALA) in about 50 cases and even invoked arbitral proceedings in 74 of 154 awards. “Not filing challenges in respect of the remaining awards does not mean the NHAI officers have colluded in the alleged corruption,” he wrote. Reiterating that NHAI officers did not decide or disburse compensation directly, Malik underlined that determination of status of land is “a function solely in the domain of the revenue officers” of the state. “As per the system, CALA raises demand for funds from the NHAI and the NHAI officers deposit the funds with CALA as per their Award-wise demand,” he wrote.
While offering to share with the state government the legal opinion that NHAI sought from the Attorney General on the culpability of its officers, Malik sought the Uttarakhand Chief Secretary’s intervention and “removal of the NHAI officers from the FIR filed in the matter”. Uttarakhand Minister Madan Kaushik, who is also the state government spokesperson, told The Indian Express on Monday: “He (Malik) has written in the letter exactly that which he told us during our meeting last week (in Delhi). But we are not convinced that the NHAI had no role to play (in the alleged scam). We want a CBI probe and we shall soon be seeking legal advice from the Attorney General on this matter.”
After meeting Gadkari and Malik on April 25, Chief Minister Rawat said that both he and Gadkari believed in zero-tolerance against corruption and that his government would seek legal opinion on the scope of such a probe. Earlier, at a press conference on March 25, Chief Minister Rawat had said that the SIT probing the irregularities would hand over investigation to the CBI as many departments involved in the alleged scam did not come under the state government.
“Irregularities worth Rs 240 crore have been detected in the acquisition of farmland for the purpose of the proposed NH-74 in Udham Singh Nagar district between 2011 and 2016. Farmland was shown as non-agricultural land to increase the compensation amount by at least 20 times to benefit chosen stakeholders and beneficiaries,” Rawat had said, adding that the amount siphoned off was bound to rise since only 18 cases had been detected till then.