What is the alleged National Highway 74 scam in Uttarakhand?
Over the last several years, government and private land was acquired across Udham Singh Nagar district in the southeastern corner of Uttarakhand, bordering Uttar Pradesh, to widen the 300-km Haridwar-Bareilly National Highway 74 to four lanes. In the process, the land use pattern was allegedly changed from “agricultural to non-agricultural, in the back date”, to benefit certain owners. Compensation for non-agricultural land is higher. Also, some owners of non-agricultural land were allegedly compensated at the lower, agricultural land, rate.
Cases of alleged corruption have so far emerged in 11 villages in the Rudrapur, Kashipur, Bajpur and Sitarganj tehsils of the district, but many believe these could be just the tip of a massive iceberg of irregularities.
The power to change land use lies with the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM). Five SDMs — Surendra Singh Jangpangi, Jagdish Lal, Bhagat Singh Phonia, N S Nagnyal and Himalaya Singh Martolia — who were posted in these areas between 2013 and 2016, when the land was acquired, have been implicated. They were suspended on March 25; Martolia has since retired.
Special Land Acquisition Officers (SLAOs) calculate and decide the amount of compensation. Former SLAOs of Udham Singh Nagar and Nainital districts, D P Singh and Anil Kumar Shukla were suspended the same day.
The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), which is responsible for the development, maintenance and management of India’s National Highways, and which released the compensation amounts, too has been implicated.
When and how was the alleged scam detected?
After one Suresh Gangwar last year alleged unfair compensation to some landowners, at least three public interest petitions (PILs) were filed in the Uttarakhand High Court. Towards the end of the year, more cases of alleged high compensation were reported. On March 20 this year, the then Commissioner of Kumaon, D Senthil Pandiyan, submitted a preliminary report flagging irregularities of up to Rs 240 crore in the disbursement of compensation funds between 2013 and 2016. Pandiyan’s preliminary investigation found 18 cases in which agricultural land was allegedly shown as “non-agricultural” on back dates, based on which compensation was inflated by up to 20 times.
n In Garhi Husain village in Jaspur tehsil, the SLAO decided a compensation of Rs 9.13 crore for 0.65 hectare of land. However, as per the notification under Section 3D of the National Highways (NH) Act, 1956, no more than Rs 0.48 crore should have been paid.
n In village Banskhera Kala in Kashipur tehsil, the SLAO calculated a compensation of Rs 48 crore for 3.7 hectares, where it should, under Section 3D, have been Rs 3.24 crore.
n In a case in Dabhaura Mustakam village in Kashipur tehsil, after the SLAO decided the compensation amount at Rs 2,700 per square metre, the landowner approached the district magistrate of Udham Singh Nagar for arbitration under Section 3(G)(5) of the NH Act. The DM raised the compensation to Rs 7,500 per square metre.
And how did the alleged scam become a Centre versus state issue?
On March 25, a week after the BJP formed the government in Uttarakhand, Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat, who had promised “zero tolerance for corruption”, sought a CBI probe into the alleged scam. It was a chance for him to uncover — and use politically — alleged corruption under the previous Congress government.
But the move boomeranged on Rawat. On April 5, Union Minister for Road Transport & Highways Nitin Gadkari wrote to the CM, objecting to an inquiry against NHAI officers, which, he said, would have an “adverse impact on the morale of the officers and would impede the execution of the projects”. He was “greatly concerned”, Gadkari wrote, “about the recent developments in the state: firstly an FIR was launched by the district administration of Udham Singh Nagar in the matter of awards finalised by CALA (SLAO), who is a revenue functionary of the state government. Not only that, a CBI inquiry has also been ordered by the Government of Uttarakhand on the matter in which the NHAI officers are being investigated”. The letter warned the state government that if “immediate corrective measures” were not taken, the Centre would be forced to “re-examine the usefulness for taking up more projects in the state”.
But what exactly is NHAI’s role?
NHAI, which is the fund disbursing agency in the NH74 widening project, has been maintaining that it has nothing to do with the alleged scam. The compensation money is in a bank account it holds jointly with the Competent Authority for Land Acquisition (CALA), who in most cases is the SLAO. At a meeting with Gadkari and Rawat in New Delhi on May 25, NHAI Chairman Y S Malik tried to convince the CM about the futility of seeking a CBI probe, since NHAI’s role was restricted to the disbursement of funds. Rawat, however, did not agree, and told Malik that he would like to seek legal opinion on the scope of the probe. The following day, Malik wrote to Uttarakhand Chief Secretary S Ramaswamy, asking that the names of NHAI officials mentioned in an FIR that was filed at Pantnagar police station on March 10, be removed. The NHAI had “no role in the entire scheme of determination of compensation and [its] disbursement to the landowners,” Malik wrote.
So, where does this matter stand now?
On May 29, NHAI approached the Uttarakhand High Court seeking the quashing of the FIR against the NHAI officials. The case is pending. Meanwhile, even as Rawat seeks legal opinion, D Senthil Pandiyan was removed as Kumaon Commissioner on June 1.