Himachal Pradesh’s Congress government not only seems to have overlooked HP Ceiling on Land Holdings Act, 1972, to allow diversion of the tea estate land at Dharamshala and Palampur for “tea tourism”, it also did not wait for status report from the deputy commissioner of Kangra in the matter. The decision was taken in a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday by the state government by invoking its powers under section 6 and 7 of the HP Ceiling on Land Holdings Act, 1972.
The land ceiling Act in the state prohibits use of tea estate land for commercial activities. The latest decision is set to benefit tea estate owners having large parcels of land.
A case in point is sprawling 700-kanal tea estate at Mohal Chakwan, Chari (tehsil Shahpur) in Dharamshala where large-scale construction has already been raised.
Insiders say the Cabinet note circulated to ministers clearly notes the violation done by the applicant (Niwan Singh) by diverting the land for commercial activity, which was only possible after seeking permission of the Cabinet. Singh holds power of attorney for at least 10 shareholders of the estate, as per official records.
“Violation of HP Ceiling on Land Holdings Act, 1972, attracts legal action against the owners, besides vesting of the land back with the state government,” said a former deputy commissioner of Kangra who had earlier studied the request of the owners for permission for diversion of the estate land. The request was turned down and owners were informed that the provisions attracted strict action.
Besides, the Cabinet also did not wait for the report of the Deputy Commissioner of Kangra before taking its decision on Wednesday.
When contacted, Revenue Minister Kaul Singh Thakur conceded there was huge pressure on the government. “Chief Minister sahib must have been under pressure to grant permission. I understand the construction done by the owners did not involve any uprooting of tea plants, but the land had been recorded as barren or without tea plants. Thus, it made a case for easing the norms,” he said.
“The decision is very wrong. There is no concept of tea tourism in the state. If the owners have raised construction and that was in the knowledge of the government, the decision, as per law, required immediate vesting of the property with the government. What the government has done is illegal,” said former CM Shanta Kumar, a sitting Kangra MP.
Officials claimed they had earlier advised the government to frame a policy for allowing some vacant unused parcels of tea estate land for certain purposes other than tea cultivations. Four times, the draft policy was taken to the cabinet, but was never considered.
In 2010-11, the owners of the tea-estate in question had also tried to sell 600 kanals of land to the government for a housing project. The then Deputy Commissioner of Kangra, who headed the panel for negotiations, wrote back to the BJP government that since the land in question was categorised as tea estate and comes under the HP Ceiling on Land Holdings Act, 1972, the case could not be proceeded with. The request was rejected.
Former CM Prem Kumar Dhumal said, “This is the most controversial decision will ruin the tea industry just because the government wanted to favour a particular person by bending rules and ignoring law.”