The Punjab government has informed the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and the union ministry of personnel that the divisional commissioner - an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer will not charge fee while acting as arbitrator between the NHAI and private parties for resolving land acquisition disputes in the Rupnagar division.
This fresh official order is set to put in the dock Jalandhar divisional commissioner Sucha Ram Ladhar, a 1991-batch IAS officer, who has pocketed about Rs 1.58 crore as arbitration fee from farmers while deciding their land acquisition compensation cases and has been unabashedly defending himself on administrative and judicial fronts after the state government directed him to deposit this amount. The government had taken a policy decision that the entire amount would be returned to the farmers once Ladhar deposits it in the government account.
Ladhar (53) who charged the fee without the state government's approval during his postings at Jalandhar and Patiala since August 2007 has earned at least twice his salary (pay scale of Rs 37,400-67,000 +Rs 10,000) by forcing hundreds of farmers, whose land has been acquired by the NHAI, to pay him Rs 4,100-12,000 as cost per case, even though the divisional commissioner functions as an ex officio arbitrator between the NHAI and private parties.
Following a series of reports in Hindustan Times, Ladhar's "misconduct" has come under the scanner of various authorities, including the Punjab and Haryana high court.
Keeping in view the Ladhar episode, the Punjab government on May 22 laid down specific guidelines while appointing the commissioner, Rupnagar division, as arbitrator.
"No arbitration fee shall be charged by the arbitrator for this arbitration," states the directive. "This arbitration work shall be considered as part of the official duty of the commissioner, Rupnagar division."
Another significant aspect of this order is the state government forwarding a copy of this order "for necessary action" to the NHAI chairman and the secretary to the government of India, ministry of personnel.
While the NHAI had refused to deposit its share of the fee as "there is no provision in the National Highway Act, 1956, for payment of any charges or honorarium to the competent authority," the union ministry of personnel, in a recent communication to the Punjab government, had said that the latter should decide if an IAS officer functioning as an arbitrator should charge the fee or not.
Government sources say this order will tighten the noose around Ladhar, who despite being directed several times has been violating with impunity the direction to deposit the entire money he had charged from farmers.
According to a series of office memoranda (OM) the union ministry has been issuing since 1960, a government servant appointed to act as arbitrator between the union government and private parties to settle disputes can charge a maximum fee of only Rs 10,000 during a financial year.
But, in sharp contrast to these specific guidelines, Ladhar has pocketed about Rs 1.58 crore as arbitration fee from farmers.
The NHAI had acquired land in Jalandhar and Patiala divisions and released compensation. Farmers approached the divisional commissioner, seeking a hike in compensation. Though the divisional commissioner functions as an ex officio arbitrator, Ladhar had been charging arbitration fee to be shared 50:50 by the NHAI and the farmers.
The NHAI refused to deposit its share of the fee. Ladhar issued an order that the "arbitration costs" of the NHAI would be "paid by the petitioner", which the private party would recover from the NHAI at the time of "taking the award money." Ladhar had also directed that "the copy of the award be released to petitioners on the payment of arbitration fee."