The apparent inability of Punjab local government minister Chunni Lal Bhagat to grasp the intricacies of his high-profile portfolio has become a major stumbling block in expediting urban reforms and resolving the long-standing issue of change of land use (CLU).
A large number of CLU cases are pending with the minister, known for his handicaps such as lack of proficiency even in Punjabi, as he has been allegedly sitting on files for several months, government sources said.
"We are looking into it (CLU)," said Bhagat, a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislature group.
In official circles, it is a mystery as to who writes the notings in official files on behalf of this minister who, while being sworn in as a cabinet minister last year, had struggled to take oath in Punjabi.
A full-blown cold war is on among Bhagat and his officers over the contentious issue of who is the competent authority to grant the CLU, which generates massive funds for municipal corporations.
The competent authority to give the CLU wields significant clout. Hence, the tussle over issuing powers. The issue has also dominated coordination meetings of the BJP and its alliance partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).
"While chief minister Parkash Singh Badal wants decentralisation for public convenience, the minister insists that all files pertaining to the CLU must be sent to him for approval, even as he doesn't have the powers to grant change of land use," a top government functionary said.
The CLU is needed, for example, when a piece of land is earmarked as a residential zone in the plan but the land owner wants to use it for industrial purposes. Among many cases with the minister, the CLU is being sought from residential to commercial or industrial purposes. The process of conversion involves the payment of conversion fee. Once a piece of land is converted, its primary character is changed.
Government sources say the matter has been hotly debated in official records of the department. "The issue of change of land use is still hanging fire," reads a recent file noting Hindustan Times has seen.
In official records of the department, it has been pointed out that municipalities are not empowered to allow CLU as per section 2(m) of the Punjab Regional and Town Planning and Development Act, 1995.
"However," points out a noting in the files, "the department has been allowing change of land use despite knowing that it is not empowered to do so."
To resolve this matter, two options were floated: Either the Act should be amended to empower municipalities to allow the CLU, or officers of the department should be declared 'competent authority' under the Act.
Significantly, the department of housing and urban development had issued a notification on October 21, 2012, declaring commissioners of municipal corporations as "competent authorities" for issuing the CLU. "But it has not been implemented so far because the local government minister has some reservations in this regards," official records point out.