After moving with striking efficiency initially, the Parkash Singh Badal government now appears to have put on ice the case of Punjab-cadre IAS officer Sucha Ram Ladhar charging for arbitration between the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) and landowners.
The 1991-batch IAS officer has reportedly admitted in writing before the state government - after an HT expose - that he had made about Rs 1.58 crore in arbitration fee for resolving disputes between farmers and the NHAI over land acquisition compensation. Ladhar charged this fee during his postings as Jalandhar and Patiala division commissioner-cum-arbitrator since August 2007. CM Badal has again appointed Ladhar as Jalandhar divisional commissioner.
Following the reports in HT ('IAS officer reaps a rich harvest' and 'No policy, Ladhar makes hay as arbitrator', May 24, 25), and after chief secretary Rakesh Singh sought explanation from Ladhar in 48 hours, the CM recommended seeking opinion of AG Ashok Aggarwal on whether Ladhar could charge the fee.
That was two weeks ago.
On Wednesday, it emerged that the AG had not received the file for his opinion. It was learnt that the file was not in the CM's office; though personnel department officials - refusing to come on record - said they had sent the file to AG office long ago.
But the AG, contacted in person, said he had not received the file. Even the officials attached with the AG, through whom the files go to the AG, said they had not received the file.
The CM had sought the AG's opinion despite the chief secretary having written a hard-hitting note against Ladhar's actions, sources said. In fact, the very decision of the CM to seek only the AG's opinion is being seen as a tool of procrastination.
Doubts are being raised within the bureaucracy over Badal not referring the matter also to the legal remembrancer, who functions as law secretary to the government.
At the core of the controversy is Ladhar's order seeking Rs 12,000 per case as "the cost of arbitration" to be shared 50:50 by the NHAI and landowners. As the NHAI refused to deposit its share, the IAS officer had issued another order: "The arbitration costs for the respondent (NHAI) would be paid by the petitioner at the time of the award, which he would recover from the NHAI at the time of taking the award money."
A top-secret note of the Punjab government raises the "question of ethics" on the part of an arbitrator-cum-commissioner to charge fee from the parties whose "interests are apparently in conflict with those of the government authorities concerned."
"Now the government has directed Ladhar not to charge any arbitration fee," a senior government functionary said.