With no support from legal, administrative or political fronts for his "misconduct", Jalandhar divisional commissioner Sucha Ram Ladhar is learnt to have agreed to part with the Rs 1.58 crore that he had charged as arbitration fee from farmers while deciding their land acquisition compensation cases.
Hundreds of families, whose prime land has been acquired by the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) in Jalandhar and Patiala divisions for widening of highways, paid Ladhar Rs 4,100 or Rs 12,000 in cheques as cost per case, even though the divisional commissioner anyway functions as an ex-officio arbitrator between the NHAI and private parties. Ladhar (53), a 1991-batch IAS officer, allegedly made Rs 1.58 crore in all by charging the fee without the state government's approval during his postings as Jalandhar and Patiala divisional commissioner-cum-arbitrator since August 2007.
His conduct came under the scanner following a series of reports in HT, starting with 'IAS officer reaps a rich harvest' and 'No policy, Ladhar makes hay as arbitrator' (May 24, 25).
Sources said Ladhar has now written to the state government that he is ready to deposit the entire amount, and has sought directions as to how and where he should deposit the money. It was the chief minister's office (CMO) that reportedly received the letter directly from Ladhar, who seems to have relented after chief secretary Rakesh Singh recommended a chargesheet against him for his "misconduct". The chief secretary had also recommended recovering the entire money (with 12% interest).
The CMO, which had been sitting tight over this issue for quite sometime now, has thus sent back the file to the personnel department for review - whether to issue a departmental chargesheet or let the IAS officer off the hook -- in light of Ladhar's willingness to part with the money.
The chief secretary had favoured a chargehseet after a damning legal opinion of Punjab advocate general (AG) Ashok Aggarwal, stating that "the fixing/charging and then retaining the arbitral fee by Ladhar has to be viewed as a misconduct on his part."
After the chief secretary's recommendation, the CMO had unofficially advised Ladhar to deposit the money in order to avoid disciplinary action, sources said. Ladhar did make another determined bid to convince the chief minister Parkash Singh Badal against the action a few days back, but the CM didn't meet him, which was a clear indication of the mood of his political master too, sources privy to the developments said.
The NHAI acquired land and released compensation as fixed by the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM). Farmers approached the divisional commissioner, seeking a hike in compensation. Though the divisional commissioner functions as an ex-officio arbitrator, SR Ladhar was charging arbitration fee to be paid 50:50 by the NHAI and the farmers.
The NHAI 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." Ladhar issued an order that the "arbitration costs" of the NHAI would be "paid by the petitioner", which he would recover from the NHAI at the time of "taking the award money". Ladhar also directed that "the copy of the award be released to petitioners on the payment of arbitration fee".