Patiala divisional commissioner Sucha Ram Ladhar has turned the tussle between farmers and the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) over land acquisition compensation into a 'fertile' cash cow.
More than 1,000 families, whose prime land the NHAI has acquired in Patiala and Jalandhar divisions of Punjab for widening national highways, have been directed by Ladhar to pay him Rs 12,000 costs per case for deciding their compensation disputes.
This means that the 1991-batch Punjab-cadre Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, as per conservative estimates, is set to earn more than Rs 1.5 crore, according to official documents accessed by Hindustan Times.
After the NHAI acquired the land and released the compensation as per the price fixed by subdivisional magistrates (SDMs), residents of Patiala and Jalandhar approached the divisional commissioner, seeking hike in compensation.
Though the divisional commissioner functions as ex officio arbitrator between the NHAI and the private party, Ladhar has been charging arbitration fee. He is said to be close to deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal.
"It is a unique case where a serving officer, in spite of a communication from the NHAI (that he cannot charge arbitration fee) is still insisting on the fee for functioning as an arbitrator," reads a communication the NHAI office in Delhi has received from their officers based in Punjab.
It has come to light that IAS officer GS Grewal, who had also handled arbitration cases between the NHAI and farmers while being posted as the Patiala divisional commissioner from February 2010 to June 2011, did not charge any fee.
"But Ladhar, when posted in Jalandhar and now in Patiala, has been charging arbitration fee. Nowhere else in the country is a divisional commissioner charging costs to decide arbitration cases between the NHAI and landowners," a top NHAI officer said.
The Parkash Singh Badal government has been keeping mum, despite being repeatedly informed by the NHAI in this regard. At the root of this controversy is Ladhar's directive that "the cost of arbitration, worked out at Rs 12,000 lump sum" has to be shared 50:50 "by both parties" - the NHAI and the petitioner whose land was acquired.
After the NHAI refused to deposit its share of the fee, on November 12, 2011, the IAS officer issued another order: "The arbitration costs for the respondent (NHAI) would be paid by the petitioner at the time of award, which he would recover from the NHAI at the time of taking the award money."
To ensure that he gets the money, Ladhar also directed in his order that "the copy of the award be released to petitioners on payment of arbitration fee."
"The landowner, preferring arbitration, has to shell out Rs 12,000 to secure an award from the divisional commissioner, Patiala," reads a letter of Dev Raj, chief general manager-cum regional officer, NHAI.
In view of the IAS officer's 'arbitrary' stance, the NHAI has decided to take up the matter with the union ministry of road transport and highways as well as the department of personnel and training.
According to an internal communique of the NHAI, there are more than 1,000 arbitration cases for land acquisition under the jurisdiction of any divisional commissioner. "By taking into account the arbitration fee (Rs 12,000 per case), quoted by the Patiala divisional commissioner, the quantum of this fee comes to Rs 1.20 crore," reads the communication, also sent to the Punjab government.
While posted as Jalandhar divisional commissioner, Ladhar dealt with a case remanded back by the Supreme Court. There were 629 affected landowners. Even as he passed a single order applicable to all 629 cases, the officer charged Rs 4,100 costs per case and directed the NHAI to deposit Rs 12.89 lakh and the Dasuya SDM to recover Rs 2,050 from each landowner.
Sources said the NHAI authorities based in Panchkula, Chandigarh and Jalandhar took up the matter with their high-ups in Delhi and sought a clarification. The NHAI authorities 'examined' the matter at the highest level and held: "There is no provision in the NH Act, 1956, for payment of any charges of honorarium to the competent authority and the arbitrator."
As per the NHAI, the arbitrator for land acquisition for national highways, appointed by the central government under the provision of the Act, are generally senior revenue officers of the state government and "work in ex officio capacity."
Railways, too, feel the pinch
The Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India Limited (DFCC), a public sector undertaking under the ministry of railways, is also feeling the heat of Patiala divisional commissioner Sucha Ram Ladhar's order on arbitration fee.
A senior functionary in the union government stated that the divisional commissioner (through memo No 876/nazar dated March 19, 2012) also sought arbitration fee from Ludhiana-based authorities of the DFCC, which is executing the ambitious Ludhiana freight corridor project.
"There are about 46 cases, for which the Patiala divisional commissioner has directed us to deposit 50% of the fee (total Rs 5.52 lakh). He should not have done this. We have no option but to deposit this fee; otherwise, we fear he may issue adverse orders and raise the award money manifold," said a top DFCC official.