Punjab chief secretary Rakesh Singh has recommended a chargesheet against Jalandhar divisional commissioner Sucha Ram Ladhar for his "misconduct" of charging arbitration fee from farmers while deciding their land acquisition compensation cases, it is learnt.
The chief secretary's decision comes close on the heels of a damning legal opinion of Punjab advocate general (AG) Ashok Aggarwal, who stated that "…the fixing/charging and then retaining the arbitral fee by Ladhar has to be viewed as a misconduct on his part." The AG has stated that the IAS officer's practice of charging arbitration fee was also against provisions of the All India Services (Conduct) Rules, 1968.
The chief secretary has also recommended recovering the entire money (with 12% interest) which Ladhar has made from arbitration during his stints as commissioner of Jalandhar as well as Patiala divisions, apart from transferring him from Jalandhar, a government source said.
Sources say the AG's legal opinion is an endorsement of the official stand the chief secretary had taken earlier in this case.
Ladhar (53), a 1991-batch IAS officer, has allegedly made Rs 1.58 crore in arbitration fee for resolving disputes between farmers and the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI). His conduct has come under the scanner following a series of reports in Hindustan Times, starting with 'IAS officer reaps a rich harvest' and 'No policy, Ladhar makes hay as arbitrator' (May 24-25).
Ladhar charged this fee without the state government's approval during his postings as Jalandhar and Patiala division commissioner-cum-arbitrator since August 2007. Recently, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal again appointed Ladhar as the Jalandhar divisional commissioner and had sought the AG's legal opinion on whether the IAS officer could charge arbitration fee.
Hundreds of families, whose prime land has been acquired by the NHAI in Jalandhar and Patiala divisions for widening of national highways, have paid Ladhar through cheque Rs 4,100 and Rs 12,000 costs per case for deciding their compensation disputes, even as the divisional commissioner functions as an ex officio arbitrator between the NHAI and the private party.
Government sources said following the chief secretary's high-voltage recommendations, the file was sent to the chief minister in a sealed cover. But such is the political patronage which Ladhar enjoys that the CM's office decided to first give him a hearing before putting up the file before the CM for the final decision.
A few days ago, a top government source said, Ladhar appeared before chief minister's principal
secretary SK Sandhu, who advised him to deposit the money. "Due to certain political reasons, the CMO wanted that Ladhar should deposit the money without formal orders. But Ladhar refused and instead wants the government to let him even charge the arbitration fee in future. Now, the government will soon issue necessary directions in this case," a government functionary 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, Ladhar was charging arbitration fee to be shared 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."