In a major blow to senior Punjab IAS officer and former Jalandhar divisional commissioner Sucha Ram Ladhar, the Punjab and Haryana high court on Friday ordered him to deposit Rs 1.58 crore along with the interest earned - which he had illegally charged from farmers as arbitration fee. The IAS officer has been told to deposit the sum within a month in the state government's arbitration account.
The division bench comprising chief justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and justice Augustine George Masih also slapped a fine of Rs 20,000 on Ladhar for his "conduct and unnecessary wastage of judicial time" on account of his "obdurate stand". Ladhar had illegally charged arbitration fee from Jalandhar and Patiala farmers while deciding their land acquisition compensation cases in the past more than five years.
"...Ladhar belongs to the Indian Administrative Service cadre and seeks to substantively augment his income by claiming entitlement to an arbitrator's fee... On having given our deep thought to the controversy in question, we are unequivocally of the view that the respondent (Ladhar) is not entitled to retain and claim any amount whatsoever..." reads the 28-page ruling written by chief justice Kaul, virtually passing strictures against the IAS officer.
The conduct of Ladhar (53), a 1991-batch IAS officer, had come under scrutiny 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, 2012). Later, a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the high court in October 2012, seeking recovery of the entire amount illegally charged by him.
The high court has also made it clear to the state government to ensure return of the amount paid as arbitration fee by a large number of farmers along with the proportionate interest as recovered from Ladhar. The state government has been directed to complete the process within a month after Ladhar deposits the amount in the state's arbitration account.
The court said that Ladhar is a member of an All India Service and is governed by the rules arising from the course of this employment. "It is not his whim and fancy to generate income from other sources in the course of this employment, if the same is not permitted by the Centre or the state government, depending on where he is posted," the court stated.
"It is interesting to note that apart from Ladhar, no one else had claimed any fee whatsoever for performing the duties of an arbitrator… It has been a unique endeavour of Ladhar to aggrandise and enrich himself by this method," the judges held.
The court added that the "sad part was that even when government authorities" made their stand clear, Ladhar refused to follow rules. "Possibly, the amount being huge appears to have caused the said respondent (Ladhar) to take an obdurate stand in this behalf!" the court pointed out.
"We fail to appreciate as to how," the ruling points out, "Ladhar can go outside the... conduct rules which requires prior sanction of the government."
The court said the categorical stand taken by the Centre, the Punjab government and the National Highways Authority of India had left no doubt that they all were of the same opinion that since Ladhar's appointment as arbitrator was because of his holding the designation of divisional commissioner, the work he had carried out was part of his official duties. Thus, no fee whatsoever was payable to Ladhar.
"It is, thus, clearly a case of an appointment of arbitrator by designation and the person so appointed has to perform the task as part of his overall duties," the court said.
How HT exposed Ladhar's money-spinning indiscretion
May 24, 2012: Hindustan Times, in an exclusive report, 'IAS officer reaps a rich harvest', blows the lid off misconduct of Sucha Ram Ladhar, who illegally made about Rs 1.58 crore by charging arbitration fee from hundreds of farmers of Punjab.
September 18: Chief secretary Rakesh Singh recommends chargesheet against Ladhar for his "misconduct"
October 9: High court issues notice to Ladhar on public interest litigation (PIL) filed on basis of HT reports.
October 16: Punjab government directs Ladhar to return Rs 1.58 crore along with interest.
February 8, 2013: The turning point comes after Chandigarh-based RTI activist Vivek Aditya becomes an intervener in the case. He submits office memoranda of central government, which says no officer can charge more than Rs 10,000 in a year for arbitration work. This, as per high court ruling, seals the "alternative escape route endeavoured by" Ladhar.
October 11: High court directs IAS officer to return complete amount of arbitration fee along with interest.