Officials at India’s highest medical research body, tasked with helping India fight everything from AIDS to diabetes, have gotten into something far more innovative: property fraud.
Ten thousand square metres — the size of nearly two football fields — of taxpayer-funded prime land at one of the hottest locations in suburban Delhi — Noida’s Sector 35 overlooking the swank upcoming City Centre, with a Metro station nearby — was meant for official use, but quietly transferred to a private cooperative society.
Landing in trouble
* A wing of the ICMR acquired 10,000 sq.m of land for staff quarters in March 1992 in Noida’s sector 35, but did not build for 14 years
* Society got land for Rs 4,509/sq.m, compared to the going official rate of Rs. 28,000/sq. metre — a difference of almost Rs 23 crore
The officials then build 110 apartments, costing up to Rs 1 crore each, and distributed them among themselves for throwaway prices, according to a probe by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the constitutional authority that audits government spending.
Going by the concessional cost of land the ICMR officials paid, the majority component of an apartment’s price, each buyer’s share came to just Rs. 3.98 lakh. The total cost of the apartments could not be ascertained.
Though both Dr VM Katoch, director-general of ICMR, and Dr RK Srivastava, director general of health services in the ministry of health and family welfare, who also owns a flat in the society, were in town, they were unavailable for comment.
They had switched off their mobile phones and repeated calls to their respective offices got HT the standard reply: “sir is in a meeting. We don’t know how long it will take.”
An apartment costing even several times that is a steal in Noida, a 200-sq-km town with half a million people, a magnet for property seekers. For just 1,200 plots, 1.85 lakh applicants rushed at its last draw.
The ICMR, controlled by the health ministry, heads research into cancer, heart ailments, blindness, diabetes and communicable diseases — which kill thousands each year.
HT has a list of the members of the housing society. Many were reached through their MTNL-listed numbers on the Internet; they slammed the phones or declined to talk. Many switched off their phones after the findings became known.
The society paid Rs. 4,509 per square metre in 2007 to the Noida Authority for the land – for which the authority’s official value, always lower than market price, then was Rs 28,000 per square metre.
“ICMR should recover the difference of Rs. 22.82 crore in the cost of land from the members of the private housing society,” the report said. “The (health) ministry … may initiate a fraud investigation with immediate effect.”
Documents from a parallel HT investigation revealed how the ICMR – notoriously slow in its projects countrywide – did not build staff quarters on the land for official purposes for 14 years – and then, under the alibi of poor demand for them, gave unusually swift passage to the residential complex.
Permissions were not sought from the Finance . And at least one Indian Administrative Service official not working for the ICMR also signed up to buy the apartments but withdrew when the CAG probe began.
In a serious conflict of interest, the executive committee that approved the deal included at least six people who themselves got apartments – including Nirmal Kumar Ganguly, the then director. “It’s wrong that this was illegal … ICMR sought the advice of the current attorney-general before going ahead, everything is above board,” Ganguly said. “Noida records will show it was always registered as a housing society.”
But those very records were unreliable, the CAG said.
“Authenticity of the transaction and completness of transfer couldn’t be verified and vouchsafed,” the report said.
(Vanshika Sahni contributed to this report)