Two decades after the Jhamat village panchayat lost public land (shamlat) to some local politicians, officials continue to sit on the alleged scam in the handover of 18.5 acres valued at Rs 180 crore today.
The land was allotted after Partition to the village, which is now situated next to South City, an extension of urban Ludhiana where land prices have skyrocketed in the past two decades. Repeated attempts by villagers since 2004 to get back the panchayat land have ended in vain.
The scam's dateline goes back several decades, as the sarpanches and panches were taking the land on contract ever since Partition. It was between 1992 and 1994 that these politicians, all belonging to a handful of families, approached the consolidation officer to claim the land as theirs. As the then panchayat did not contest the claim strongly enough, these people got the land, allege village resident Gurmukh Singh and panch Gurpal Singh.
Heart of the matter
Bhan Singh, sarpanch for two decades till 1990, and over 60 other influential persons were the first to file an appeal in the court of the Punjab consolidation officer on December 13, 1992, arguing that the land belonged to them. The case was referred to the consolidation officer of Sangrur, and then handed over to the consolidation officer in Jalandhar on December 13, 1994.
Appearing for the panchayat, the then sarpanch Sukhpal Singh contested the claims but did not produce records. Consolidation officer Harbhajan Singh ruled that as per records, after 1972 the panchayat never had possession of the land. Hence, Sukhpal's words carried no weight and the land was transferred to 68 persons, including former sarpanch Bhan Singh and Ajit Singh, who subsequently remained sarpanch between 1998 and 2003.
Gurmukh now alleges, "Sukhpal Singh's representation was part of a planned strategy as the panches wanted to seem as being on the side of the public but failed to produce documents."
Ajit Singh's wife Mohinder Kaur, who succeeded him as sarpanch in 2003, was in the chair in 2004, when panch Charan Singh led some residents in filing a public interest litigation (PIL) against the panchayat leaders in the Punjab and Haryana high court,. Quaintly, the case was withdrawn for lack of documentary evidence amid allegations that Charan Singh had also joined hands with the defaulters.
Two years later, the residents got together again and approached the state department of rural development and panchayats. The then department director Gurdev Singh Sidhu finally initiated a probe that found the panchayat guilty and he dismissed then sarpanch Mahinder Kaur and panches Mehar Singh, Sukhpal Singh, Balwinder Kaur and Satya Devi.
Panch Charan Singh was given the rights to helm the panchayat till 2008 when the new panchayat was elected.
Sidhu, relying on a probe he got conducted by the Patiala division deputy director (panchayats), noted, "When the gram panchayat filed cases under section 11 regarding mutation in the court of consolidation officer in Jalandhar, Ajit Singh, husband of Mohinder Kaur, was the sarpanch. On 2/5/2003 he passed the resolution authorising panch Charan Singh to pursue the cases but did not sign as sarpanch," reads the report. In 2008, a new panchayat was formed and the matter swept under the carpet.
It was in 2010 that village resident Gurmukh Singh and panch Gurpal Singh took up the matter with the district administration and the director of rural development.
Then director Gurdev Singh Sidhu asked Ludhiana zila parishad secretary AS Gujral to conduct an inquiry, who reported that the land fraud happened during the tenure of the earlier panchayat and the present panchayat had filed a writ in the HC. However, Gujral's report missed the fact that the writ had been withdrawn in 2006.
Gurmukh and Gurpal again complained to the director, who told them to contact Gujral. "Instead of dealing with our queries, Gujral said he had already done the needful," said Gurmukh. When HT contacted Gujral, he said, "If someone has a problem, he can contact the higher authorities."
Gurmukh said they had given the latest complaints to the department director last month and to rural development minister Surjit Singh Rakhra earlier this month.