The "Himachal on Sale" slogan may have bolstered the Congress party campaign against the BJP regime ahead of the 2012 assembly elections but, after regaining power, the Virbhadra Singh government appears to have forgotten the catchphrase that is said to have given the party an edge over its rivals.
On assuming power the Congress party led government ordered probe into the 'benami' (proxy) land transactions that reportedly took place during the BJP regime. However, the reality seems to be otherwise. Contrary to the party's slogan, barring a few cases the government has so far not been able to unearth many 'benami' land deals. The Congress party had accused the BJP government of allotting large chunks of land to nonresidents in the state in violation of section 118 of the Land Tenancy Act of 1972, which bars all non-agriculturist Himachalis, including bona fide Himachalis, from purchasing land in the state without the government's permission.
The Congress party raised a big hue and cry about "Himachal on Sale" within and outside the state assembly and it very much part of the party's "charge sheet" against the BJP regime that was submitted to President Pranab Mukherjee.
Anticipating that the Congress party's campaign on 'benami' land deals could hamper the BJP's prospects in the polls, Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal set up a commission comprising a retired high court judge, DP Sood, to inquire into such deals. The panel was asked to probe 'benami' deals that took place between 2003 and 2011 as well as look into violations of statutory provisions and administrative procedures regarding issuance of "essentiality certificates" since the HP Apartments & Property Regulation Act, 2005 came into force.
The commission has now recommended scrapping of the Act as a majority of builders were "creating a concrete jungle and spoiling the natural forested environment". It has also asked the government to either implement Section 118 of the Tenancy & Land Reforms Act in "letter and spirit" or repeal it. The panel has conveyed its strong displeasure as to how prime land in the state was allowed to be sold to non-agriculturists and "outsiders" with the consent of the government and its officials. It has recommended confiscation of at least 42 illegally acquired proprieties by certain individuals and firms between 2006 and 2007.
However, the state government rejected the panel's recommendations and ordered fresh probes into 'benami' land deals, but so far inquiries have only been conducted in a few cases. Revenue & health minister Kaul Singh is on record as saying deputy commissioners were reluctant to inquire into 'benami' land deals. The revenue department had also asked the tourism department to submit a report on ownership of hotels constructed in the popular tourist towns of Shimla. Kasauli, Dharamsala, Manali and Solan. There were also reports that many hotels had proxy ownership.
"The government has asked deputy commissioners to expedite inquiries into 'benami' land deals and submit a report," additional chief revenue secretary Tarun Shridhar told this reporter, adding "some inquires have been initiated and in Solan a special investigation team had also been set up."
On the other hand the BJP called the "Himachal on Sale" slogan a gimmick by the Congress party to "hoodwink" the public ahead of the assembly elections. "The Congress party had given the impression the BJP had sold the whole of Himachal. It's on the records of the state assembly that the government had not even allotted a single inch of land owned by it to private universities. If the government is serious it should come out with the facts, "said Naina Devi MLA and BJP general secretary Randhir Sharma.
*Jan 13, 2011 - Commission headed by retired justice DP Sood set up to probe 'benami' (proxy) land deals during 2003-2011
*March 28, 2012- Panel's report tabled in Himachal state assembly during budget session
*April 24, 2012: Panel recommends scrapping HP Apartments & Property Regulation Act, 2005
*Jan10, 2013: Govt orders inquires into 'benami' land transactions