‘Goonda tax’: From houses in Lambi to contracts, how Akalis milked Bathinda refinery

Punjab’s biggest FDI project mired in row as a syndicate of sand, gravel suppliers changes political patrons for higher prices from construction firms

punjab Updated: Feb 17, 2018 09:57 IST
Sukhdeep Kaur
Sukhdeep Kaur
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Goonda tax,Lambi,contracts
Two-room houses made for the poor by the HMEL, which runs the Bathinda refinery, in Kandu Khera village in Lambi segment represented by former CM Parkash Singh Badal; the houses lack finishing touches and are locked. (Sanjeev Kumar/HT)

Punjab’s largest and the country’s fifth largest foreign direct investment (FDI) project, Guru Gobind Singh Refinery, Bathinda, does not list building houses for the poor as part of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy. All its social projects, it says, are in and around Bathinda.

But HMEL, a public-private partnership (PPP) venture between Hindustan Petroleum and steel magnate Laxmi Niwas Mittal, chose Lambi and Bathinda, the assembly and Lok Sabha constituencies of former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his daughter-in-law Harsimrat Kaur Badal, a Union minister in the Narendra Modi government, to make houses for poor families. The Rs 21,500-crore refinery was inaugurated by then PM Manmohan Singh in 2012.

It is mired in controversy over ‘goonda tax’ since last week after some construction firms approached the administration and chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s office with complaints against suppliers for charging “exorbitant rates” for sand and gravel. Opposition Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Badal was quick to make political capital by levelling allegations against his estranged cousin, Punjab finance minister Manpreet Badal, and two Congress MLAs Kushaldeep Singh Dhillon and Gurpreet Kangar. He chose not to name some others.

HMEL officials, in their response, said their contractors were facing some problems and the government and district administration have been proactive in resolving them.

HT investigations revealed the refinery had engaged a Bathinda firm, Infra Tech Engineers and Contractors. Its owner Gurdeep Mann said they had built the houses at Kandu Khera in Lambi and Kal Jharani village that borders Lambi but falls in Harsimrat’s Bathinda constituency. Similar homes were also made at Kilianwali village in Lambi.

Kandu Khera sarpanch Tajinderpal Singh says 22 two-room houses were made during Badal’s tenure as CM. “They are on a four-acre plot where more such houses had to be built but work was stopped after change of government. The homes are lying locked now,” he said.

In an email response to HT, the HMEL skipped reply to whether or not it made these houses as part of CSR initiatives. On where else in Punjab has HMEL built houses for the poor, the company said, “As a socially conscious organisation, HMEL despite any statutory obligation, has been undertaking a wide array of social welfare initiatives, including skill development, rural development, women empowerment, promoting education, environmental sustainability, health & hygiene and safe drinking water at different locations.”

‘Link’ to contracts

Some of the construction firms who bagged contracts too had Akali links. Sandeep Gupta, the director of Faridabad-based RSB Projects Ltd, is son-in-law of former Bathinda MLA, Sarup Chand Singla. Among the sand suppliers is a firm run by relatives of Mohan Singh Bhangi, member of Akali-controlled SGPC from Talwandi Sabo. Few other firms too have Akali links.

RSB’s general manager, Dinesh Gupta, says a “syndicate” was controlling the raw material (sand and gravel) coming to the refinery. “They were charging 30 to 40 percent higher than the prevailing market rates. After media reports and intervention of the district administration, the syndicate has been controlled,” he said. Singla agrees the Guptas are his relatives. “My daughter is married to its director. I knew my relationship will be raked up. But if Akalis looted it (refinery), should the Congress too? Did SAD’s Jeet Mohinder Sidhu (former Congress MLA who joined Akali Dal in 2014) not lose elections?” he asked.

One of the reasons why truck unions flourished during Akalis and were disbanded by the Amarinder government was the cartel at the Bathinda refinery. SAD’s own leaders like Singla accuse Jeet Mohinder Sidhu, former MLA from Talwandi Sabo, the assembly seat where the refinery is located, of making a killing at the refinery through the truck unions.

But Jeet Mohinder said, “Singla is talking through his hat. I only told the refinery to employ trucks from the area as they were sitting idle. And if they had work for more than 100 trucks, they could employ from outside. This is not goonda tax.”

New regime, same story

On Thursday, Amarinder ordered a crackdown on ‘goonda tax’. The plea to do so came from none other than Manpreet himself, who claimed he was being “vilified” by Sukhbir. With change of guard in state, the firms supplying sand and gravel to construction companies have changed political masters.

“It was like jungle raj. Some of the suppliers were overcharging Rs 15-20 extra per cubic feet of sand than the market rate, which is nearly Rs 20,000 extra per truck. We approached the district administration and even the CM’s office. They are now charging Rs 5-6 per cft extra, which is still acceptable,” one of the construction firms said, requesting not to be named.

The suppliers rue the rates for supply of coarse sand has fallen to Rs 46 per cft against Rs 65 per cft during the Akali regime. “For 10 mm aggregate (gravel), it is Rs 34 per cft against Rs 54 per cft then and for 20 mm, it is Rs 32 per cft against Rs 52 earlier. The profit margin now is just Rs 4 to 5 per cft. Also the payment comes between 30 days to three months. A contractor was trying to benefit by creating a price war among us. A close aide of the CM called a truce between us,” said a supplier.

Faridkot MLA Kushaldeep Dhillon says Sukhbir is insecure and he raked up the controversy at a time the cabinet expansion is expected and he sees him as a probable. “It is laughable that Sukhbir is holding pol khol rallies against the Congress. It is the Congress that should be making them answerable for their misdeeds in last 10 years,” Dhillon says. Kangar, another hopeful for cabinet berth, too questions the timing of the allegations. But his aide Gurbaksh Dhillon’s audio threatening one of the construction firms has gone viral.

HMEL officials, in their response, said their contractors were facing some problems and the government and district administration have been proactive in resolving them.

First Published: Feb 17, 2018 09:57 IST