Haryana IAS officer's 'parting kick' reopens Vadra can of worms

Like a genie that, once released from its bottle, refuses to crawl back inside, the controversy surrounding Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law Robert Vadra's land acquisitions in Haryana and his dealings with real estate developer DLF is proving hard for Congress crisis managers to bottle up. Just when Congress spin doctors were beginning to breathe easy, reckoning that 'Vadragate' had, after playing non-stop on the news cycle for a few days, been overtaken by the allegations of misappropriation of funds by an NGO run by Law Minister Salman Khurshid 's family, the heat is back in full force on Vadra's land dealings, which put him on the fast elevator to business fortune.

New revelations made by The Hindu (here) establish that the Haryana government is moving heaven and earth to scuttle an investigation into Vadra's land dealings that a whistleblower IAS officer had initiated barely days after anti-corruption activist and newbie politician Arvind Kejriwal had revealed the explosive details of the phenomenal - and unnatural - growth in Vadra's fortunes.

The IAS officer, Ashok Khemka, has acquired something of a reputation for exposing irregularities in land dealings in Haryana, and for that reason has been shunted around frequently by the Haryana government.  (More details of his whistleblowing record, and the frequent harassment that he faced, here and here and here.) And this time too, within hours of Khemka initiating an investigation on 11 October into Vadra's land dealings in four districts of Haryana, he was transferred out.

The heat is back on Robert Vadra's land deals. Reuters

But, according to The Hindu, Khemka appears to have delivered a parting kick that could refocus media and public attention on one of Vadra's more controversial land dealings in a way that could cause deep discomfiture to Vadra, Sonia Gandhi, DLF - and the Congress government in Haryana.

On Monday (15 October), which was Khemka's last day as Haryana's Director-General of Land Consolidation and LandRecords-cum-Inspector-General of Registration, the  conscientious IAS officer issued an order cancelling the mutation of a 3.531-acre plot of land in Manesar-Shikohpur that Vadra had sold to DLF for Rs 58 crore, the paper reports.

That puts the entire transaction, on which Vadra made windfall profits, under a cloud, and although the monetary loss is for now entirely DLF's  - since the money had been paid to Vadra's company, Sky Light Realty - the political ripples from Khemka's action will likely reach the doors of 10 Janpath.

Khemka has also made it difficult for the Haryana government and the Congress crisis managers to bury the entire controversy surrounding Vadra's land dealings, by placing on record the fine details of irregularities that he had dug out in connection with the Manesar-Shikohpur land deal in particular.

According to the financial statements filed by Sky Light Realty (which Kejriwal had made public last fortnight) and the preliminary  report of the inquiry initiated by Khemka (which The Hindu cites), Vadra's company had procured the plot of land in Manesar-Shikohpur land on 12 February 2008 for Rs 7.5 crore. That plot was mutated in Sky Light Realty's favour the very next day. Things continued to move at an extraordinary pace even subsequently, which is indicative of the alacrity with which the Haryana government moved in this matter, which in turn was a critical consideration behind Vadra's company securing all the necessary approvals that would lead him to make supernormal gains in double-quick time.

Indicatively,  barely a month after the purchase of the land by Vadra's company, the Haryana Town and Country Planning Department issued Sky Light a licence to develop a part of the land into a housing colony. Within 65 days thereafter, Vadra entered into an agreement to sell the land to DLF for Rs 58 crore, and although the formal sale deed was registered years later - on 18 September 2012 - Vadra's compnay had received the sale proceeds starting from June 2008 on wards.

The Hindu has more details of the other irregularities that Khemka ferreted out, but the bottomline is that now that the mutation of the Manesar-Shikohpur plot has been cancelled, it reopens the can of worms that makes up the DLF-Vadra land dealings.

The land transactions are mired in controversy because Vadra, who had no track record in the real estate business prior to 2007, entered the fray that year by setting up a string of companies. And although his companies were not highly capitalised, given his record as a middling businessman, they benefited from what appears to have been unsecured, interest-free loans from DLF (which were passed off by the real estate major as advances on land sales). Vadra used those cash infusions to build up his land bank, largely in Haryana and Rajasthan, secured fast-track approvals for their development (in the manner that Khemka's investigation has laid bare), and profited by selling the land to DLF at several multiples of his purchase cost.

In other words, from all accounts, DLF leveraged Vadra's proximity to power (as Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law), used him as a conduit to secure fast-track approvals for land development, plied him with cash infusions that masqueraded as advances, and enabled Vadra in turn to make supernormal profits on these and other real estate transactions. It was a cosy, symbiotic relationship where business and politics worked out 'sweetheart deals' from which both benefited enormously.

And now, Khemka's extraordinary action in cancelling the mutation of the plot of land that Vadra sold to DLF threatens to bring down that tower of crony capitalism. It isn't, of course, impossible for the Haryana government - and the Congress crisis managers - to stall the investigation that Khemka has initiated, and fix it in a manner that covers up any trace of dirty business. But Khemka has just made that enterprise a whole lot more difficult to pull off.

Amidst all the muck surrounding Vadra's land transactions with DLF, there is one soul-elevating thought that comes through. We frequently grieve over the corrosion in the bureaucracy, which has become complicit in corruption.  God knows that the neta-babu nexus has greased the tracks for corruption in high places, and there is plenty of compelling evidence of that. But as Khemka's daring act shows, all it takes is a few good and incorruptible men in key positions to undo the best-laid plans of mice and men.

Bravo, Ashok Khemka. May your tribe increase...

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