This story was earlier published on January 19, 2012 but is being republished in light of the Moga tragedy.
It is a do-or-die election for Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and his son and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. The past shows that electorates in Punjab usually throw out incumbents. But Sukhbir Singh Badal of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) desperately requires to change this trend. Reason: Like the Karunanidhi's family in Tamil Nadu and YS Rajasekhara Reddy's family in Andhra Pradesh, the Badals are under cloud for amassing wealth disproportionate to their income.
Among other things, they have been accused of using their political clout to further their business interests, an accusation which they aggressively deny.
The Akali Dal swept back into power in March 2007. Since then, the aging father, Prakash Singh Badal, has, more or less, transferred all his shares in Orbit Resorts Pvt Ltd to his son Sukhbir Singh Badal. Sukhbir Singh's Orbit Resorts constructed a multi-crore hotel building (Oberoi runs a hotel here) on a nine-acre plot in Gurgaon, which is part of the Delhi National Capital Region (NCR).
His father-in-law Satyajit Singh Majithia launched Orbit Aviation Pvt Ltd, in which Sukhbir's Orbit Resorts Pvt Ltd acquired equity shares. Sukhbir also acquired stakes in leading transport companies running deluxe luxury buses, which were issued permits by the Akali Dal government in Punjab. And Sukhbir and his family acquired a news channel and two entertainment channels.
All this has happened in five years - between 2007 and 2012. Documents available with Firstpost indicate that there could be a conflict of interest in the Badals running the government and their private businesses.
Sukhbir Singh says he resigned from the directorship of Orbit Resorts in 2009. But his wife Harsimrat Kaur in managing director, and there are other family members on the board. He also denies having any links with transport companies as of today, but Firstpost has documents showing all the transport companies as having something to do with Orbit Resorts and only an independent investigation can reveal their intricate cross-connections.
First, a brief background on Sukhbir Singh's business. Sukhbir Siingh's Orbit Resorts got an impetus as far back as 1989, when the Haryana government allotted a prime 17-acre industrial plot for a hotel in Gurgaon. Sukhbir Singh was appointed director of Orbit Resorts in 1988 when the Akali Dal was in power in Punjab. Several eyebrows were raised against the allotment given under the state's tourism policy. To date, no Haryana government has allotted such a huge plot on the pretext of promoting tourism in Gurgaon.
The plot allotment was cancelled once and remained entangled in legal battles till 2000. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had also flagged the issue in 2002, which had estimated losses at Rs 600 crore to the state exchequer. After a lot of legal and political drama, the Om Prakash Chautala government restored the plot to Orbit Resorts to Sukhbir Badal, who was then a member of Parliament.
In 2003, when the Congress replaced the Akali Dal in Punjab, Prakash Singh Badal was slapped with a case of disproportionate assets. He was arrested for a brief period but at that time he had shrugged it off as 'vendetta' politics. His son and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal faces a similar situation today.
He recently escaped action when a Chandigarh-based lawyer, barrister Himmat Singh Shergill, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) with the Punjab and Haryana High Court in October 2011, pleading that the court should order a CBI enquiry into allegations of corruption against Prakash and Sukhbir Singh Badal. Himmat Singh's PIL was based on a series of reports on transport that had been published in a leading local English daily, The Tribune.
The high court directed Sukhbir and Prakash Singh to file their replies to the PIL. The court, however, declined to entertain the petition on the ground that the petitioner should first approach the investigating agency by filing an FIR instead of seeking orders from the court directly by means of a PIL. Barrister Shergill is in the process of filing an FIR with the Punjab's vigilance police.
The month of June 2007 (just three months after the Akali Dal came back to power) seems to have been quite auspicious for the Badals, as they opened several fronts during this month. Orbit Resorts started the construction of a multi-storeyed building on the remaining nine-acre plot in Gurgaon. In less than four years, the building was commissioned to run as Oberoi Hotel, Gurgaon. A deluxe luxury suite, 5136, on the fifth floor of the hotel remains booked for Sukhbir Singh, whenever he comes to Delhi NCR.
In his reply to the high court, however, Sukhbir Singh said that Orbit Resorts obtained a loan of Rs 274 crore from Punjab National Bank and Punjab and Sind Bank for the construction of the hotel in June 2007. He admits that the project cost was pegged at Rs 373 crore. But the rest of the expenses were met through equity/internal profits/sale of assets, he claimed.
In the same month (29 June, 2007), Sukhbir Singh's father-in-law Satyajit Singh Majithia launched Orbit Aviation Pvt Ltd for providing air ambulance and air taxi services. Besides Satyajit, his son Gurmeher Singh Majithia is the director of Orbit Aviation. According to documents available with Firstpost, other shareholders of the company are Satyajit Singh Majithia's wife Sukhmanjus Majithia and Sukhbir Singh Badal's Orbit Resorts. Satyajit Singh Majithia was also one of the directors in Orbit Resorts.
In the same year (2007), Orbit Aviation acquired its first aircraft - a brand new Cessna Citation CJ2+, a very popular aircraft based at IGI Airport, New Delhi. In May 2011, it added another aircraft - a Super King Air B-200 with Cargo Doors that can carry two in-line lifeport stretcher systems.
Satyajit Singh Majithia, an ex-commercial pilot, established Orbit Aviation as a sister concern of Saraya Aviation Pvt Ltd, incorporated in 1992. Satyajit is Chairman of Saraya Aviation. According to Saraya Aviation's website, they have three aircraft, including two purchased by Orbit Aviation. This means Saraya Aviation had been maintaining only one aircraft for nearly 15 years since 1992. But, courtesy Orbit Aviation, they added two more to the fleet in the past five years.
In the transport sector, Sukhbir Singh and his family are alleged to have interests in three big transport companies running deluxe luxury buses on Punjab government permits. These companies are Orbit Transport, Baaz Transport and Dabwali Transport.
On 19 September, 2007, the Akali Dal government approved a new transport policy. It opened the floodgates to the private sector. The government issued permits for running super deluxe buses to several private companies.
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Two months later, on 22 November 2007, the Akali Dal government relaxed its taxation structure for the transport sector. For ordinary buses, the tax was reduced from Rs 2.50 to Rs 2.25 per km per vehicle, which means a 10 percent reduction in the tax. For super deluxe buses, the tax was reduced from Rs 7.50 to 50 paise, that is, a 93 percent reduction in taxes for the super deluxe buses.
Thus, the cut in taxes for ordinary buses and super deluxe buses was not uniform, and this resulted in heavy losses for the government's transport companies - Punjab Roadways and Pepsu Road Transport Corporation (PRTC). A majority of government buses are ordinary ones, while private transport companies with super deluxe bus permits registered very good profits.
The balance-sheets of Dabwali Transport and Real Estate Pvt Ltd reveal that during the 2007-2008 financial year, the company's turnover was Rs 12.47 crore. There was a near three-fold increase in the turnover (Rs 29.07 crore) by 2010-2011. After taxes, Dabwali Transport's profit was Rs 1.17 crore in 2007-2008 and Rs 4.23 crore in 2010-2011.
Sukhbir Singh, in his reply to the high court, said that he was neither an MLA nor deputy CM in 2007, when the transport policy was formed. He was appointed deputy CM only in 2009. But his father Prakash Singh Badal was the chief minister in 2007 and Sukhbir Singh an office-bearer of the Akali Dal party.
Sukhbir Singh admitted that he took over as managing director of Dabwali Transport Company Ltd in 1990, though he is no longer its director. He, however, remains a majority shareholder in the company. "Right from March 1994 onwards, the company has been purchasing shares of Orbit Resorts Pvt Ltd as a strategic investment,'' Sukhbir Singh said in his court reply.
On Orbit Transporters, Sukhbir Singh said it was started in 1990 and he "continued intermittently a partner" in this company. He is no longer a partner in this firm, he claimed.
In Baaz Transporters Pvt Ltd, Sukhbir Singh was a director since its inception in 1988. Later it merged with Falcon Properties Pvt Ltd. In 2009, when he took over as deputy CM, he resigned from the directorship. He holds shares in the company, but, Sukhbir Singh claimed, Baaz Transporters or Falcon Properties were never issued any transport permit by the government.
Barrister Himmat Singh Shergill, however, had a different story to tell Firstpost: "Baaz Transporters are defaulting in filing annual returns and balance-sheets for the past three financial years since 2007-2008. So we really don't know their physical and financial structure. We don't know how many buses Baaz owns!"
Also, a local TV news channel - Day and Night - found out through a Right to Information Act query that several buses were plying illegally in the state. The news channel obtained the list of persons who were allotted bus permits. "We, at random, visited three persons and found that they were not even aware that super deluxe buses were running in their names. They were so poor. Their houses were dingy and they were supposed to be owners of super deluxe luxury buses worth lakhs of rupees,'' says the news channel's Managing Editor Kanwar Sandhu.
According to documents, all the three transport companies - Orbit, Baaz and Dabwali - were shareholders in Orbit Resorts along with Prakash Singh Badal, Sukhbir Singh Badal, Harsimrat Kaur (Sukhbir's wife), Bikram Singh Majithia (Sukhbir's brother-in-law), Praneet Kaur Kairon (Sukhbir's sister), Satyajit Singh Majithia and Sukhmanjus Majithia. But in April 2010, Orbit Transporters' shares in Orbit Resorts were transferred to Sukhbir Singh.
In his declaration while filing election papers from the Jalalabad assembly constituency in Ferozepur district, Sukhbir Singh Badal showed his assets and income as Rs 76 crore. His wife and Bhatinda MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal's assets were worth Rs 3.90 crore, which mainly consisted of jewellery. Sukhbir Singh had cash of Rs 5 lakh and deposits of Rs 31 lakh, while his wife had only Rs 2.50 lakh cash. Sukhbir had bonds and debentures worth Rs 24 crore and land in Punjab, Chandigarh, Haryana and Rajasthan.
The directors' report of Orbit Resorts for the year ending 31 March 2010 shows 44-year-old Harsimrat Kaur, a graduate with eight years of experience, earning Rs 3.6 crore annually. The conflict of interest is apparent between the political Badal family which runs the Punjab government and the Badal business interests.
Coming next: The Badals' media interests
Updated Date: May 05, 2015 13:02:30 IST