January 30, 2011
life in general & financial markets: criminal collusion between politicians & real estate companies
The newsreport in a weekly newsmagazine that I share below is a recent India-based example of the criminal collusion between politicians & real estate companies.
Forest too lands in DLF kitty
Degraded land in Gurgaon was nurtured back to health over a decade. But instead of serving as a green lung, it has been sold to a private developer, reports BRIJESH PANDEY
BENDING RULES to allot or sell land, that scarce resource, to favoured parties is a fine art state governments have mastered across the country. It has been done through discretionary quotas, by changing land use patterns and subverting housing society norms. In Haryana, it has been done by pretending that land regenerated by afforestation is not really forest land in the traditional sense. Thus enabling a private developer already sitting on huge land banks to grab one more.
The deal in question is 350 acres of prime land in Wazirabad village near Gurgaon, given to DLF for development of a recreation and leisure park for Rs. 1,700 crore. Environmental experts and land developers are shocked that the prime land was sold in callous disregard to environmental laws laid down by the Supreme Court regarding the Aravalli Plantation Scheme, in an attempt to restore the forests of the fragile hill range.
The scheme, aided by the European Union, successfully rehabilitated degraded community lands of 294 villages in southern Haryana. Nearly 38,000 hectares was rehabilitated through planting and natural regeneration in the Aravalli region. Satellite imagery reveals that forest cover of this region, which was around 10,000 hectares in 1990, increased to 42,000 hectares in 1997. The duration of the project was from 1990 to 1999, sufficient time to grow a forest.
The attempt to change land use and encash this green gold began in 2002-03 when a delegation led by the then Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala made several visits to foreign lands. During those visits, several presentations were made before the delegation on developing business centres, leisure parks and related infrastructure.
A number of companies approached the state government for this and a core committee was set up by the government. Panchayat land in Wazirabad adjoining the DLF Golf and Country Club was identified as the spot for setting up the recreation and leisure project. About 350 acres was earmarked for this project and in 2008, the consultant to this project pegged its value at Rs. 1,683 crore.
In 2009, an international bidding process was conducted and only one bid was received — from DLF, with suggestions to make it more financially viable. The state government agreed to the developer’s suggestions and the project parameters were re-examined and modified. The most important change made by the government was that it would obtain statutory clearances for the project land. A fresh tender was floated and this time three companies bid for it. The project went to DLF with an important change in the tender: it was now incumbent upon the state to get statutory clearances for the land.
How important this change was can be gauged from the fact that out of the allocated 350 acres, approximately half (161 acres) came under the Aravalli Plantation Scheme and the other 92 acres was protected under Punjab Land Preservation Act, 1970.
To divert forest land for non-forestry purposes, the state needed approval from the Centre under the Forest Conservation Act. Therefore, the matter was put before the Cabinet Empowered Committee on Environment (CEC), which was appointed by the Supreme Court.
IN AN apparent bid to bypass the strictures of the Supreme Court in these matters, the Haryana government instead of approaching either the Central government or the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), filed an application in the apex court itself.
The shocker was to come next. The CEC submitted its recommendations to the Supreme Court on 21 September 2010 saying, “An area of 161 acres of the project area is covered under the Aravalli Plantation Scheme. This area does not fall in the category of forest and therefore does not require approval under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. Since in this area plantation has have been undertaken at the cost of the state government and the state of Haryana will get a substantial amount of Rs. 1,700 crore from the project, it will be appropriate that in the lieu of use of this area, it is ensured that an area of 80.52 acres agreed to be acquired by the state of Haryana in Badkal village.”
This recommendation made by the CEC has not only put its impartiality under doubt but also revealed how environmental clearance or protection is treated with disdain in Haryana.
According to environmental lawyer Raj Panjwani, this kind of legal manipulation is not acceptable. “This is part of the Aravalli Plantation project and the Supreme Court in its 2004 judgment has declared this as forest area. We have spent substantial sums of money for the preservation and protection of Aravalli and any move to undo it is not wise. Ecology once lost can never be retrieved.”
It was the same CEC that had recommended in 2003-04 to the Supreme Court that areas where plantation had been undertaken with the assistance provided by international donor agencies should be protected, and had stressed that destruction of plantation will only result in wastage of funds, effort and cause embarrassment to the country.
It led the Supreme Court to declare in October 2004 that “in these matters, neither the state nor the lease holders can be permitted to turn around and take a stand that the area covered under the Aravalli Project are not forest”. Six years later, this is precisely what has been allowed.
And this is not the only volte face by the CEC. When the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had asked for the same 407 acres in the Badkal area for research purposes, the CEC had said, “The dense forest cover is of great ecological value and it should not be tampered with.” The same CEC has now recommended that the land in Badkal can be given to DLF for afforestation purposes.
A senior Haryana officer in the know of things said, “The whole deal runs into several thousand crores. The way clearances are being given, the fact that the company paid only Rs. 2 per square metre more than the reserve price and the Haryana government taking all the headache for clearance: can you get more lucky than this?”
Meanwhile, Opposition parties have become aware of the deal and are in no mood to let Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda off the hook. Kuldeep Singh Bishnoi, president of the Haryana Janhit Congress, has called it a major scam. “This is a Rs. 40,000 crore scam,” he says. “This is prime land and it is being sold for a song. The chief minister should be sacked.”
Despite several attempts, nobody from the Haryana government was ready to answer questions from TEHELKA. The DLF corporate communications department too did not want to offer comment or explanation on being contacted.