x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Gandhi son-in-law accused of land scam

Civil servant says sham transaction in Haryana in which Robert Vadra pocketed Dh25m was helped by the state's planning department. Samanth Subramanian reports

India’s ruling Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, left, her daughter Priyanka Vadra, right, and son-in-law Robert Vadra during a prayer meeting to mark the birth anniversary of former Indian prime minister and Sonia Gandhi's late husband Rajiv Gandhi.
India’s ruling Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, left, her daughter Priyanka Vadra, right, and son-in-law Robert Vadra during a prayer meeting to mark the birth anniversary of former Indian prime minister and Sonia Gandhi's late husband Rajiv Gandhi.

NEW DELHI // A civil servant has accused the son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress party and India's most powerful politician, of using falsified documents and "sham transactions" to pocket at least Dh25 million  on a land sale.

Robert Vadra, who is married to Ms Gandhi's daughter Priyanka, improperly acquired and resold 3.53 acres of land in the village of Shikohpur in northern Indian state of Haryana, Ashok Khemka, a former head of the state's land records department, alleged in a report.

The state government's department of town and country planning (DTCP) conspired with Mr Vadra to carry out the fraud, allowing "crony capitalists operating as middlemen to flourish", added the 100-page report, excerpts of which were published in Indian newspapers over the weekend.

The DTCP said on Monday that the charges contained in the report were "wrong and misleading". Neither Mr Vadra nor Mr Khemka, the report's author, have commented publicly on the allegations. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said, however, that the ruling party owed the public an explanation and that the report's charges should be investigated.

The charges have further tarnished the image of the Congress party, which has led India's corruption-ridden coalition government since 2009. Mr Khemka's disclosures have emerged as India gears up for national elections early next summer, in which corruption will figure as one of the Congress's most persistent challenges.

Unusually, even a Congress member of parliament, Rao Inderjit Singh, has called for an inquiry into Mr Vadra's land deals. "The Haryana government is not transparent," Mr Singhsaid on Monday. "A lot of shady deals have taken place, and if Robert Vadra is guilty, then punish him."

Mr Khemka, a career civil servant, had served for 80 days last year as director general of Haryana's land records office. Even in that brief tenure, he claimed, he had detected irregularities in many land transactions and had begun to investigate some of them.

In mid-October, after he cancelled one of Mr Vadra's transactions, Mr Khemka was transferred out of his post – his 40th transfer in 21 years of service, and a "deliberate attempt" to stop him from doing an honest job, he said at the time. He is now director general of the Haryana state archives.

The Haryana government committee that was set up to look into Mr Vadra's deals criticised Mr Khemka's cancellation of the transaction, calling it "administratively improper".

Mr Khemka's report was submitted to the committee in May, by way of reply, but no action has been taken since.

In his report, Mr Khemka laid bare the details of what he called Mr Vadra's "sham transactions".

In early 2008, Mr Vadra's company Skylight Hospitality was issued a deed by the government for the Shikohpur land, bearing a sale price of 75 million rupees. One month later, the company was granted a licence to develop commercial housing on that land, which lies on the outskirts of Gurgaon, a bustling suburb of New Delhi.

"It is not easy to get these licence," Sanjay Sharma, the managing director of Qubrex, a real-estate consultancy in Haryana, said. "You have to be first in line, and a helping hand definitely moves things along."

Mr Vadra's influence, he said, would have expedited the grant of the licence.

But Mr Khemka claimed that Skylight Hospitality – with the full connivance of the DTCP – made no payment at all towards the land, because it did not have the funds to do so. To show that it had the funds to pay, Mr Khemka's report said, Skylight Hospitality filed falsified balance sheets with company regulators after the sale, in March 2008.

Skylight also had no capacity to develop an apartment project, which the DTCP was aware of, Mr Khemka wrote. The company "was nothing else other than Mr Robert Vadra. The man became a measure of everything and the entire statutory apparatus a castle of sand".

Mr Sharma said the other problem, as Mr Khemka alleged, was that "the apartment licence was issued to Vadra despite the fact that he was not yet the owner of the land, because he had not paid for it".

"That is strictly against the rules," Mr Sharma said. "Since nobody flagged this, the suspicion arises that there were bigger plans afoot."

Over the next few years, Mr Vadra sold the land and transferred his valuable licence to the real-estate giant DLF for a sum of 580 million rupees. In that sale agreement, it is alleged that Skylight Hospitality provided fictitious details of the cheque by which it claimed to have made its original payment of 75 million rupees.

Only after Skylight received DLF's payments did it clear its payment for the land and other registration expenses.

"By allowing the transfer of the licence, the DTCP created a black market for trading in licences, where cronies are issued licences which are later sold or transferred with the 'permission' of the authority, for a fat consideration, to the real developers," Mr Khemka wrote.

As real estate prices have skyrocketed in India over the past decade, the number of land scams, in which politicians and corporations collude to buy valuable government-allotted land at underpriced rates, has risen.

Mr Khemka has claimed that Mr Vadra's deal was part of a larger land licensing scam operating in Haryana between 2005 and 2012. He estimated that the state treasury had forgone 3.5 trillion rupees in revenue by issuing licences to crony capitalists, allowing them to sell them onwards at market rates and pocket the difference.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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