Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Revealed: What army won’t say about Bengal land scam


New Delhi, Jan. 12: Yesterday’s scam is today’s strategic blunder. But Fort William came in between.
An investigation by the Eastern Command of the Indian Army has found that senior officers, including the top aide to the army chief, overrode national security concerns to strike a deal with a realtor in north Bengal’s Siliguri Corridor, the strategic “Chicken’s Neck” that runs between three international boundaries and connects the Northeast with the rest of the country.
On Monday, army headquarters issued showcause notices for administrative action against military secretary Lt Gen. Avadhesh Prakash, Lt Gen. Ramesh Halgali and Maj. Gen. P. Sen and disciplinary proceedings (that may lead to a court martial) against Lt Gen. P.K. Rath.
Meagre information that trickled out on the “Sukna land scam” from army headquarters has so far painted a story of corruption. Even today, sources in army headquarters insisted that there was no “scam”, a view that reflects the opinion of the realtor, Dilip Agarwal, too.
That might as well be true. The investigation has found much more than hands in the till. The findings and the opinion of the court of inquiry that was convened by the Eastern Army commander, Lt Gen. V.K. Singh, in Fort William invest far greater strategic importance in the case.
It has found that the 33 Corps, headquartered in Sukna, was facilitating underhand commerce in a corridor it is tasked to protect militarily. The area of responsibility of the 33 Corps is on the China front and includes territory in Sikkim, north Bengal and Bhutan.
But officers commanding it and the military secretary, in charge of posting the officers and troops, not only ignored security concerns in allowing a commercial project on land adjacent to its headquarters but also actively facilitated Agarwal’s venture.
They bent rules, altered policies, escorted the realtor, ignored the higher (Eastern) command, tailored formal agreements to suit the deal and put pressure on juniors to hurry it through while they kept suppressing evidence, the court of inquiry has found. All the while, the military secretary was in constant touch with Agarwal.
Lt Gen. Prakash introduced Agarwal to the 33 Corps commander and deputy chief-designate (now the appointment has been cancelled), Lt Gen. Rath, as a family friend, the court of inquiry says in its report forwarded to army headquarters.
Agarwal used to visit the military secretary in his house in Delhi. Agarwal and Lt Gen. Prakash were likely to have met when the military secretary served as commander of the Indian Military Training Team (Imtrat) in Bhutan, within the 33 Corps’ area of responsibility.
Agarwal issued a media release in Siliguri on December 31 in which he said: “The question of an ‘army land scam’ does not arise. The land never belonged to the army and the controversy is unnecessary.”
Today, a day after the showcause notices were issued, an army headquarters source said he did not know why the Eastern Army commander had recommended such strong action (“termination of service”) against the military secretary because “we never owned the land and, therefore, there is no scam”.
What army headquarters’ spin meisters are conveniently ignoring is that the force was actually in the process of acquiring the land from the Bengal government because of security concerns. The Bengal government appreciated these concerns and had conveyed to the army that it was “favourably disposed” towards transferring the land.
The controversy relates to a “tea tourism” project to build villas and malls in an estate surrounded by army units. When construction was stopped, an “education” project was proposed to get around the ban.
The court of inquiry found that Agarwal had floated the Geetanjali Education Trust registered in Ghaziabad in 2001. “It has not functioned in a true sense and has constructed no school or college so far,” the report said. Agarwal was “reluctant to part with information regarding his companies”.
Yet, the 33 Corps headquarters entered into a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with him after deleting “Paragraph 17” of the draft. The report describes this clause as “the most potent” paragraph because it gave rights to the army to terminate the MoU “on security grounds”.
In their review of the case, the investigators reported that the Chumta Tea Estate spread over 2,711 acres was on a 33-year lease from the Bengal government. It is inside the Sukna military station and is surrounded by army units.
Of this land, nearly 72 acres were barren and was handed over to the Bengal government. The Bengal government in turn offered it on lease to four firms (Mata Vaishnodevi Mercantile Pvt Ltd, Sheetla Vyapaar Pvt Ltd, Akshara Vanijya Pvt Ltd and JF Low and Co Ltd) represented by S. Bajoria.
“The barren portion of 71.55 acres is enclosed like a lobe within the tea garden, with one side literally bordering the (33) Corps Headquarters,” the report said and pointed out that “the sensitivities of the Siliguri Corridor also necessitated that no civil construction be permitted in the close proximity of the Corps Headquarters”.
In February 2008, the army discovered in newspaper reports that the barren land was being developed for “tea tourism” and would include a film city, villas and malls. Then 33 Corps commander, Lt Gen. Deepak Raj, informed the Eastern Army commander and told the Bengal government’s chief secretary that all construction on the land must be stopped. The Bengal government agreed and gave the orders accordingly.
“The army’s objections to civilian construction on Chumta Tea Estate were based on security implications, arising out of proximity of the site to corps headquarters and Ascon (the army’s dedicated telecommunications network) node,” the report said.
In July-August 2008, Agarwal went to Bajoria and with him proposed building a girls’ school at the site.
On December 29, 2008, Lt Gen. Rath, who was then the 33 Corps commander, received a request for a “no-objection certificate” to establish a residential school with a franchise of Mayo College.
The next month, Agarwal and Bajoria met Rath. Rath forwarded the proposal from Agarwal with a note “Please examine — a new angle project we may consider” to the administration in charge, Brigadier (now Maj. Gen.) Sen.
In between, in October 2008, military secretary Prakash visited Sukna on an official trip and met Agarwal. He introduced Agarwal to Rath and Lt Gen. Ramesh Halgali, who was chief of staff of the corps, as a friend. In July 2008, Prakash and Agarwal were said to have met Gaj Singh of Jodhpur.
That set the ball rolling till the MoU was signed in talks between March 18 and 20, 2009. In those three days, Agarwal and Lt Gen. Prakash were in constant touch, according to telephone records called by the investigators who describe this connection as the “influencing factor”.
The Eastern Army commander, Lt Gen. V.K. Singh, grew suspicious and called off the deal. He convened the court of inquiry on September 30.

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