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‘Marching orders at 10 pm is not a very good feeling’

Too much honesty, says Kautilya in Arthashastra, is not good; in the forests, straight trees are cut first. Who knows this better than Ashok Khemka, the whistleblower Haryana IAS who cancelled a land deal involving Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra and was hastily transferred.

In the second week of October, India Against Corruption’s Arvind Kejriwal released to the media documents exposing a nexus among Vadra, realty major DLF and the Haryana government. A few days later, Khemka, who held the twin positions of the director general, consolidation of land holdings, and inspector general of registration under Haryana government, dropped a bomb when he cancelled the mutation (transfer of the title of a property in revenue records) of a piece of land owned by Sky Light (a firm owned by Vadra) to DLF. Promptly, Khemka was transferred, a record 43rd time in his career spanning over two decades. That was not all. He received threat calls and was matter-of-factly denied protection by the state government.

After a tumultuous fortnight, Khmeka is now at peace with his new posting as the managing director of Haryana Seeds Corporation, a position previously held by an officer 12 years Khemka’s junior. Sitting on the lawns of his modest government accommodation in Chandigarh, Khemka says that even after all this, his line of thinking – that the money earned on deals involving land acquired by the government should go to the government or the people the government serves and not to anyone else – has not changed wee bit. However, this IIT graduate who holds a doctorate in computer science from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research who blew the lid off many a scam in the past says he never was and will never be a quitter. Edited excerpts:   

You got your latest transfer order at 10 pm, an unlikely time for such an order. How did it feel?

On 11 October, I was summoned by an authority who I would not like to name. I was humiliated between 8.30 pm and 9 pm by the same person at his house. After coming back from that place, I did not have dinner and was about to retire to bed, when the door bell rang. I was served the order around 10 pm. It is not a nice thing to get the transfer order in dead of the night. I just want to ask: what was the urgency?

So after you received your transfer order, how did you take it?

Two things crossed my mind. Firstly, there was a reasonable apprehension in my mind that it was an illegal order because it violated the statutory IAS (Fixation of Cadre Strength) Regulations 2010, notified on 3 October 2010, which guaranteed minimum tenure of two years against your cadre post to all IAS officers in the state of Haryana. This was in the pursuance of the reform recommended by the Veerapa Moily administrative reform committee.
Secondly, it was done to punish me for being upright – which affected a nexus of politician, bureaucrat and businessmen.

Many political commentators say that the state politics in Haryana has degenerated in the past two decades. Has that also affected bureaucracy to a larger extent?

I am a public servant and it is not fair to comment on the public representatives or my colleagues in the service. Politicians or bureaucrats, after all they are public servants. But unfortunately, some of them (bureaucrats) have become servants to public representative and not to the public. I need not say more about them but the day I am no longer a public servant, I will speak to you more about the issue.

You plan to write?

Not certainly now because I don’t have time to spare. Whatever spare time I get, I spend with my family, especially my growing son. Writing a memoir at this stage of time would not be good use of time. I am also not erudite in my communication, but maybe after I retire and for public interest, I may consider writing. It will not be for money, royalty or any other thing but for public interest.
Can you tell us about the nexus of bureaucrat and politicians in Haryana?
There is a widespread misuse of Section 42 of the Land Consolidation Act. It basically transfers panchayat land worth hundreds of crores to real estate owners. Particularly, in Gurgaon and Faridabad – there are several such cases. As per my knowledge, the high court has quashed about 23 such orders. Being adjacent to Delhi, the land has more value.

How did you come across this DLF-Robert Vadra land deal?

It was my duty to take a call on the matter. Actually, I had issued written instructions to deputy commissioners-cum-registrars of the four districts (Gurgaon, Faridabad, Palwal and Mewat) to inspect all documents registered from 1 January 2005, to date by or on behalf of Robert Vadra or his companies in the capacity. It was a suo motu decision after several allegations came to light. The entire sale of the land to DLF was questionable since the land was under consolidation and ordinarily the sale deed ought to have been set aside. But serving as director general, consolidation of land holdings, I cancelled the mutation. The real issue is that the money in land deals should go to the government that serves people – and not to anyone else.

What was the case, can you elaborate?

The Sky Light Hospitality (Robert Vadra’s firm) had purchased 3.53 acres of land in village Shikhopur, Gurgaon, on 12 February 2008 for Rs 7.5 crore. On 28 March 2008, the town and country planning department issued Vadra’s company a licence to develop 2.701 acres of the land into a housing colony. On 3 June 2008, the Sky Light had entered into a sale agreement with DLF at an astounding rate of Rs 58 crore. This property was resold to DLF for Rs 58 crore on 18 September 2012. It is not known what made the town & country planning department to renew the licence on 18 January 2011, in favour of the vendor, when 86.2 per cent of the total sales consideration was paid to Sky Light by 7 October 2009, 15 months before the date of renewal of the licence.
Sale of property in September 2012 during the pendency of the consolidation proceedings without the sanction of the consolidation officer was against the provisions of Section 30 of the Land Consolidation Act. The mutation sanctioned on 20 September 2012, by the assistant consolidation officer was also without jurisdiction, since he is not a revenue officer under the Punjab Land Revenue Act. This shows the nexus on how the agricultural land was being bought, land use converted and resold to real estate firms. The village of Shikohpur was notified under section 14 (1) of the East Punjab Holdings (Consolidation and Prevention of Fragmentation) Act, 1948, on 5 August 2011. The transfer of property during the pendency of consolidation proceedings without the sanction of the consolidation officer is prohibited under section 30 of the Land Consolidation Act.

And you were quickly transferred?

Yes, I had sent my letter to the chief secretary on 12 October and was waiting for a reply from him. I held on to the charge in protest till the 15 October. Then I issued the order on the Shikohpur-Manesar deal and then relinquished charge of the department. The assistant consolidation officer who had sanctioned the mutation was not competent to do so. As the head of the department I was only doing my duty to clear the department of any allegation of wrongdoing.
But TC Gupta, who is director general, town & country planning department, said that there were ‘factual inaccuracies’ in orders passed by you?
The comment is very unfortunate. But it is not appropriate for me to comment on his statement, which is extra-jurisdictional. My orders under the section 42 on the East Punjab Holdings (consolidation and prevention of fragmentation) Act, 1948, were of the state government. A public servant criticising the order of the state government is in violation of the conduct rules.
I would say if TC Gupta is aggrieved, the proper remedy is to approach the high court under the writ jurisdiction under article 226. After having settled the issue there, it would be fair to make comments on my order. But what is strange is that my order does not affect either DLF or Vadra, his company Sky Light. Nobody to date has approached the high court or supreme court against my order. Why and at whose behest Gupta is responding is something fair enough to ask him. He could very well file public interest litigation. It is going to be a collusive battle in the high court because the government is batting on the same side as DLF or Sky Light. Both the parties are free to collude and get a decree instead of making claims and statements which are scandalous, mudslinging and deliberately meant to obfuscate the main issues involved.

How difficult is it to become an upright officer in a system full of nexuses?

The difficulty is always in the mind. But it has not been easy so far.

Having been transferred 43 times in 21 years of career, did you lose interest in the job?

Yes, at times I got transfer orders late in the night in similar situations when transfers were motivated. I guess it meant to humiliate and demoralise to just show that you can be transferred even in the dead of the night. And when the bell rings, it is always frightening in the night, not a very pleasant thing. I think government should be kind and deliver such orders, which is not of so much urgent nature, in the office on the next day.

Any similar situation that you faced earlier?

Yes, in September 2004 when I was serving as director of secondary education department, then chief minister Omprakash Chautala’s office wanted transfers of teachers. I had put my foot down and refused to entertain the recommendation citing my inability to do so since academic sessions were on. I was given marching orders and even stripped of my vehicle. For 10 days, I used to walk to and from my office.

How do you think the land problems where land sharks are involved in a big way can be solved?

The good way is to de-licence the land acquisition process. I have also recommended new rules, which prescribe mandatory procedural requirements for transfer of immovable property of gram panchayat, which can help check benami and irregular land deals.  

Are you at peace with the new job as managing director as Haryana Seed Development Corporation?

Yes. Once I left my earlier job on 15 October at 4 pm, that was over for me. I have accepted my new job and taken my new assignment. I am very sure that if I had challenged the illegal order in a court of law, it would have been struck down on two grounds – it violates the rule, statutory IAS (Fixation of Cadre Strength) Regulations 2010, notified on October 3, 2010. Secondly, it was patently mala fide.

How do you plan to revamp the Haryana Seed Development Corporation?

I am new to the job and learning it. To say that I am going to revamp the corporation would be wrong. It is not that you have to start right from the scratch in your new assigned. That would be catastrophic for the system.

Do you also plan to resign if such transfer orders do not stop?
Why should I resign? It is not in the public interest. I find it to be an escapist attitude.

On arrangement with Governance Now
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