Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah led the Congress back to power in the 2013 Assembly elections fighting on a plank of probity. His squeaky clean image helped the Congress beat back the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state even though the tide nationally was flowing in the reverse direction. But Siddaramaiah has touched the third rail of Karnataka politics – illegal land transactions in general and de-notification of plots in Arkavathy Layout in particular.

In June 2014 former Karnataka Chief Minister and BJP leader Jagdish Shettar had accused Siddaramaiah of de-notifying 541 acres of land in the layout in Bangalore against the express orders of the Karnataka High Court. Shettar said that Siddaramaiah signed an order to that effect in March that year. Siddaramaiah maintained that the order he signed was to remodify the entire layout and shot back at Shettar for initially approving the same de-notification during his tenure as chief minister. For the past seven months, opposition parties in Karnataka, led by the BJP, have gone fervently at the issue, placing it at the centre of an especially stormy winter session of the state assembly.

Political analysts are split on whether the allegations alone will dent the Siddaramaiah administration. “In the last two years of [Siddaramaiah] being in power this is the first time a major challenge in terms of a whiff of a scandal of corruption has come up,” said Sandeep Shastri, political analyst and Pro Vice Chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore. “The embarrassment which the party in general and the chief minister in particular faces is very acute especially because they fought on a plank of integrity, ethics and honesty.”

“Under previous regimes it wasn’t only Arkavathy but other [instances of] misgovernance that was the issue,” said Muzaffar Assadi, professor of political science at Mysore University. “There are hardly any scandals under this government and Arkavathy Layout does not represent its misgovernance or corruption.”

Layout's dubious history 

In 2003, 3,839 acres of land in northeast Bengaluru was notified for acquisition for a planned residential area of 22,000 plots called Arkavathy Layout. The erstwhile landowners approached the courts against the move. Subsequently, the layout was sized down to 2,750 acres, divided into 11,000 plots and assigned to hopeful landowners by the Bangalore Development Authority.

Since 2004, however, Karnataka chief ministers have continually de-notified various plots in the layout. In doing so they have, at many times, violated Karnataka High Court guidelines that disallow land to be de-notified once the government has taken possession of it.

Land de-notification is simply the process of cancelling a government notification for acquiring land for urban infrastructure and public facilities. The court has ordered that land notified for acquisition cannot be returned to its owners after government agencies have taken possession of it. It can only be de-notified under certain exceptions like when the land falls within a green belt, is totally built up, or belongs to a charitable, educational or religious institution.

A report by the Comptroller Auditor General details the violations of every acre and gunta (40 guntas is 1 acre) de-notified up to 2012 in violation of the court’s directions. Chief ministers across party lines are on the list of offenders.

Dharam Singh of Congress de-notified 60 acres of Arkavathy land in 2004 and handed it over to a company building a technology park. His successor HD Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (Secular) de-notified plots in favour of two persons who claimed to be farmers dependent on the land for income but were later found to be businessmen holding several plots across the city. Between 2008 and 2011, BJP’s BS Yeddyurappa de-notified acres of Arkavathy and even allowed one site to be allotted to his son BY Raghavendra who was then a Member of Parliament.

In the process, thousands of potential owners of Arkavathy plots have been left landless. They are taking their battles against the government and the BDA to court.

Political stand-off

Siddaramaiah has defended himself, saying that the land he de-notified falls within the exceptions prescribed by the court and that failure to act as he did would have amounted to contempt of court. He has agreed to an investigation of his actions. But the opposition won’t let go even though its own members are implicated in the Arkavathy scam. Shettar and other BJP leaders have been pushing the governor for permission to prosecute Siddaramaiah.

As it stands, the chief minister is not having a particularly easy time of it. His well-intentioned policies like food security in the state, an anti-superstition bill and taking over religious maths have been stymied by either politics or by agonisingly slow implementation. It took the Congress government more than a year to fill vacancies in state boards and commissions. To top it off, Siddaramaiah’s relations with the Karnataka Congress chief G Parameshwara are fractious.

“At the end of the day the chief minister may be exonerated or an inquiry commission may find nothing wrong,” Shastri said. “Till you reach that end of the day there will be a huge lot of mudslinging that won’t be of any credit to the administration.”