Until last fortnight, hardly anyone was aware of the identity of the owners of the posh building  that had been granted an occupation certificate in August 2014 in Sector 6 of Haryana’s Panchkula city.  The upmarket area houses  several Haryana government offices, including the state police headquarters.  But when the National Herald case in Delhi hit the headlines, it all became clear.

A report in the Indian Express that followed in the wake of a Delhi High Court decision on December 7 requiring  Congress leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to appear before it in a case relating to allegations of misappropriation at the National Herald, revealed the contentious history of the Panchkula building.  Reports alleged that Associated Journals Limited, which once published the newspaper founded by Jawaharlal Nehru, had been the beneficiary of favours by successive Congress governments in the state.

For instance, the terms of the allocation were bent to allow Associated Journals to keep possession of the plot long after it was supposed to have finished construction in 2007. The building took seven years longer to complete, and was ready only in 2014 – six years after the newspaper ceased operations.

Real-estate dealers say that the 3,360 square-metre property is valued at between Rs 40 crore and Rs 50 crore.

Advice is ignored

The allotment for the firm was initially made by former Congress chief minister Bhajan Lal in 1982. In 2005, his successor Bhupinder Singh Hooda, re-alloted the plot to Associated Journals in his capacity as chairman of the Haryana Urban Development Authority, even though construction should have been finished ten years earlier. In the process, Hooda went against the advice the government’s most senior legal advisor, the Legal Remembrancer, and personally signed the re-allotment documents – even though bureaucrats usually take care of such procedures.

In a move that Haryana health minister Anil Vij of the Bharatiya Janata Party earlier this month described an effort to “oblige the Gandhi family”, Hooda signed the file only a few months into his first tenure as the chief minister. This was only a few days after the Legal Remembrancer stated on the file that the petition of the owners pleading against the cancellation of the plot had been dismissed. He had stated in writing that there was no question of “re -allotment or restoration of the plot to the allottee” under the circumstances.

Hooda , however, disregarded the advice. The “AJL is a renowned organisation founded by Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru”, he wrote, and that publication of the newspaper “would add yet another feature to the prestigious town of Panchkula”. While re-allotting the plot, he specified that the construction of the building should be completed in two years. However, as is evident, several extensions were granted. The building was given a completion certificate just two months before the assembly elections in which Hooda led the Congress to its defeat last year.

Haryana Education Minister Ram Bilas Paswan told the press that that the market price of the land when it was re-allotted in 2005 was Rs 23 crore but it was given to Associated Journals for merely Rs 59 lakh. He noted that the entire process from allotment to mutation was completed in one day.

Vij has demanded a vigilance inquiry and cancellation of the plot.

Other deals

This is not the only case concerning real estate in which Hooda is facing the heat. His government had been under a cloud over the thousands of Change of Land Use permissions granted during his tenure that allowed agricultural land to be rezoned for commercial and residential use. Last week, the Haryana Lokayukta recommended that FIRs be registered against five former Congress MLAs for allegedly accepting bribes in exchange for obtaining CLU permissions.

The Lokayukta's directive was based on a series of sting operations. The video recordings of the former MLAs demanding and accepting bribes were submitted to the Lokayukta by the Indian National Lok Dal. After the authenticity of the video tapes was established by forensic examinations, the Lokayukta said a prima facie case had been established and investigations should be initiated. The Punjab and Haryana High Court had also taken cognisance of the thousands of CLU permissions granted by Hooda and the issue is currently pending in the court.

In yet another real-estate matter, the Haryana government over the weekend ordered the state vigilance department to lodge an FIR relating to 14 prized industrial plots in Panchkula during Hooda's tenure as chief minister. All the plots were allotted to persons who were either related to Hooda or were related to the persons perceived to be close to Hooda. The plots measuring 496 square metres to 1,280 square metres were allegedly allotted at a throwaway price. Though applications were invited and a formal evaluation process was undertaken, changes were made in rules evidently to help the favoured applicants, the Haryana vigilance department said in its report to the state government.

Compounding Hooda’s troubles is the fact that Haryana Chief Minister Manoharlal Kattar has asked for a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the matter.