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Punjab AG’s office has been dragging its feet on Rs 1,000 crore Irrigation Dept. scam case

Punjab and Haryana High Court

Chandigarh: The Punjab Advocate General’s (AG) office in the Punjab and Haryana High Court appears to have been dragging its feet over getting proceedings in the infamous Rs 1000 crore Irrigation Department scam expedited.

The AG’s office seems to have been lax in efforts to get a stay order vacated which was granted by the High Court on technical grounds on February 19, 2020, resulting in the halting of the trial of the main accused contractor Gurinder Singh and others in a Mohali court.

While staying proceedings, Justice Raj Mohan issued a notice of motion for April 16, 2020, according to the information available on the High Court website.

After the first hearing in February 2020, the case came up for the next hearing on July 13, 2022, before Justice Avneesh Jhingan after a long gap due to Covid-19. However, because senior deputy advocate general, Punjab, Amit Mehta sought further time to file a reply,  the High Court adjourned the case till October 17, 2022.  The court in its interim order allowed the continuation of the stay on proceedings of the trial court.

This shows that from February 2020 till July 2022, when the Advocate General's office kept functioning, it still did not prepare a reply to contractor Gurinder Singh's petition, which was required to be filed before the next hearing.

A senior lawyer says that the stay order in such cases of corruption, as per Supreme Court judgments, cannot exceed 6 months. And in case the stay has to be extended beyond 6 months, the judge must pass a speaking order.

Advocate Arsh Cheema, counsel for the accused contractor Gurinder Singh admits that there is no speaking order passed by the judge concerned in this case. "We cannot ask the court how to pass an order," he explains.

The Supreme court in a case titled Asian Resurfacing of Road Agency Vs CBI (order dated March 18, 2018) held "…delay in a criminal trial, particularly in PC Act cases, has a deleterious effect on the administration of justice…in all pending cases where stay against proceedings of a civil or criminal trial is operating, the same will come to an end after the expiry of 6 months … unless in an exceptional case by a speaking order such stay is extended."

A Vigilance Bureau officer on condition of anonymity, asks, why did the state counsel not seek early hearings which are usually put off for 3 to 4 months.

Advocate H.S. Dhanoa maintains, "some High Courts take a different view…the law on this issue is a paradox."

A perusal of the trial court record reveals that the technical committee which was engaged to help the Vigilance Bureau investigation detected shortcomings in 9 major works allotted to contractor Gurinder Singh. Based on the technical committee's report submitted to the trial court, the judge decided to hold a separate trial for each allocated work, wherein the government was put at a total loss of about Rs 110 crore. (Technical committee report in possession of this reporter)

Gurinder Singh, the accused, challenged the order of the trial court in the High Court. He took the plea that as there was only one FIR registered against him, separate trials for 9 different works are not justified. The High Court was yet to decide on the point of contention. Meanwhile, the stay order has been continuing for over two years in violation of the judgment of the Apex court. 

However, the senior deputy advocate general, Punjab, Gaurav Garg Dhuriwala explains that the prosecution has now moved an application before the trial court to commence the trial in right earnest in view of the Apex court judgment which says that a stay order cannot go beyond 6 months. A notice has been issued to the counsel of the accused contractor Gurinder Singh and others.

Manjit Singh, deputy district attorney confirms that he moved the application before the trial court to start the proceedings against the accused in the Irrigation Department scam, and a notice was issued to the parties. The case is now fixed for August 22, 2022.