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Punjab shocker: CM overrules minister and scraps Rs 40 crore land scam inquiry

Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann in a controversial move overruled the decision of his own minister and ordered the closure of the Rs 40 crore Bhagtupura land scam inquiry (Pic. Courtesy ANI)

Chandigarh: In a highly controversial move that is raising eyebrows in official circles, Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann has overruled the decision of his own minister and ordered the closure of the Rs 40 crore Bhagtupura land scam inquiry that had indicted a former minister, two IAS officers and two Joint Directors of the Rural Development and Panchayats Department.

On July 22, 2022, Panchayats Minister Kuldip Dhaliwal announced at a public meeting in Amritsar that the inquiry into the fraudulent transfer of prime panchayat land in Bhagtupura, on the city’s outskirts, to a private builder  has been completed.

The 3-member inquiry committee headed by Amit Kumar, Joint Commissioner Rural Development and Panchayats Department (R&D) found erstwhile Congress minister Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa, two IAS officers R.K. Bhandari, Manpreet Singh Chhatwal (now retired) and two joint directors of the department guilty of committing fraud and causing a loss over Rs 40 crore to the public exchequer.

On July 28, 2022, Dhaliwal again said in a public meeting that since an ex-minister and some bureaucrats were involved in the scam, he did not have the power to refer the matter directly to the Vigilance Bureau for registration of an FIR. Therefore he would send the file to the Chief Minister with his recommendation to book the guilty officials.

It is reliably learnt that CM Bhagwant Mann sat on the file for about 6 months till mid-December 2022 before ordering the closure of the matter and allowing the 6 accused to go scot-free.

When indianarrative.com contacted Venu Parsad, Principal Secretary to CM for his version, he replied after several days that the file had been sent to the Advocate General (AG) for legal advice and has not come back as yet.

However, AG Vinodh Ghai denied having received the Bhagtupura file from the CMO. “Since, the file never came to me, it would not be correct to say that I advised the CM to close the case,” he said in answer to a question.

This correspondent accessed the inquiry report  which states: “Undue haste was shown in handing over 42 kanals and 16 marlas of Bhagatupura panchayat land to Alpha City International,” a private real estate company.

The report maintains that the file remained buried for several months in the office of the Director Manpreet Singh Chhatwal till December 8, 2022. But it suddenly moved with rocket speed in January 2022 after the announcement of the state Assembly elections.

The election results were declared on February 10, 2022, in which the Aam Aadmi Party defeated the ruling Congress party. However, the very next day, on February 11, the outgoing Congress minister, Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa, signed the file giving the panchayat land to the private company.

The inquiry report mentions that the file movement registers in the offices of different officers did not have any record to show the movement of the Bhagtupura land transfer file.

The file travelled from the office of the Director R&D, Chhatwal to the office of FC (R&D) Rahul Bhandari and then to the office of minister Tripat Bajwa. It implied that the file must have been taken by hand, in a hurry to transfer the costly land to the private company before the new government  was sworn in.

Ex-Minister Tript Rajinder Bajwa told the inquiry committee that as a caretaker minister, he was competent to take routine decisions till the formation of the new government.

Attempts by this correspondent over 15 days to contact the present Panchayat’s minister Dhaliwal via WhatsApp messages and phone calls proved futile.

Sources disclosed that the bureaucrat concerned in the CMO kept the file under wraps to let the issue cool down before advising the CM to close it though it was required to take legal advice from AG in a matter involving Rs 40 crore public money.