The property Priyanka Gandhi doesn't want you to know about
It's a Catch-22 situation for the district administration of Mashobra in Himachal Pradesh.
An activist has filed an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, seeking details of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's property there. And the daughter of the Congress President has moved the Himachal Pradesh High Court against it.
And the two big political players in town - the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - have mained a stoic silence on the issue: it was under their regimes that Priyanka was granted permission to purchase land after norms were allegedly relaxed.
To put things into perspective, an outsider would normally need a special Cabinet approval to purchase land in Himachal.
RTI activist Dev Ashish Bhattacharya told Catch he would write to the state police director-general and the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation to investigate about which officers were instrumental in going out of their way to facilitate Priyanka's purchase and also to deny him information.
The high court, while listing the matter for June 6, has given Priyanka four weeks to file her response to Bhattacharya's application.
He already has details from the Delhi administration regarding houses there of Priyanka, her brother Rahul and their mother Sonia Gandhi.
Priyanka petitioned the court last year against an order in which the state Information Commission had directed the Shimla deputy commissioner to provide details of her land purchase.
According to the petition, the commission failed to appreciate that the information sought was personal in nature and giving it away would be an invasion of her privacy.
Her lawyer pointed out that by no stretch of imagination can it be said that the right of an individual to claim information is absolute and unrestricted.
Bhattacharya said after his first application went missing, the Shimla deputy commission denied him information in an order dated 27 January, 2015 on the ground that Priyanka was guarded by Special Protection Group and this could have a bearing on her security.
In 2007, Priyanka reportedly bought 4.25 bigha land in Mashobra for Rs 47 lakh to build a house after the government gave her a special relaxation to the Tenancy and Land Reform Act. She later bought some adjacent land too in 2011 and 2013 too, Bhattacharya said.
His application before the Public Information Officer (PIO) at the Shimla deputy commissioner's office sought information about the land, sale deed, relaxation to an outsider to buy land in Himachal, status of the land and if any communication had been made to Priyanka for not fulfilling the norms for the use of the land within the stipulated time
"She purchased land in Himachal at three different points in time. I just want to know how this is possible under the provisions of Section 118 of the H.P. Tenancy and Land Reforms Act, 1972 that grant the permission for purchase only once," Bhattacharya said.
"Second, how has the permission for land use whether horticulture or building a house been extended to her over all these years, whereas the Act says that it cannot be extended beyond two years. Third, I want to know how much land has been purchased by her. The Act provides for not more than 500 metres for a house and not more than 4 acres for agriculture," he added.
Also, if the state government could cancel the land deed of a trust of Prashant Bhushan for violation of the Act, why could the same not be applicable in case of Priyanka? "It is time she comes clear on the issue and set an example for others," Bhattacharya said.
Apparently rules were relaxed for Priyanka not only by the Congress government but also the previous BJP government, which allowed her to build her dream summer retreat at the pristine Chharabra village near Shimla. The area around the village is densely forested and is part of Shimla Reserve Forest sanctuary and its catchment area.
Priyanka is known to have ordered the dismantling of an entire structure on her land after it came up as she was not happy with it. She reportedly has fond memories associated with the place as her father, the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, would put up at the nearby President's Retreat while on vacation with his family.
"Nobody can say that my effort is politically motivated. I filed the RTI application in Delhi where the Congress is in the Opposition and I also filed the RTI application in Himachal Pradesh where the BJP is in the Opposition," Bhattacharya said.
While the Congress and the BJP remained silent, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) took the issue up. "The provisions of Section 118 of the H.P. Tenancy and Land Reforms Act, 1972 have been brazenly misused by both these parties. They have simply turned a blind eye towards the law when it comes to handing over land to the industrialists and hoteliers. There has been too muchbenami (under false identity) transactions of the agricultural lands," said party spokesperson Dr Onkar.
Aam Aadmi Party leader DS Pathik called for cancellation of the permission granted to Priyanka under Section 118.
And, according to observers, whatever be the court's decision, the officials are sure to draw flak.
Edited by Joyjeet Das
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