Sand mining scam: Opposition puts Punjab Congress on the back foot
As the din surrounding the alleged sand mining scam in Punjab gets louder with each passing day, it is Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh who is facing the brunt of the criticism.
Pushed into a tight spot after it was reported that cabinet minister Rana Gurjit Singh, and two of his employees, may have been involved in 'benami' transactions during the much hyped e-auction of sand mines last week.
Even the government’s decision to initiate a probe by a judicial commission of inquiry headed by JS Narang, a retired judge of Punjab and Haryana High Court, has failed to douse the fire, as the Opposition is demanding nothing short of the minister’s resignation.
These developments have meant that the Congress in Punjab, which won the popular vote by riding an anti-corruption wave, is in a difficult position.
On 31 May, the Punjab government notified the terms of the Narang Commission - that it would inquire whether the terms and conditions of the bid were adhered to regarding the Saidpur Khurd and Mehadipur mines while awarding the tender of these two mines to the Amit Bahadur and Kulvinder Pal Singh.
Amit Bahadur used to work as a cook for the minister.
The Commission would inquire whether Rana Gurjit, in any manner, influenced the bid price and whether the two bidders were bidding on his behalf. It would further probe whether the minister has received any undue financial benefit or gain from the award of the two mines and also whether there has been any loss to the state revenue.
Taking the fight to the next level, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has sought that a sitting judge of the High Court carry out the probe and that the terms of reference be framed again.
Senior party leader Sukhpal Singh Khaira said, “Rana Gurjit's family has close links with the Narang family as one of the sons of the judge has represented the Rana family in court. In such circumstances, it is quite evident that the Commission would give a clean chit to the minister, which is why we want that the probe be carried out by one of the 52 sitting judges. The terms of references should also be framed again as it doesn’t say that the money trail left by the two bidders be investigated so that we understand how Rana Gurjit’s two employees, who only earned a small amount, came to have crores of rupees.”
Khaira further demanded that the passports of Rana Gurjit and the others whose names are surfacing in the matter be impounded.
Terming Rana Gurjit as the Vijay Mallya of Punjab, he went on to claim that the Cane Commissioner of Uttar Pradesh had already ordered in August last year that the passports of the minister's family members be impounded since his four sugar mills located at Unn in Shamli, Belari and Belwari in Moradabad along with Karimganj in Uttar Pradesh are to pay Rs 202 crore to the farmers.
“On one side Amarinder is talking of a loan waiver for the farmers and on the other his own minister is not paying them their dues,” he said.
Calling for the e-auction held last week to be cancelled and held afresh, Khaira said that 17 of the 89 mines that were auctioned, had only single bidders at the reserved price announced by the government. “What kind of competitive bidding is this? This is nothing but mafia silencing other bidders to get the tenders,” he said.
AAP has once again sought Rana Gurjit's resignation. Khaira said that his party would approach both the Income Tax department and the Enforcement Directorate on this issue. He also did not rule out going to the High Court.
“We will not seek a CBI probe but an investigation by an Inspector of Chandigarh Police who will be able to crack the case in just one day,” he said. His party is also planning statewide protests.
Upping the ante
The other opposition party Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) too has termed the probe Commission set up by the government as too little too late and has demanded the immediate sacking of the minister to ensure a free and fair probe into the entire matter.
Former minister Dr Daljeet Singh Cheema said the allegations against Rana Gurjit are as good as proven.
"Rana has admitted that his Nepalese cook who earns a few thousand made a successful bid for a Rs 26 crore sand and gravel mining site. Other employees of Rana have also bagged mining sites taking the total amount of investment by the employees to Rs 50 crore. The minister has agreed to all this but has come out with a lame excuse that the employees left his service recently. This is unbelievable," he said.
"This is a clear case of corruption, benami deals and possibly even hawala transactions. It would have been in the fitness of things if the chief minister handed over the case to the Enforcement Directorate besides involving the Income Tax authorities. If the minister is not sacked it is likely he will be able to influence key witnesses and a fair investigation of the case would not be possible," he added.
On the defensive
Rana Gurjit has been saying that the two employees had stopped working from him a while ago. He also reportedly said that he would have bid under his name if he had wanted a sand mining tender, and that Amit Bahadur was not his cook but a contractor and a liaison personnel.
With regards to his dealings with the three firms where this man was a director, the minister said that he has produced all his dealings in his poll affidavit. He has also ruled out that Justice Narang's son being his family's advocate can have any bearing on the findings of the Commission.
A tight spot
But at the same time, observers say that the furore of this alleged scam has hit Amarinder government very hard right at the beginning of the tenure of his government. There are reports that Amarinder has had to put his cabinet expansion on hold.
There are also rumblings over the announcement of dates of the all-important session of the state assembly where the government is scheduled to spell out some important policies along with the budget for the year.
There is a fear that if the controversy over the alleged sand mining scam does not die down soon, it may eclipse every other thing during the session.