(NOTE: This is a reprint of an article that was published in the INDIA TODAY edition dated October 29, 2012)
"We are not a banana republic under the command of a despotic monarch," declares the man who has destroyed what little remained of the credibility of Robert Vadra as a self-made businessman. But then 47-year-old Ashok Khemka has consistently defied the unofficial dictum of the Indian Administrative Service—uska aadesh tumhare dastakhat (the minister's orders, your signature)—ever since he joined its Haryana cadre in 1991. "We (civil servants) are all part of the sarkar. Prime Ministers and chief ministers are not our masters but jan sevaks (public servants) like the rest of us. But we begin treating these people like kings and queens who must be followed unquestioningly," he says. Stationery Cupboard For Sale
Khemka's rage is understandable. On October 11 he was shifted with telling haste from his position as head of Haryana's land registration department for blowing the whistle on the symbiotic relationship between Robert Vadra and realty major DLF, avidly supported by politicians and civil servants in Haryana. A dispatch clerk hand delivered the transfer orders to his Chandigarh home after 10 p.m. This, just three days after the officer sought a list of Vadra's land deals in Gurgaon, Faridabad, Palwal and Mewat, the four districts highlighted in newspaper and TV reports on October 8. Khemka directed deputy commissioners in all four districts to compile a list of all documents registered by Vadra or on his behalf, starting January 1, 2005.
Khemka had already established by late-September how Vadra-owned Skylight Hospitality Private Limited bought a 3.53 acre plot from farmers of Shikhopur village in February 2008. Skylight paid Rs. 7.5 crore for this plot, around 40 km from Delhi. The mutation of ownership was effected within 24 hours on February 13, though it normally takes upto six months. Vadra's company was granted change of land use (CLU) licence to use 2.7 acres of the agricultural plot for residential housing in just over a month on March 28, 2008.
Vadra resold the property to DLF Universal less than four months later, for Rs 58 crore. The only value Vadra's companies added to the land, Khemka says, was the CLU licence, which led to a six-fold increase in the value of the land. A letter of intent (LoI) for the CLU was issued to Skylight within 18 days of application and a month after the plot was purchased. The LoI order was approved by Chief Minister B.S. Hooda and communicated to Skylight with signatures of Chhatar Singh, one of Hooda's principal secretaries. Chhatar Singh claims he doesn't recall details of the case and insists everything was done as per the law. Significantly, LoIs on CLU applications usually take up to 90 days to clear.
DLF said they did not want to respond to a detailed INDIA TODAY questionnaire on whether they received undue favours from the Haryana government, the escalation of costs of the Shikhopur plot and on the nature of their relationship with Vadra.
On October 8, Khemka's interest was piqued by media reports that suggested other Vadra-owned firms Skylight Realty, Real Earth Estates, Blue Breeze Trading, Artex and North India IT Parks seemed to be following a similar modus operandi. Agricultural land was being bought, land use converted and resold to real-estate firms.
The inquiry, however led to his transfer, the 43rd in his 21-year service tenure. But 'punishment postings' are familiar territory for Khemka, widely known as 'Haryana's most shoved about civil servant'. Friends call him 'proactively honest and determined'. He was posted into the land consolidation, records and registration department on July 20, 2012, after being shunted out as managing director of Hartron, the state electronics development corporation. He had questioned the allocation of projects at inflated amounts without tenders.
The officer is unfazed. In an October 12 letter to the chief secretary seeking a review of his abrupt removal, he listed seven villages where "several hundred crores worth of panchayat lands have been transferred to realtor companies that were created only days earlier". The villages of Baad-Gujar, Rozka-Gujar, Kot, Chirsi, Ankhir, Shikhopur, Malikpur, Bangar and Kalesar lie along the Gurgaon-Faridabad Road near Delhi. The officer predicts that unless these shady land deals are independently probed, they will soon turn into new farmhouses for Delhi's elite.
On October 15 he fired his last salvo as Haryana's Director General Consolidation of Holdings and Land Records-cum-Inspector General of Registration. He issued a three-page order, cancelling the mutation of the 3.53 acre Shikhopur plot. The state government set the order aside within 24 hours. An official clarification on October 16 described his order as irregular, since neither party was given the opportunity to present their case.
Khemka says there wasn't any need for parties to present their case as there was never any dispute on facts. "The government knows mutation can be done afresh by a competent revenue officer," he says. He had set aside the mutation as it was done by Gurgaon's assistant consolidation officer, who is not competent to effect mutations.
Born into a middle-class Marwari family in Kolkata where his father Shanker Lal Khemka worked as an accountant in the Alliance Jute Mill, Khemka was a top student at IIT, Kharagpur. He completed a PhD in computer science in 1990 from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, before cracking the All India Civil Services Exam a year later.
Khemka and his family have lived since 1997 in a spartan two-bedroom home within the Haryana government's transit quarters in Chandigarh. This despite being promoted to the senior rank of a financial commissioner in 2007, making him eligible for a big bungalow. His study has three pieces of steel-tube furniture, a bed and a rusty Godrej-style cupboard.
On October 14, a day before he signed the order setting aside the Vadra-DLF transaction he received a number of phone calls warning of dire consequences for him and his family. Khemka says the calls, which also warned of a supari (contract) to kill him, are "worrying". The family gets no protection, and his older son, who is not yet 18, travels frequently between Chandigarh and his law college in south India. Haryana's Chief Secretary P.K. Chaudhary ignored the officer's request for security.
The pressure is telling on him. At least twice during the marathon TV debates on October 16, Khemka broke down, perhaps pained by the Congress camp's allegations that questioned his integrity; or possibly overcome by the outpouring of public support flooding the social networks. He is not afraid because he is in the right, he says. "But if there is a price to be paid despite that, I'll take it as my destiny."
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