The petition Chhattisgarh planned and then dropped
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The U-turn came two days later. The cabinet issued an order dated April 28 allotting 1,804.67 acres of government land to Balco, the aluminium giant whose plant in Korba spans over 2,700 acres. Of the 1,804.67 acres government land, 1,136 acres was to be allotted after obtaining forest clearance at Rs 200 per acre and the remaining 668.67 acres at current rates.
Over the years, Balco had been pressing for an out-of-court settlement. But with senior government officers opposing it, the government prepared to file an SLP — until it backtracked.
It is this U-turn that is now being probed by a Raipur court. Congress leader Bhupesh Baghel has alleged that Chief Minister Raman Singh conspired with then chief secretary P Joy Ommen, who had issued the April 28 order, and Balco CEO Gunjan Gupta and ended up causing a loss of Rs 140 crore to the exchequer.
The Congress petition, admitted by the court on Wednesday, charges the three under sections 420, 467, 120B of IPC and 13(1)D and 13(2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act. The court dismissed Baghel's demand for getting the matter probed by the corruption bureau and decided to investigate itself under section 200 of the CrPC.
This is the first time Raman Singh faces a corruption probe in his nine years as chief minister. The Congress had earlier approached the governor for sanction to prosecute Singh but he apparently did not respond and the party moved the court.
Acre by acre
In 1968, the government of undivided Madhya Pradesh gave Balco advance possession of 338 acres at Rs 200 an acre. The company asked for 1,616 acres and the Bilaspur collector proposed that 1,136 acres be allotted at Rs 200 an acre, with the rider that the rate was not final — the government could change it later. The collector asked the company to pay only if it accepted this. Balco did so. "Advance possession" did not mean actual allotment.
Balco went on to acquire adjoining land, apparently without government permission. Its records show that by 1976 it had taken over 2,613 acres, including private, government and forest land.
In 1993, the MP government proposed to regularise 338 acres of the land with Balco at Rs 1,600 per acre plus Rs 160 per acre lease rent. Balco found it high and moved the High Court.
Meanwhile, the Congress's Baghel and some NGOs moved the Supreme Court accusing the company of illegal acquisition and construction on forested land. The SC stayed all construction in the area.
In 2001, Balco was disinvested; Sterlite Industries bought a 51 per cent stake.
In November 2008, Balco approached the Raman Singh government for a compromise. The terms, government officials said, would cause the state a loss of Rs 190 crore. The revenue department consulted advocate general Prashant Mishra, who struck down the compromise and ruled out a settlement out of court since the matter was pending in both the Supreme Court and the High Court.
"Of the total requirement of 1,616 acres, Balco was allowed to possess 914.31 acre of private land + 338.66 acres of government land," Mishra wrote to the government on January 26, 2009. "Balco has not submitted any plan and it is not clear as to what stage the land requirement increased from 1,616 acres to 2,780.64 acres, which is the total area in possession of Balco [and] a large part of which is forest land… it may not be proper to consider the proposal of Balco."
In the courts
In February 2009, when the High Court ruled in favour of Balco, it noted, "Balco was allowed to set up its project long back without any objection by the state authorities". As the government went into appeal, Balco again proposed a settlement.
In February 2010, a division bench upheld the order. It said that for 1,136 acres Balco was liable to pay premium and rent as per 1968 rates, and on the remaining 668.67 acres it was to pay according to the rates prevailing at the time of possession.
The decision went against the caveat by the former Bilaspur collector that the government could alter the rate if it wished. On February 26, additional advocate general J K T Tilda wrote to the government that "the judgment is patently illegal" and marred by "non-application of mind". "It will be feasible for the state to file an SLP," he wrote.
Meanwhile, Balco sought a compromise. CEO Gupta wrote to the chief secretary on March 6, 2010. Quoting the High Court order that Balco is in legal possession of 1804.67 acres of government land, he suggested that the litigation be ended. The compromise formula he suggested included the rider that "the government will execute a 99-year land deed on 1804.67 acres of government land and no further litigation will be initiated on the issue".
Between February and April 2010, files moved between departments and senior officers turned down the compromise. On April 26 came the letter for filing an SLP; the U-turn came in a cabinet meeting. The cabinet order from chief secretary Ommen, also revenue secretary, read, "A decision has been taken that while 1,136 acres be allotted to Balco after obtaining forest clearance (at Rs 200 per acre), 668.7 acres be allotted at current rate."
The Congress says the U-turn, when officers were against a compromise, was part of a conspiracy between Balco and Raman Singh. It has sought Singh's resignation. The BJP has argued that the fact that the court has taken up the case does not confirm the chief minister's guilt.
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