Editor’s note: This is the follow-up to the story “Heirs of Raisina” which appeared in the July 2012 issue of Fountain Ink. The story tracks the history of the original inhabitants of New Delhi, the injustice meted out by the British, and the actions of subsequent governments to residents of this region, who suffered violence and forced displaced, and were rendered nomads.

On February 20, the new and non-star team of anti-corruption and social activist Anna Hazare sat in a huddle at Delhi’s Maharashtra Sadan. They were planning the two-day agitation on February 23 and 24 at Ramlila Maidan, where Hazare’s superstar disciple, Arvind Kejriwal, took the oath as Chief Minister of Delhi on February 14. The committee was missing both the superstar and his supposed nemesis, Kiran Bedi, who made their bones in the India Against Corruption campaign helmed by Hazare.

The new agitation opposes the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s land acquisition ordinance which substantially weakens the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. Activists like Medha Patkar have joined the campaign, putting Prime Minister Narendra Modi under pressure after it caved to the demands of the corporate world and construction giants.

Hazare’s new team also has an old hand in land acquisition fighter Sajjan Singh, who has been waging a lone, almost unheard fight for the last decade. Neither the electronic nor the print media in English or Hindi has taken much notice of his dogged crusade against the construction major: DLF. This rose farmer from Sonepat, who sat in on the meeting, is trying to draw attention to his struggle for the recognition of a major chunk of the land in New Delhi as the property of his ancestors.

Singh spent more than 11 years trying to trace the compensation owed to his family, which was due in 1911-1912 when the British acquired land for New Delhi. He is trying to save a portion of the land that originally belonged to his ancestors, and is now “in dispute”, from DLF’s clutches.

Sajjan Singh’s travails are a commentary on the nexus between builders, bureaucrats and politicians. His struggle has been fraught with bureaucratic arm-twisting, veiled threats, monetary offers from politicians, and entrenched corruption in the highest echelons of government. Everyone seems to be hand-in-glove with the real estate giant which the BJP attacked while it was in Opposition in the Lok Sabha.

Sajjan Singh has a personal interest in the new land acquisition Act, an initiative of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime which became law on January 1, 2014. It came after years of struggle by activists, farmers unions and organisations, but was criticised heavily by industry for making land acquisition more difficult. One of its provisions could be the saviour he has been looking for.

***The BJP government, in order to please industry—the top item on its agenda—has brought an ordinance that substantially expands the list of projects exempt from processes such as the consent of 70 per cent of landowners and a Social Impact Assessment. This would make acquisition easier and proof against legal challenges in court.

Sajjan Singh’s ancestors were among the 300 families from the villages of Raisina and Malcha, now occupied by Rashtrapati Bhavan, various embassies, and state houses like Karnataka Bhavan and Uttar Pradesh Bhavan on Sardar Patel Marg, which runs adjacent to the boundary of erstwhile Viceroy House. In probably the first protest against forcible acquisition of farm land in the country, 33 people from these two villages were killed as the British used cannons and armed soldiers to evict them from home and land.

While the ancestors ran away and settled in what is today Haryana’s Sonepat district, the “legal” compensation due in lieu of their land was not paid to a majority of families, even 104 years after it was acquired. Sajjan Singh has been fighting for the past 10 years and the case is stuck in the judicial system despite senior lawyers like Ram Jethmalani taking a keen interest.

Jethmalani even wrote to Kamal Nath, former Union Minister for Urban Development, on the case, saying no attention was paid to the dispossessed residents and their descendants. He also said it was unfair that “land acquired for public purposes after Independence is being used for commercial purposes for the profit of private parties”.

But the fight to save a portion of this land began barely a year ago, when the ordinance came into effect.

Based on land records that Sajjan Singh managed to access through RTIs filed with various departments in Delhi, his share of the land that belonged to his great-grandfather came to nearly 115 bighas (approximately 20 acres), falling under Malcha village along present-day Sardar Patel Marg, earlier known as Kitchener Road.

However, with the division of land impossible, he is one of only two people representing his extended family fighting for the right to his ancestor Shadi Singh’s lands. A portion of that land is in a fresh dispute because the DLF has been in possession of it for over a decade now. While not all of the land owned by the real estate giant falls under the share of Sajjan Singh’s family, nearly half of it belongs to them, Singh says.

This 22.9 acre portion—present day address Block 42, Keventer Lane, Sardar Patel Marg—was part of the land leased by the Raj government to a Swedish entrepreneur, Edward Keventer, who set up a dairy farm. The land was to be used only for that purpose.

This 22.9 acre portion—present day address Block 42, Keventer Lane, Sardar Patel Marg—was part of the land leased by the Raj government to a Swedish entrepreneur, Edward Keventer, who set up a dairy farm. The land was to be used only for that purpose.

Keventer formed his company in the 1890s and it was acquired by industrialist R. K. Dalmia after Independence. While the lease was initially for three years, it was extended several times and the land stayed with the family. They later formed Keventer Agro Ltd., which went through several changes of management before it became the Edward Keventer (Successors) Private Limited (EKSPL), acquired by DLF in a private deal about 11 years back. The land use pattern as per records was still classified as dairy land.

DLF decided to build high-rise flats on this now prime property; it falls in the high security zone adjacent to Rashtrapati Bhavan. It applied to the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) and its Land and Development Office (L&DO) for land use conversion to residential.

However, serious objections were raised by Rashtrapati Bhavan and the central government against the conversion and subsequent construction of commercial flats on the property. The major objection, among others, was that while the identities of the people who own/live in the said flats can be verified, it will be difficult to trace/verify the identities of visitors, which poses a major risk since the area lies right across the barricaded Rashtrapati Bhavan compound. Only Sardar Patel Marg separates them.

However, the urban development ministry in the UPA regime permitted DLF to go ahead with the construction of four-storey flats on the property. But the L&DO still had objections and did not clear the file despite ministry pressure, insiders said on condition of anonymity. DLF went to court against it.

While the Delhi High Court ruled in favour of EKSPL in 2011, the Centre through advocate Arjun Harkauli rushed in an appeal citing security fears, and obtained a stay from a division bench comprising Justices Dipak Misra and Sanjiv Khanna, who pointed out in their order that the Centre’s apprehensions that the proposed flats may prove to be a security threat was never considered by the L&DO earlier and that it was an aspect that needs to be dealt with.

The Centre opposed any plans for residential flats in the high security zone area, saying it was not just a security risk but might also turn out to be an eyesore. In its affidavit, the Centre said the single judge’s order on conversion should be rescinded, and informed the high court that it had reached the conclusion after elaborate inputs from various agencies, including the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), the home ministry, and the President’s Secretariat.

For its part, EKSPL argued that it had owned the land through a perpetual lease since 1942 and that it had also deposited land conversion charges of Rs.1,200 crore with the government, but was forced to move court when its application with the L&DO brought no relief.

The Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), however, smelled foul play in the way permissions had been granted to EKSPL by MoUD officials and filed a complaint with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for a probe in the matter. “Some sources from within the MoUD informed the CVC that huge sums of money had been paid to various officials to ensure that the MoUD gave its nod to the project,” a ministry official who is privy to the details of the DLF case said, on condition of anonymity. The CBI initiated a preliminary enquiry against unknown MoUD officials in July 2013.

In March 2014, however, it closed the probe claiming there was no ground to file a case. “There was no quid pro quo in the usage of that land. It did not lead to any incriminating material to register a case in this regard,” a CBI spokesperson had said during a press conference.

This virtually cleared the way for DLF and its subsidiary to go ahead with construction on the land, part of which belongs to Sajjan Singh and his extended family, who were never compensated for the acquisition.

Fountain Ink in an email asked DLF questions on its stand on Sajjan Singh’s claim, the development of the property so far, and the new ordinance and what it means. There has been no response so far.

Sajjan Singh was shocked when he heard about the CBI decision. Under the new Act, any land that is not utilised for at least five years after acquisition is to be returned to the landowner. “This simply meant that the land which should actually be returned to my family was given away to the DLF because the CBI thought it right. My case was still in court so this permission should be void, as the law states the land should be returned to my family,” he says.

Singh decided to go into the details of the investigations by the CBI and/or various other departments. He filed RTIs with the home ministry, MoUD, CBI, government of Delhi, L&DO and the Delhi police, starting May 2014. What followed was what happens with RTIs ever since the Act came into effect in 2005. Most departments either transferred the applications to other departments, or simply did not reply.

The Delhi police, for example, forwarded the file to the Public Information Officer (PIO) of New Delhi district, who in turn replied that the matter did not fall in the district—a blatant lie. Singh filed an objection and an appeal against the reply but that led to another transfer of the application: this time to the revenue department of Delhi.

Singh filed RTIs and complaints with the Delhi chief minister’s office in 2012 on his case but his application suffered the same fate—it was sent to the Delhi Development Authority, where it languished for several months.

On September 9 last year, the Delhi government informed Singh that it did not have the information he had requested in the RTI. The application had been filed more than a month earlier but the sub-divisional magistrate, Chanakyapuri, claimed it had been received only that day. The L&DO, on its part, directed Singh to the CBI, IB and Delhi police, and transferred the application to the three organisations in October. These organisations did not reply either.

Singh filed many appeals before the appellate authorities of these departments but to no avail. “Clearly, these departments had either not been consulted during the investigation (of DLF’s case) or just did not want to divulge the information. In both cases, officials clearly connived with the builder to allow him to construct on the land,” he claims.

Santosh Rastogi, head and PIO of the anti-corruption branch of the CBI, in a letter dated September 26, 2014, said, “…Vide notification No F. No. 1/3/2011 IR dated 9.6.2011 of the Government of India, the Central Bureau of Investigation has been put under the SI No 23 of the Second Schedule to the Right to Information Act, 2005 and as such this office is exempted from the purview of the RTI Act, 2005.”

This reply contradicts the provisions of the RTI Act. Section 24 says nothing in the Act will apply to exempted organisations provided the “information” sought by an application pertaining to allegations of corruption is not excluded under it. “Information” is defined as “any material in any form held by or under the control” of a public authority and as per the definition, it may not necessarily be about the organisation from which the information was sought.

This clearly means that in investigations of corruption, the CBI has a duty to furnish the information but it willfully refused to do so.

Singh then filed an appeal with the CBI appellate authority. He did get a reply but it reiterated the same point, though it took into account the fact that the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) had directed it to disclose all information on corruption cases. It came up with the excuse that the CIC had agreed with the CBI’s position that it was exempt from revealing information in all cases of corruption “whether related to CBI or otherwise” till August 2012 when the CIC directed otherwise. The agency, in a bid to save face in the midst of corruption charges in several cases, then approached the Delhi High Court against the CIC’s order. The appellate authority told Singh the matter stood “disposed of” since the case was sub judice.

Ten days later, the home ministry, in its reply to Singh’s application, also cited clause 24(1) of the RTI Act and exempted itself from furnishing information.

In its submissions before the high court since then, the CBI has stated it can only share information pertaining to allegations of corruption against its own officials and not the graft cases probed by it.

Before all this, Sajjan Singh approached Aditya Arya, who retired as DGP of the Delhi Home Guard in 2013. Singh met Arya at the Ramakrishna Mission in Delhi. Arya was instrumental in informing Singh about the compensation due to his family and guiding him on the matter. Arya was posted as a special commissioner at Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2009 when the matter of DLF wanting to construct flats adjacent to it was in court and so was familiar with the case.

In March last year, Arya tried to help Singh by putting him through to officials in charge of the case relating to corruption charges against MoUD officials. He called Rupak Kumar Dutta, additional director general (ADG) of the CBI who has since been named head of the team investigating the 2G spectrum scam.

“He (Dutta) was my batchmate and so I called him to discuss Sajjan’s case,” Arya says. When told that the land on which DLF was planning to build originally belonged to people of erstwhile Malcha village who had still not received their compensation, Dutta said he would help Singh and asked him to meet him at his office.

Singh visited Dutta on March 6, 2014 to hand over copies of documents that prove his claims over the land in question. On March 13, Arya called Dutta and told him that Santosh Rastogi, who later signed the CBI’s reply to Singh on his RTI queries, was in charge of the case. Rastogi in turn noted Singh’s number and assured him that an officer would call him soon.

Singh received a call from an officer called Anuj Arya who asked to meet him at the CBI headquarters at CGO Complex in Delhi on March 24.

The investigating officer of the MoUD case, Vipul Sharma, met Singh and a friend of his at the CBI headquarters, where Singh handed over another copy of the documents he had given to Dutta earlier. During the meeting, Singh says, Sharma said DLF’s case had no discrepancies. Singh says he requested Sharma to go through his documents and then decide.

Around the same time, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy wrote a letter to President Pranab Mukherjee, alleging that MoUD was planning to give DLF permission to build eight-storey flats on the said land whereas security parameters mandated only four-storey flats in the area. Swamy also alleged high levels of corruption in the MoUD since the charges for conversion paid by the DLF—Rs.1,200 crore—was much lower than the circle rates in 2012, when the courts gave permission. He claimed that as per the new calculations, the charges would come to around Rs.10,000 crore.

No action followed on the issue.

While Singh was filing his RTIs, he was helped by BJP politicians who initially promised to take up the matter as soon as they came to power. Singh claims he met Home Minister Rajnath Singh too, who promised full cooperation. The level of cooperation, from the bureaucracy as well as the politicians, became evident in the months to come.

Sajjan Singh was introduced to Surjit Singh from Palwal, Haryana who had helped in the fight against DLF over land disputes in Gurgaon and other parts of the state for many years. “A well-wisher called and gave me his number. We spoke on the phone a few times before meeting,” says Sajjan Singh. They met several times, with Surjit offering Sajjan political help.

He offered to fix a deal with some influential people in the BJP and asked for a meeting to be set up. But he insisted that Sajjan Singh come alone to the location, which would be revealed only a few hours before the meeting. “He called me three times to insist that I travel alone from my house to the location,” Sajjan Singh says. While he did get suspicious, he says he consulted Aditya Arya before going ahead and decided to listen to what people would have to say.

The meeting was fixed for November 20, 2014. Sajjan Singh was asked to reach Rajendra Place metro station, from where he was taken to a nearby guest house at about 3.30 p.m. Two people were waiting there. One was Rajeev Srivastava, ex-member of the BJP’s national working committee whom Sajjan Singh had met twice earlier, once at the BJP office in Delhi. The other introduced himself as Deepak Pandya, a retired IAS officer (1986 batch) who had been in charge of prime minister Narendra Modi’s poll campaign from Vadodara for the Lok Sabha. He is national executive member of BJP’s Rashtriya Vyapar Prakosth. “I knew the other two but did not know him,” says Sajjan Singh.

The meeting went on till late night. Rajeev Srivastava told Sajjan Singh that the present government did not want to act against corporate houses, especially those like DLF that had links to the Congress. It did not want to get caught in political thickets. “They tried to persuade me to settle for a deal that would allow the government to go ahead with its plan to allow DLF to build the flats.”

Singh had carried copies of all the documents, which were studied by the people present there. They also asked him the present market rate for the land, which is around Rs.90,000 crore at present. “They said it would not be possible for the government to cough up such an amount, to which I said that I was ready to accept five times the area of my land in any other part of the country. I can accept that as justice to my family since the government would at least recognise that my ancestors owned this land.”

Deepak Pandya also had a long telephone conversation with Arya during the meeting, after which he said the case was genuine and had to be addressed soon. Speaking to me over the phone from Vadodara, Pandya said, “I understand the case is genuine but there is still the government’s side on whether this was a mistake on their part or not.” He denied offering any help to Sajjan Singh. “It can only be done when a person wants it. We will need to sit face-to-face with him many times before something concrete can be done.”

Sajjan Singh, however, claims that Pandya and Srivastava assured him that they would work out a deal for him within three or four days and get back to him. No call from either of the two has been made since, but Surjit Singh has called many times and offered a portion of land worth Rs.10 crore “for the time being” at an upcoming commercial property in Greater Noida.

Sajjan Singh sensed the delay was because the BJP had figured out they could not afford to compensate or engage with him financially and force him to give up his claim on the land owned by his family. He also stopped talking to Surjit Singh, who he claims has come up with various new offers. He also offered to set up a meeting with a senior minister in the BJP government to “fix a deal” that would help him, Singh says.

So Sajjan Singh decided to pursue his case with renewed vigour in the Delhi High Court. He approached senior Supreme Court advocate Dr Surat Singh to fight the case. A deal on sharing the eventual compensation was fixed and a case was filed on December 23, 2014.

During the hearing, the bench of Justices B. D. Ahmed and I. S. Mehta asked what the compensation amount for Sajjan Singh would come up to, to which the counsel said it had been calculated at Rs.15,000 crore. The high court bench then commented that that the amount was too large for the government, in which case the counsel argued that the land be returned to its owners. The court then issued notices to the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, the Land and Building Department, and the MoUD, asking them why the deal should not be declared null and void with immediate effect. The next hearing has been fixed for March 23.

Six days after the notices were issued to various government departments, the BJP government brought a new ordinance with changes to the Land Acquisition Act, which was brought into effect on December 29. Apart from the major issues the activists are highlighting, the ordinance relaxes the period of time after which a piece of unutilised acquired land must be returned to its original owner, by amending Section 101. While the original law said if acquired land is not utilised after five years, it should be returned, the ordinance has amended the provision from a “period of five years” to a “period specified for setting up of any project or for five years, whichever is later”.

This means an entity with unutilised acquired land can keep it for the period it specifies for setting up the project, even if it is much more than five years.

The provisions in the Act are enough to make sure their compensation is paid to them or their land returned.

Sajjan Singh’s lawyer Surat Singh says that since the case was filed before the ordinance came into effect, Sajjan Singh’s claims cannot be challenged and that the decision will eventually go in his favour. “The provisions in the Act are enough to make sure their compensation is paid to them or their land returned,” he says.

Sajjan Singh, meanwhile, campaigned heavily for the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi during the recent elections and also attended the swearing-in ceremony of Arvind Kejriwal at Ramlila Maidan. At the time of writing this story, he was working tirelessly despite a running fever, to make sure that Anna Hazare’s protest against the changes to the land acquisition Act is a huge success.