The trials and tribulations of Ashok Khemka and Sanjiv Chaturvedi expose Haryana’s intolerance of upright bureaucrats
When Haryana’s top land registration official, Ashok Khemka, decided to probe Robert Vadra’s land deals in the State, he perhaps never anticipated the kind of animosity that his actions against Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law would generate within the government. Or, maybe he did, but went ahead nevertheless, hoping that a proactive media would serve as his force multiplier and help him take on the opposition. In all the 40-odd postings that he has had so far, Mr. Khemka never got the kind of wild publicity that his investigation of Robert Vadra’s property empire did. Conversely, never before did he encounter the almost immediate threatening calls and complaints against him from obscure employees and their relatives, against whom he had initiated disciplinary action years ago. He believes the complaints are motivated and at the behest of ‘vested interests’ who have been harmed by his actions.
Because before Mr. Khemka, there was Sanjiv Chaturvedi in Haryana. An officer of the Indian Forest Service (IFS), his saga of unearthing scams in every place of posting and the inevitable repercussions has become a case study in leading officer-training academies of the country. Today he is a sought after speaker on ‘Anti-corruption Strategies’ for probationers at the IAS, IPS and IFS training academies. But some of the cases registered against him, after he began taking action against questionable activities in the Haryana Forest Department, continue to dog him.
Mr. Chaturvedi started out with the 2nd rank in the all-India IFS examination and two special medals for excellence in training. He ran into trouble in his first posting in 2005, in Kurukshetra, when he objected to the digging of a canal and destruction of habitat in the Saraswati Wildlife Sanctuary, because a Supreme Court ruling of 2000 bans construction of canals inside a sanctuary without its permission. He was given a severe warning and posted out. At his next posting, in Fatehabad, he stopped the flow of public funds to a herbal park being established on private land belonging to an associate of the then State Forest Minister. He was suspended in August 2007 for insubordination and also served a charge sheet for dismissal from service. This was reversed five months later, by a Presidential order that termed the grounds for his suspension as “unjustified.”
In 2009, Mr. Chaturvedi went on to expose large-scale bungling in plantation projects funded by the Centre and international agencies in Jhajjar and Hissar divisions. On the basis of his evidence, around 40 field staff were chargesheeted and since the scandal broke in the midst of the 2009 Lok Sabha election campaign, Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s son, Deepender Singh Hooda, in whose constituency Jhajjar falls, was hugely embarrassed.
Mr. Chaturvedi was again chargesheeted but was cleared by a rare intervention by the President in January 2011. And on the recommendations of the CBI and the CVC, the Ministry of Environment and Forests asked the Haryana government to hand over the matter to the CBI for investigation. This has not been done so far.
However, five months after Mr. Chaturvedi suspended the foresters, one of them, a range officer named Sanjiv Tomar, was found dead at his home in Jhajjar. The police lodged a case against Mr. Chaturvedi for abetting suicide, even though Tomar’s father, Ram Pal Tomar, in his complaint before the police had recorded that his son had died due to other reasons. An internal police inquiry too found no evidence to implicate Mr. Chaturvedi but the inquiry report was not filed before the trial court. In January, at around the time that the Centre recommended a CBI enquiry into the Jhajjar fake plantations, Ram Pal Tomar did an about turn and stated before the IG of Police, Rohtak that his son had committed suicide because he had been suspended by Mr. Chaturvedi. The case was reopened.
Mr. Chaturvedi was, meanwhile, cleared for Central deputation, but the State government did not relieve him on the ground that criminal cases were pending against him. He was relieved by the Central government against the wishes of the Haryana government, and in June took over as the Chief Vigilance Officer of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences at Delhi.
There are six Vigilance enquiries and police cases that he is still battling in Haryana. With his case as a precedent, the perception that the Haryana government is harsh on whistleblowers has strengthened.
It also explains why Mr. Khemka, when asked whether he would like the government to provide him security against the threats that he is getting, replied, “I do not need security, but would like a fair and quick investigation into these threats and an in-depth probe to find out if a conspiracy is being hatched against me by instigating people to lodge complaints.”
In the past few days, Mr. Khemka has received two threatening calls from Umed Singh, a former employee of the Haryana Housing Board who was dismissed by him in 2006 when he was administrator of the Board. On his complaint, the police arrested Umed Singh from Gurgaon. The man is a history-sheeter who was penalised once before for beating up an executive engineer. Mr. Khemka’s own order of 2006, dismissing him from service, sheds more light on the clout and reach of the man. “Three senior officers of the board made excuses to avoid conducting an inquiry against Umed Singh due to his ill-reputation. One of them even preferred to pay a minor penalty for not doing the assigned duty of conducting an inquiry against Umed rather than being a party to record inquiry against him… There is mortal fear of Umed among senior supervisory officers of the board due to his volatile propensity.” His order also noted, “It is unlikely that any officer of the board would tender evidence against Umed due to his infamy of misbehaving and assaulting senior officers at the slightest pretext and then getting away with it”.
Soon after that, a woman complained to the DGP that her husband Jaswant Singh, who had gone missing five years ago after losing his mental balance, had done so because he was dismissed by Mr. Khemka from the Haryana Housing Board. Her unemployed son, Nitin, followed it up with a press conference in a posh hotel run by the Haryana Tourism Development Corporation, where he repeated these allegations.
Mr. Khemka is also facing the ire of his IAS fraternity, as many of them feel that he has violated the rules of conduct that prevent an officer from talking to the media about government action and policy. The other grouse of his superiors is that his action of ordering the cancellation of Robert Vadra’s mutation after transfer orders had been served on him was morally incorrect.
The jury is still out on both these questions, even as it raises some more. How did the media, for instance, become an essential weapon in the arsenal of the present day muckraker? Is it because the inbuilt mechanisms within the government machinery that enable an officer to do his or her job with integrity have become rusted and don’t work anymore? In Haryana, the answer is mostly in the affirmative.
Keywords: Robert Vadra land deals, Ashok Khemka, whistleblowers, Indian Forest Service officer, IFS officer, Chief Vigilance Officer, Sonia Gandhi, Ministry of Environment and Forests, CBI investigation