New Delhi: In the very public tussle between the Narendra Modi government and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal over how the national capital should be administered, Delhi Chief Secretary Naresh Kumar is used to being on the frontlines.
He was in the news earlier this year, for sending files directly to lieutenant governor VK Saxena on service matters, bypassing the Delhi government, as per allegations levelled by AAP.
But now a fresh dispute over the enhanced valuation of a plot of land being acquired by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) for the Dwarka Expressway raises questions over how chief secretary Naresh Kumar may have handled the matter.
The plot in question was to be acquired from two Delhi businessmen, one of whom is related by marriage to the promoter of a realty firm where Naresh Kumar’s son works.
Though concerns have been raised about a potential conflict of interest, the chief secretary denies any wrongdoing.
The case in question
In May this year, the district magistrate (DM) of south-west Delhi awarded Rs 353 crore as compensation to two individuals for 19 acres of land in Bamnoli village for a road project – at the rate of Rs 18.54 crore per acre.
The land was to be acquired for NHAI’s Dwarka Expressway.
In doing so, DM Hemant Kumar overturned a 2018 decision by the adjudicating authority, the additional district magistrate, granting compensation of Rs 41.52 crore for the same parcel of land based on a valuation of Rs 53 lakh per acre.
The grounds cited to justify a whopping nine-fold increase in compensation was that the land was now deemed to be a low-density residential area, and not agricultural as was initially made out to be. Therefore, it needed to be compensated at a higher rate.
The beneficiaries of the hiked compensation were Subhash Chand Kathuria and his brother, Vinod Kathuria. Subhash Kathuria happens to be the father-in-law of Aman Sarin, who is the promoter of a realty firm, Anantraj Limited.
Sarin, in turn, has close business links with Karan Chauhan, son of Delhi chief secretary Naresh Kumar, and it is this association which has triggered questions over a potential conflict of interest in the matter.
The compensation was hiked on May 15, 2023 and the NHAI took note almost immediately. The DM’s decision would lead to huge cost overruns on other road projects, the NHAI said, as it moved the Delhi high court.
The problem of cost overruns has been haunting NHAI. A recent CAG audit of the Dwarka Expressway saw the government auditor flagging the huge overrun from the approved amount of Rs 18.2 crore per kilometre rising multi-fold to nearly Rs 251 crore per km, or 14-times, within a very short span of time.
Karan Chauhan and Anant Raj Ltd
Karan Chauhan, son of the Delhi chief secretary, is an employee of Anantraj Ltd, in addition to being a director in three other companies, some of which have links to Anantraj.
A spokesperson for the Anantraj Limited group told The Wire, “Karan is our employee since 01st June 2019 like any other employee of our Company and is working in the field of development of data centres which we are developing. We appoint some employees as Directors, as per policy and legal requirements.”
But the web of connections is unusual for a mere employer-employee relationship.
Not only do Chauhan’s companies and Anantraj Ltd and its various verticals have common directors, but the postal address in the case of some of these companies is the same as that of the realty firm, as is the email address.
For instance, Big Town Properties Pvt Ltd is a company with Chauhan as a director. As per ROC records, the registered email address is of Manoj Pahwa, an employee who has been company secretary to the Anantraj group since 1993.
Manoj Kumar is a director at Big Town Properties, as is Narayan Singh Rajpoot. As senior GM (operations), Rajpoot is a key team member of Anantraj Limited in addition to being director at several other Anantraj group verticals.
Puneet Kumar Bajpai is also a director at Big Town Properties as well as a director at other Anantraj group verticals.
The postal address for Big Town Properties is the same as that of many Anantraj group firms located at the company’s Manesar address.
Since February 2022, Karan Chauhan has also been a director at ES Health Care Private Limited. The email address provided while setting up this company belongs to the Anantraj group domain.
Anish Sarin, other than being a promoter of Anantraj Limited, is the co-founder of Metamix Tech. Karan Chauhan is also listed as the founder of this company. The email address is one which several Anantraj verticals share.
Chief secretary says son ‘not dependent on me’
Naresh Kumar told The Wire, “My son Sh. Karan Chauhan works with a listed public limited company Anant Raj Housing Ltd. since June 2019. He is also not dependent on me. Neither I know about the relationship between Directors of Anant Raj Housing Ltd. with Sh. Subhash Kathuria, nor there was any occasion by which I would have known about the same.”
The Wire has reached out to Karan Chauhan. The copy will be updated if he responds.
Suspending the DM
The chief secretary has been at pains to distance himself from the entire affair. But questions about his role in not declaring the potential conflict of interest when NHAI raised an alarm in the summer remain.
Also, sources say that once NHAI raised the alarm, the matter should have rested there because the DM was acting in his judicial capacity and his decision was anyway being challenged in court. Instead, the chief secretary recommended action against the DM, which set in motion a chain of events by other government departments which led to the latter’s transfer away from Delhi.
If the DM’s decision to raise compensation was “suspect”, as his immediate superior, the divisional commissioner, made it out to be, then the matter should have gone to the National Capital Civil Services Authority (NCSSA) headed by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.
By September 19, the file was sent back to the chief secretary by LG Saxena.
The DM was suspended soon after, and a CBI probe ordered on October 21.
Surprisingly, Hemant Kumar was also transferred out to the Andaman Islands. Delhi government sources say they suspect the reason Hemant Kumar was transferred out was that the NCCSA could have summoned the files and Kejriwal could have had a say in the matter.
“By shifting him to a full Union Territory under the control of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the Union government has ensured that the heat is off the officer,” said a Delhi government source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
On his part, Naresh Kumar says it was the MHA which decided to transfer Hemant Kumar and that he had “no role.”
The Wire is not able to independently confirm the reasons for moving the suspended former DM from Delhi to the Andamans.
Meanwhile, pursuant to the matter in court in the NHAI vs Subhash Chand Kathuriya case, the Delhi high court on October 31 cancelled the DM’s order to raise compensation.
Shadow on CBI Inquiry?
The Central Bureau of Investigation is now looking into the matter but sources in the Delhi government are asking how impartial the probe will be given the potential conflict of interest.
The chief secretary insists there is no conflict. “It seems that your query has been drafted in a manner to sling mud on me on behalf of the actual delinquent officer who did this misconduct,” Naresh Kumar told The Wire. Are you siding with the officer who passed such an order?”
Naresh Kumar added, “It seems that some disgruntled elements against whom action has been taken/is being taken, including related with Delhi Excise Scam and Sheesh Mahal matter, are trying to circulate false and fabricated complaints.”
He said, “Since you haven’t shared any complaint(s), I request you to share such complaint(s) so that replies to the same be provided to you, and actions as per law may be taken against such disgruntled elements who made such false and motivated complaint(s)…In case of publication of factually incorrect information, I reserve my rights to take appropriate action.”
Hemant Kumar, the former DM who was transferred, has yet to respond to The Wire’s queries. His response will be incorporated if and when he responds.
This article was first published on The Wire.