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Rap on Modi minister

New Delhi, Jan. 23: The Supreme Court today pulled up Gujarat revenue minister Anandiben Patel, widely tipped to succeed chief minister Narendra Modi if he fulfils his national ambitions, for her decision to allot a 36-acre plot to a company in violation of rules.

Justices H.L. Gokhale and J. Chelameshwar said the decision, taken merely on the basis of a letter from the chief minister’s secretary despite opposition from department officials, was “arbitrary and bad in law”, but made no reference to Modi.

“She has simply brushed aside the objections of the secretaries merely because the chief minister’s secretary had written a letter and because she was the minister concerned. While overruling the opinion of the secretaries… the minister was expected to give some reasons in support of the view she was taking,” the court said, adding no sound reasoning was given.

The bench asked Alumina Refinery, which had been allotted the plot in Bhuj district, to pay the state government Rs 3.15 crore within three months and said the company could continue with its project only after paying the amount.

The state had initially allotted the land to Indigold Refinery for Rs 70 lakh, but the company couldn’t start operations and sold the plot to Alumina Refinery in 2009 for about Rs 1.20 crore.

According to the Gujarat tenancy law, Indigold should have returned the land so that the government could have conducted a fresh auction. The chief secretary and the revenue secretary had both opposed the sale transaction between the two companies, but Anandiben overruled their objections.

A petitioner, Deepak Babaria, had challenged the transaction in Gujarat High Court, saying it was illegal and had caused a loss to the exchequer because no fresh auction was held. But the high court dismissed the PIL on the ground that it had been filed in 2011 and Alumina had already made substantial investments since the 2009 transaction. Babaria then moved the apex court.

The top court upheld the PIL, saying the collector, under Section 89A of the Tenancy Act, should have reclaimed the land after Indigold expressed its inability to commence operations.

The bench said while it was a “case of a loss of a few crores” for the exchequer, sale of land for industrial purposes is controlled by statutory provisions and the state was “bound to act as per the requirements” of the statute. “The minister’s direction as seen from the record clearly indicates an arbitrary exercise of power.”

The court said ministers were not expected to act in such a manner and, therefore, “this particular route through the corridors of the ministry, contrary to the statute, cannot be approved”.