On Wednesday, the Ludhiana court of sessions judge Gurbir Singh, discharged Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh and 30 other accused in the alleged Rs 1,144 crore Ludhiana City Centre Scam- the chargesheet for which was filed by Punjab vigilance bureau in December 2007, during the SAD-BJP regime.
However, the enquiry in the case was marked by Amarinder himself in September 2006, when he was the CM, and there were media reports of the irregularities in the multi-crore infrastructure project. It was the only corruption case pending against Amarinder Singh. In 2017, months after Congress stormed back to power in Punjab, vigilance filed closure report in the court, taking a sharp U-turn on its own 2007-probe and said 'there was no scam at all'. The Indian Express explains how the case progressed from 2006 to 2019.
What was Ludhiana City Centre project? How it turned into a 'scam'?
Started during Captain Amarinder Singh’s previous tenure as the Punjab Chief Minister in 2005-06, the multi-crore infrastructure project proposed to build a ‘City Centre’ including shopping mall, residential towers, helipad, multiplex etc on a site measuring 25-acre located on Pakhowal road of Ludhiana, which currently lies in ruins.
The project was proposed under the government's local body 'Ludhiana Improvement Trust' (LIT). In 2006, there were media reports alleging irregularities and financial bungling in the project. The matter rocked Vidhan Sabha following which Amarinder Singh marked an enquiry to the vigilance in September 2006 and it was initiated under then Director Vigilance CSR Reddy.
What happened after SAD-BJP came to power in Punjab polls 2007?
After SAD-BJP came to power in 2007, then director vigilance Reddy was transferred and the probe was taken over by Sumedh Singh Saini, then posted as the new Director vigilance (and former Punjab DGP). The probe was completed and an FIR registered on March 23, 2007 under the several sections of IPC and the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA), with then Ludhiana SSP vigilance Kanwarjit Singh Sandhu as its signatory.
The accused included Captain Amarinder Singh, his son Raninder Singh, son-in-law Raminder Singh and 33 others. Of 36 accused, five of them — Chaudhary Jagjit Singh (then local bodies minister), Paramjit Singh Sibia (then LIT chairman), Malkeet Kaur, Vijay Kumar Parti and Sunil Kumar Sharma died during the proceedings. There were 152 witnesses in the case.
What were the allegations against Captain Amarinder Singh, specifically?
The Vigilance Bureau in its inquiry alleged that Amarinder in connivance with LIT officials and others caused a loss of at least Rs 1,144 crore to the exchequer by ‘favouring’ private real estate company M/S Today Homes and awarding it the contract by ‘tampering bids’.
It was also alleged that the Congress party wanted the funding of at least Rs 100 crore from this project for 2007 polls and therefore the then CM and others received ‘bribe money’ of Rs 100 crore from owners of M/S Today Homes in return of awarding them City Centre contract.
In its first probe report on the basis of which SSP Kanwarjit Singh Sandhu filed the FIR, the Vigilance says, “Prima facie the wrongful loss to state exchequer and wrongful gain to M/S Today Homes is estimated to be between Rs 1,500 to 3,000 crores… A source report from an SP (VB), which has been put in sealed cover in the enquiry report has stated than an amount of over Rs 100 crores has been paid as bribe by M/S Today Homes to Captain Amarinder Singh, Sibia, Jagjit Singh and others for implementation and allotment of this illegal project…”
How did the case take a complete U-turn in 2017 after Congress came back to power with Captain as CM?
Just three days before results of the 2017 Punjab polls were announced on March 11, one of the accused Chetan Gupta filed an application with the Vigilance Bureau demanding ‘re-investigation’ in the case. Taking a surprisingly swift action on the application, VB conducted a ‘re-investigation’ and filed closure report (under Section 173(8) of CrPC) within five months, in the Ludhiana court of sessions judge Gurbir Singh on August 19, 2017.
Taking a complete U-turn on its own investigation, the vigilance in the closure report even went on to say that 'its own officials did not probe the case properly earlier' and in 'wake of new facts, findings and documents', it has been found that 'there was no scam at all' and that there is 'no proof of any scam, bungling or financial loss' and all allegations were 'fictional and doubtful'.
After the vigilance filed chargesheet in the court in 2007, how did the case progress?
The vigilance filed chargesheet in the case in December 2007 and since then till November 27, 2019- when the court discharged all the accused, the charges were not framed against of the accused in this case. For twelve years that court proceedings went on in the sessions court of Ludhiana, prosecution failed to get charges framed in the case.
Since August 2017, when the vigilance filed closure report in the case, claiming there was 'no scam at all', it had turned into a friendly match in the court, as the prosecution (vigilance) too was arguing in the favor of accused and urging the court to accept closure report.
On several occasions, defence cousels refused to argue or put forth any point, saying that they agree to what prosecution was saying. After 12 years, when the court discharged all the accused, the case was still at 'consideration of charge' stage when arguments were going on if charges against accused should be framed or not. But since vigilance had filed closure report in 2017, it had turned into one-sided affair.
So, had the closure report filed by vigilance gone unchallenged?
No, in fact there were four applications filed in Ludhiana court challenging the closure report but all were dismissed by the court. The first plea was filed by Simarjeet Singh Bains, the Lok Insaaf Party MLA on September 16, 2017, where he argued that “since it is a corruption case which is an offence against general public, I have the right to challenge closure report”. The application was dismissed on February 3, 2018 and the court said he had “no locus standi”.
Second challenge plea was by Sunil Kumar Dey, a Delhi-based architect: His application, filed application on November 3, 2017, on ground of sharing vital information was dismissed on February 3, 2018. The court said he had “no locus standi”.
Kanwarjit Singh Sandhu, former SSP Ludhiana Vigilance and the main investigating officer in the case, filed a plea on July 17, 2018 alleging that he was being threatened “to take a stand against his own investigation”, adding that he was “privy to certain facts”. But on August 30, 2018, the Ludhiana court ruled: “You are not the complainant, neither the informer, nor aggrieved so the application is dismissed”.
Former DGP Sumedh Singh Saini, on whose orders FIR was registered in 2007, filed a plea challenging the closure report in November 2018 and it too was dismissed on February 27, 2019. He had sought permission to submit in a “sealed envelope” to court some “sensitive material” related to the case. The court said: “The applicant (Saini) is neither an informant, nor an aggrieved. He was only supervising officer during investigation. The application is dismissed.”
What did the court observe while discharging all the accused on November 27, 2019?
The court accepted the closure report filed by the state's vigilance bureau and said that there wasn't an iota of evidence of any criminal offence against any of the accused. “There is no evidence of any bribe or any forgery. There is not an iota of evidence against any accused regarding any criminal offence. So, the cancellation report (filed by the Vigilance Bureau) is accepted and all accused are discharged,” said the judge while reading out the order summary.
Are there any other cases/petitions related to the scam, going on in other courts?
Yes, there are four related cases/petitions pending in the other courts. In a case ongoing in Delhi High Court, Today Homes is demanding compensation from LIT while the latter is fighting against it. In 2017, the sole arbitrator Justice RC Lahoti ruled in the favor of the company and ordered LIT to compensate them.
According to an LIT official, the award amount runs over Rs 1,000 crore including interest since 2006. It was challenged by LIT in the court. Later, the company also moved court against the company. Both petitions were clubbed and transferred to Delhi High Court in February 2019 on the orders of the Supreme Court.
Interestingly, while vigilance in closure report said that the company did not commit any fraud, LIT is taking an opposite stand in their case and saying that the company did a fraud and should not be compensated.
Three petitions are pending in Punjab and Haryana High Court. Former DGP Saini and MLA Bains moved High Court after lower court dismissed their applications. Meanwhile, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) which is probing money laundering charges since 2013 in this case and filed separate enforcement case information report (ECIR), is fighting in HC and seeking chargesheet copy of the case.
Can this verdict boost claims of private company Today Homes, to demand compensation from Punjab government?
According to the legal experts, yes it can help the company in Delhi High Court case. A senior advocate related to the case said, “Today’s verdict in which all accused including representatives of Today Homes have been discharged, is going to heavily facilitate and favour the private firm in Delhi High Court where they are fighting to get compensation from the LIT. Even if they deny to complete the project, they might get compensation in crores because trial court has discharged them and this verdict with strengthen their case.
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