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Lawyer steps back in high-profile Priyanka Vadra ‘land purchase case’, RTI activist requests HC to appoint Amicus Curiae

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SHIMLA- Fabrications of laws and governmental mechanism to favor high-profile VVIPs and their relatives, as depicted in Bollywood films, aren’t altogether fictitious after all. The inspiration comes from routine socio-economic realities prevailing in India. In a similar case, the justice seems to be at stake in controversial Priyanka Vadra Land Purchase deal as the Right to Information Activist (RTI) Dev Ashish Bhattacharya, at a critical stage of arguments, is deserted by his lawyer who was earlier advocating him in High Court of Himachal Pradesh.

The lawyer had requested to not mention the reason why he can’t fight this case any further. The lawyers to which the activist approached were reluctant in taking up the case  against the privileged VVIP party – daughter of Congress President Sonia Gandhi and wife of Robert Vadra.  Serious controversies relating to property deals surround Mr. Vadra as well.

Video: All About Priyanka Vadra ‘Shimla Land Purchase Case (in Chronological Order)

Correction: Priyanka had purchased three-and-half Bigha of land, not 4.45

Moreover, the court and the government appear to be in a hurry to dispose off the case as soon as possible. The HC had recently warned the activist that if he could not produce a counsel in the hearing scheduled for 22 December, 2016, the court will pass its judgment ex-parity.

Now, the RTI Activist, in a letter to the Chief Justice of HP High Court, has requested to appoint a senior and learned advocated as Amicus Curiae so that the arguments could be brought to a justified conclusion.

Since my learned counsels have left due to personal reasons and all other counsels whom I know have refused to stand for this case due to the reasons which cannot be made open for want of decency, therefore, you good self is requested to appoint a senior and seasoned Sr. Advocate as Amicus Curiae to help the court in adjudicating the issue of law which arose out of this case

, requested the activist in letter to the Chief Justice.

The activist further pleaded that the case involves a vital point of Public Interest. There are questions that must be answered.  Whether the file- notings and details relating to the approval granted to purchase land under section 118 of H.P. Land And Tenancy Act 1972 to any party may be disclosed or not under RTI Act 2005? 
This case also involves a point of law that must be adjudicated: whether the life of any SPG protectee may be threatened if the file notings and details of the processes of public activity involving the approval granted to purchase of land in Himachal Pradesh by invoking Section 118 are released?

If Information about SPG Protectees Can Be Released in Delhi, Then Why Not In Himachal?

Another logical argument that the activist raised is: why details in similar case involving SPG protectees can be obtained in another state but denied in Himachal?

If information is released in public domain under the provision of the RTI Act to one person, then can the same information be denied to another person?

The activist had pleaded in the court that similar nature of the information pertaining to the allotment of houses to the SPG protectees in Delhi was released under the RTI Act.

Then why the same nature of information is denied in Priyanka Vadra case through RTI in Himachal Pradesh?

,

asks the activist.

Hence, he added, the issue is of great Public interest and needs to be argued in the court by a senior and seasoned counsel. The justice is at stake and it would be a constitutional crisis if the case is left without proper adjudication.

I am sure that your goodself shall not allow this constitution crisis to continue any further which rendered me defenseless against the battery of Lawyers because the counsels at Shimla are showing their reluctance to take up my case

, said the activist in the letter.

On the basis of these facts, Mr. Bhattacharya has requested the court to appoint a Sr. Advocate as Amicus Curiae to place the arguments on his behalf.

Reportedly, in 2007, Priyanka had bought three-and-half Bigha land in Charabra in capital Shimla near Presidential retreat for Rs. 47 lakh. The State Government had accepted that some provisions were relaxed to allow Vadra to buy land in Himachal because under Section 118 of Land and Tenancy Act 1972, no person other than a resident of Himachal can buy land in the State except for agricultural purpose.

According to a report published in the Statesman, Mr Virbhadra Singh said that there is no irregularity in giving permission to Mrs Vadra to buy property near Shimla. He said the government “has the power to give such permission and we had followed the due procedure”.

According to reports, in 2009, the then State govt had also admitted that it was a difficult task to permit Priyanka Vadra (a non-Himachali and non-agriculturist) to allow purchase of land in Himachal as Section 118 doesn’t allow it. The report also mention that administration introduced some flexibility to accomplish it.

Also, the report further said, the then revenue minister, Sat Mahajan, had reportedly driven to Delhi to hand over the papers personally to Mrs Vadra.

The construction of her luxury cottage had begun about 8 years ago during which the cottage design went through several changes including demolition multiple times. A controversy about alleged felling of trees around the plot for construction of Priaynka Vadra’s “dream cottage” arose as well. Only a couple of BJP leaders registered their protest regarding this deal.  Former Chief Minister of Himachal, Shanta Kumar was one of them. 

In 2014, the RTI activist Dev Ashish Bhattacharya filed an application under RTI Action 2005 seeking release of details of this land-purchase deal. Apparently, there is a big question as to what relaxations were given in provisions to enable Mrs. Vadra to purchase land and built a cottage near Presidential retreat in Charabra, Shimla.

However, the activist was denied information by the district administration saying the family is an SPG protectee and revealing details of her property may threaten her safety.

It is noticeable that the location of purchased land was covered by mainstream media and pictures of the under-construction cottage were also published in dailies.

The activist approached the State Information Commissioner with his first appeal. The SIC found his arguments valid and directed the district administration to release information requested in the RTI within 10 days.

However, the matter was taken to the High Court and Priyanka also requested the state government to keep her details concealed, not to be released in public domain. Thus, the support extended by the state government including previous BJP government is comprehensible. 

Considering the above mentioned details and attitude of the government, it is a matter of worry that constitutional provisions are not equally followed indiscriminately, which is a blasphemy in terms of the guidelines given in Indian constitution. In current system, influential families have privileges that constitution doesn’t provide for.

Moreover, why the Vadra family is hesitating in releasing details of the deal if everything was done in accordance with provisions? The decision of the court will mean more than just a judgment. It is to be seen whether Law is equal for all or not. 

Madan has studied English Literature and Journalism from HP University and lives in Shimla. He is an amateur photographer and has been writing on topics ranging from environmental, socio-economic, development programs, education, eco-tourism, eco-friendly lifestyle and to green technologies for over 9 years now. He has an inclination for all things green, wonderful and loves to live in solitude. When not writing, he can be seen wandering, trying to capture the world around him in his DSLR lens.

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Response of Judiciary to India’s Migrant Crisis During Lockdown

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Mingrant labourers crisis in India and indian judiciary

Shimla-Judiciary has a duty to make the Government accountable for the conditions that migrant workers are facing today. In a series of articles, we will be going through the response of Indian Judiciary to the present Migrant Crisis. In the first of these series, we go through two important directions of the Patna High Court to the Government, which can help in elevating the condition of the Migrant Workers who are the victims of the present lockdown.

Patna High Court this month acknowledged the seriousness of this crisis and passed two important Orders which are marked by empathy for the plight of the present victims.

In one of the order, it has sought a reply from the Bihar government on a petition alleging ‘poor condition of quarantine centres’ in the state where migrant workers have been mandated to stay for three weeks upon their return from other parts of the country. In the other order, it has urged the State Government to reconsider its policy of not engaging with members of civil society in handling the COVID-19 crisis.

Order regarding the poor condition of quarantine centres

(C.W.P No.5656 of 2020)

A Division Bench headed by Hon’ble Chief Justice Sanjay Karol directed the state government to file its reply, noting with concern that Bihar has the “highest population density” in the country and “any mismanagement” at the quarantine centers could lead to a substantial increase in the spread of COVID-19 in the state.

Order Stated:

“From the record, it can be inferred that perhaps in the State of Bihar, more than 2450 quarantine centres stand established by the Disaster Management Department, in anticipation of housing 2.5 lakhs persons, termed as migrants, who are desirous of returning home. Perhaps the figure may be more. Such quarantine centres are to be established and managed as per the guidelines for quarantine facilities framed by the Government of India. There has to be proper segregation of the areas, prominently labelled as low risk, moderate risk and high risk areas. The entry and exit points of the said centres are required to be secured properly, with proper facilities of sanitation etc. Any mis-management in proper handling of such centres may result into the spread and/or increase of the disease in Bihar.

..The relevance, significance and importance of ensuring proper sanitization, cleanliness and orderliness at the Centres is highly imperative, more so looking into the economic condition, demography and population of Bihar. Today, 1/10th of the population of India lives in Bihar with highest density of population ratio. Hence the need, all the more, for monitoring the centres directly by senior level officer(s) at the level of the Government and with a greater vigil.

..In the response, it be categorically stated, in a tabulated form, district-wise, (a) the number of quarantine centres established in the State of  Bihar; (b) number of persons (migrants) housed therein; (c) number of persons who have been allowed to return to their respective places of destination after expiry of the mandatory period of quarantine;  (d) total number of persons (migrants), who are further expected to enter the State of Bihar; (e) the capacity of centres to house such persons; (f) whether provision for security, sanitation and food exists at each one of such centre or not; (g) whether such facility stands outsourced or is being provided  or sought to be provided directly by the employees of the State; (h) whether there is a provision for providing medical aid/facilities; and (i) mechanism for lodging complaints and its redressal.”

Direction for engaging members of civil society in the fight against Corona Virus.

(C.W.P No.5609 of 2020)

A division bench headed by Justice Sanjay Karol in another order observed that “in a democratic society, the Civil Society cannot be ignored”, Order Stated:

“Well, at this stage, we need not say anything further, save and except, that the role of Civil Society, be it in the form of individuals/ CSOs/NGOs, in helping the orphans; elderly persons; and specially challenged persons, cannot be undermined. Public and private participation to overcome natural disasters and adversities is not alien to the culture and heritage of this great nation. Also Practices and teachings of Lord Buddha and Lord Mahavira are well entrenched in the State of Bihar. One cannot forget the importance and significance of the Directives Principles of State Policy, Part IV, (Article 39) and Part IV-A Fundamental duties, more specifically, (Article 51-A (h)) of the Constitution of India, while dealing with the problems arising out of the Pandemic Corona Virus (COVID-19).

We are also of the view that for centralized monitoring of the problems faced by the sectors mentioned above and the relief provided/action taken, technology be used. Perhaps, a Website, to be operated at the level of the Government of Bihar can be opened up where any member of the Society (organized or un-organized) wanting to help the Government or the citizenry, in whatever manner, be it in the form of material or human resources, can register their request and the same dealt with promptly by a duly authorized competent and a responsible officer. We only hope that the Chief Secretary, Government of Bihar shall have part of this order implemented latest by day-after-tomorrow, 29.04.2020.”

List of verified NGOs, charities and private institutions, which are working on the ground:

  1. safaindia.org
  2. cjp.org.in
  3. parikrmahumanityfoundation.org
  4. feedingindia.org/donate
  5. kashtakaripanchayat.org
  6. robinhoodarmy.com
  7. https://goonj.org/support-covid-19-affected
  8. fdci.org or write to them at [email protected]seedsindia.org/covid19/
  9. https://tinyurl.com/ydgmfpcm
 

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Migrant Workers in Himachal’s Baddi Forced to Walk Back Home as State Govts Remain Apathetic

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Baddi migrant labourers going back home on foot

Solan: The heart-wrenching exodus of stranded migrant workers from cities back to villages in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown happening across the country is now unfolding in Himachal’s industrial belt Baddi as well. About 30 organisations, comprising of trade unions, civil rights groups, youth alliances, independent social organisations and networks from Himachal, Uttar Pradesh and the country today issued an appeal in support of workers from other states stranded in Himachal and the need for urgent coordination between states to ensure and facilitate their safe return to their homes.

The Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh Industrial area in the Solan district of Himachal Pradesh houses more than 2000 industrial units and is known as the pharma hub of Asia, said the collective appeal of these organizations.

With an annual turnover of more than 60,000 crores, this zone has a major concentration of migrant workers in the state of Himachal Pradesh, possibly between 1.25 to 1.5 lakh people. These workers belonging to various states mainly Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa have been under severe distress due to the sudden announcement of a country-wide lockdown, the appeal said.

The appeal specifically highlights the distressful state of thousands of migrant workers in the Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh industrial area and the lack of response of the administration and respective governments to ensure urgent evacuation of those who want to leave.

“Post the lock-down, as factories remained closed down, in the absence of any sources of income, these workers soon ran out of the savings, if any, to buy rations and pay off their room rents. In the initial period contractors took care of some relief which soon ended and accessing the government-sponsored relief has not been easy either. Their only desire and demand, for the last month and a half, has been to be able to return to their homes, but it is unfortunate that while the Himachal Government has been able to bring back its native residents, the same efficiency and empathy has not been shown in ensuring the return of these workers who contribute hugely to the state’s economy”,

the statement said.

“Although the news has clearly stated that Himachal government will bear the cost of travel for migrant labourers, private operators have started plying their buses with the permission of administration but have been charging exorbitant amounts from the already deprived workers. This has been causing further panic and stress among these communities. Over the last few days, with no Government assistance forthcoming, after losing all hope and patience, workers have picked up their bags and baggage, their tiny children, the elders and the women and have started walking on foot the journey of several kilometres in a desperate attempt to return back to their homes,”

the statement said.

Specifically highlighting the case of workers from Uttar Pradesh, who have long registered themselves on the online portals to travel back, the statement also raised that “private bus operators are charging exuberant fares from already deprived people and with no State help forthcoming, the migrant labourers have been forced to walk back home several hundred kilometres with their children, elders and women”. 

The statement also condemned the dilution of labour laws as well as the suppression of freedom of the press by filing charges against journalists reporting the plight of the workers and the negative impacts of the lockdown and demanded the withdrawal of these.  Highlighting that the Haryana Government has arranged for free food and public transportation trains as well as buses till state borders for labourers to reach their respective States, the statement questions why Himachal has not done the same.

“The Himachal Government needs to understand that any coercive or apathetic measures in regard to forceful retention of these workers will only lead to psychological insecurities and loss of their trust in Himachal as a State”

read the statement.

The signatories in their appeal stated that it is the responsibility of the State government to ensure that the dignity, the constitutional and human rights of these migrant labourers are protected and respected.

Following Are the Demands Made Through This Appeal:

  1. Himachal government needs to coordinate with other state governments and urgently facilitate movement of migrant labourers stuck in Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh Industrial area.
  2. Public transportation by bus for the evacuation up till the state borders needs to be arranged by the state government free of cost.
  3. Up until then a mechanism of ensuring that relief rations with regular follow-ups are provided to the families of stranded migrant workers without having to make repeated demands needs to be put in place.
  4. The status update of these arrangements should be released in public domain through the media and regular press releases so that people have all information and clarity is established.
  5. We condemn the suppression of freedom of press through the FIRs on media persons reporting on issues of migrant workers and demand that these charges be dropped immediately.
  6. The suspension and dilution of labour laws along with the provision of extension of working hours for adult workers from 8 hours to 12 hours be immediately withdrawn.

 

List State and National Signatories

Himachal Pradesh Organizations

  1. All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC)
  2. Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti
  3. Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU)
  4. Citizens’ Rights Forum, Kangra
  5. Communist Party of India, Himachal Pradesh
  6. Himalayan Students Ensemble (HSE)
  7. Himdhara Environment Collective
  8. Jagori Grameen
  9. Mountain Women Rights Forum
  10. People’s Action for People in Need (PAPN)
  11. People’s Campaign for Socio-Economic Equity

 

Uttar Pradesh Organizations

  1. Sangatin Kisan Majdoor Sangathan (SKMS)
  2. MNREGA Majdoor Union
  3. Purvanchal Kisan Union
  4. Humsafar
  5. Mahila Yuva Adhikar Manch
  6. Rihai Manch
  7. National Alliance of People’s Movements, UP

National Organizations

  1. Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN)
  2. National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM)
  3. Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), Rajasthan
  4. National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW)
  5. Socialist Party of India
  6. Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan (JJSS), Bihar
  7. Pennurimay Iyakkam, Madurai, Tamilnadu
  8. National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers (Inland) [NPSSFW(I)], West Bengal
  9. Andhra Pradesh Vyavasaya Vruthidarula Union (APVVU)
  10. Kosi Navnirman Manch, Bihar
  11. Telangana Vyavasaya Vruttidarula Union
  12. Sanyukt Trade Union, Pithampur, Madhya Pradesh
  13. COVID Action Support Team (COAST)
  14. Khudai Khidmatgar

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HP Cabinet Decisions: Nod to Amend Contract Labour Act, Factories Act, Industrial Disputes Act

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HP Cabinet Decisions may 13, 2020

Shimla-Himachal Pradesh Cabinet held a meeting on May 13, 2020.  The Cabinet gave its approval to exclude income tax payers from drawing benefits of subsidy under Targeted Public Distribution Scheme for one year as proposed by the Cabinet Sub Committee for Post  COVID-19 Economic Revival.

The Cabinet also proposed to enhance the upper-income ceiling limit for selection of beneficiaries of BPL/priority households to Rs. 45,000 approximately. This will increase the number of National Food Security Act households by 1,50,000 thereby making them eligible for getting wheat (atta) and rice at the highly subsidized rate of Rs. 3.30 per kg. and Rs. 2 per kg. respectively.

It also gave its approval for rationalization of subsidy on pulses, edible oil and sugar being provided by the State Government to the APL families.

The Cabinet gave its approval to make necessary amendments in Section-1 of the Contract Labour (R&A) Act, 1970 (37 of 1970) in its application to the State of Himachal Pradesh, in Sub Section-4. The amendment proposes to enhance the threshold limit for contract employment from 20 to 30 workmen. The Government said this would also help in increasing industrial investment, production and ease of doing business in the State.

The Cabinet also gave nod for amendment in Section-2 (m)(i), 2(m)(ii), Section-65 (3)(iv), Section-85(1)(i) and insertion of New Section 106 (b)  for compounding of offences in the Factories Act, 1948 to increase the manufacturing activities by small units in the State by enhancing the existing threshold limits of ten and twenty workers to 20 and 40 respectively.

The Government claimed that this amendment will encourage the establishment of small manufacturing units resulting in creating more employment opportunities for workers. Similarly, presently a worker may work overtime for a maximum of 75 hours in any quarter. But the amendment in clause (IV) 3 of Section 65 proposes to increase this limit to 115 hours subject to the condition that the overtime will have to be paid twice the rate of ordinary wages, so that the workers may get more opportunities to earn.

The Cabinet also gave its consent to amend Section -22, (I) Section 25 F(b) Section-25 K of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, (14 of 1947). The Government hopes that it would increase industrial investment, production and employment opportunities and further enhancement of ease of doing business in the State.

The Cabinet decided to open 15 Atal Adarsh Vidyalayas in various parts of the State.

Approval was given to upgrade the Community Health Centre Tihra in district Mandi to 50 bedded Civil Hospital and to open Primary Health Centre at Bhekhali in Kullu district.

It also decided to provide an extension in the validity period of Letter of Intent in favour of M/s Alco Spirits Private Ltd. at village Kundla (Gumti) in tehsil Nahan of district Sirmaur to facilitate the Company to complete its project work which has been delayed due to COVID-19 pandemic.

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