Madhya Pradesh: The land sharks of Sidhi–Singrauli take Railways for a ride
Multiple owners of a piece of land crop up overnight in official records as soon as the plot is demarcated by the Railways for acquisition
The Indian Railways has reported a Rs 300 crore scam in Madhya Pradesh involving phantom claimants and fake land owners walking away with compensation for land they did not own. Internal inquiries reveal that inflated compensation sums were paid on the basis of fake land records.
The 541 km Lalitpur–Singrauli railway track connecting Uttar Pradesh with MP was sanctioned way back in 1997–98 but picked up momentum in 2016 when the then railway minister Suresh Prabhu allocated Rs 6,672 crore for the project. The minister also laid the foundation of the Sidhi railway station the same year.
Seven years later, it is yet to come up. While the land acquisition for a 450 km track has been completed, about 100 km between Sidhi and Singrauli have been held up because of widespread irregularities in land acquisition and compensation, reveals the Railway’s review report dated April 2023.
In February 2021, the Railways sent a letter to the chief secretary, the principal secretary (revenue) and the Singrauli district collector, drawing their attention to discrepancies in revenue records in many villages where discrepancies were reported in 27 plots out of 60.
The letter stated, ‘The land owners of these plots [in Kursa] are locals but the houses shown on the land belong to outsiders. In one case, the land belongs to Ashok Kumhar, but 19 homes shown on his property belong to outsiders. Against [these] 19 homes, a compensation of Rs 6.59 crore has been awarded to all the homeowners. How?’
In July this year, the Railways wrote once again to the chief secretary, alerting him that the Singrauli district administration was surveying and evaluating land without informing the Railways and in the absence of Railway representatives. “Whenever we came across discrepancies, they were flagged to the state government and the collectors,” says Manoj Kumar Agrawal, chief administrative officer (construction) of the West–Central Railway.
Officials say that scores of letters were sent over the last three years but the state government paid no heed to them. Finally, on 15 January this year, work on the stretch was stopped by the Railways. However, land acquisition in four villages of Singrauli continued.
The state government was alerted about the ‘scam’ on 1 August 2019 by the then Sidhi district magistrate Abhishek Singh. During a field inspection, he discovered that for a 0.44 acre plot, one Seeta Singh of Chandwahi village had been awarded a compensation of Rs 2.5 crore.
Officials in the collectorate claim that Singh was being pressurised by a senior bureaucrat to approve the payment. When he refused, he was transferred within a week to the planning, economics and statistics department and then to the state election commission. He had, however, already flagged the case and the Railways reduced the final compensation to Rs 5.2 lakh.
Ajay Pratap Singh, a BJP Rajya Sabha MP, alleges that the route between Sidhi and Singrauli was changed within two weeks of the inauguration. The new route, he says, is 8 km longer, as a result of which the cost increased by Rs 100 crore. Why was this done, and for whose benefit? On raising these questions in Parliament, he was told by railways minister Ashwini Vaishnaw that ‘local reasons’ were behind the change.
Singh told this reporter over the phone that a land mafia in cahoots with local officials had conspired to cheat the Railways of crores of rupees. “This syndicate is so powerful that it managed to alter the route [to go]through land which they had purchased for speculative gain,” he claimed.
In August 2023, in a reply to a question from Congress MP Digvijaya Singh in the Rajya Sabha, the ministry said that the project cost, which was Rs 6,672 crore in 2016, had gone up to Rs 8,913 crore.
D.P. Shukla, a farmer turned whistle-blower from Singrauli district, and his 88-year-old father, have been slapped with three FIRs for raising the issue. Shukla turned whistle-blower after district officials allegedly awarded Rs 1.5 crore to five non-existent ‘co-owners’ of his one acre plot in Khobha and Cheeva villages. Stamp papers had been manipulated to create the fake ownership claims, he found. An inquiry on his complaint led to the cancellation of the licence of a stamp vendor in June 2023.
There have been other equally outrageous developments. A public works department (PWD) daily wager Rammanohar Dwivedi (55) was awarded a compensation of Rs 2.88 crore for his one acre plot and three houses. A year later, he was found dead. The police declared it suicide. However, his lone surviving son, Rudranarayan, believes his father was killed by people who wanted to appropriate the compensation.
Four months after Dwivedi’s death, the district administration released Rs 2.48 crore to three relatives (including a son) of PWD sub-engineer Dadhich Singh, under whom Dwivedi had worked. Rudranarayan, who moved the high court in July 2022, was paid Rs 40 lakh. The state government is yet to reply to the court notice. Interestingly, in May 2022, Dadhich Singh was posted on deputation to work as a clerk with BJP MP Ajay Pratap Singh.
Another plot of land belonging to the sitting BJP MP from Sidhi, Riti Pathak, in Amo village was initially left out of the list of plots to be acquired because of a ‘typing error’.
When the 0.44 acre plot was notified for acquisition in 2020, it had only one owner—the MP’s uncle. But a notification in December 2022 showed eight co-owners of the plot. They turned out to be uncles, aunts, sisters, cousins and nephews of the MP, said Shukla, the whistle-blower.
Countering the allegation, Pathak said, “Yes, that was my ancestral home but no one can accuse me of involvement in corruption… Those who suspect my involvement should complain to the district administration and a committee should check the merit of the accusations.”
Pathak, two-time MP from Sidhi, has been given a ticket to contest the 2023 assembly election from Sidhi.
Shankarlal Baiga, a 45-year-old tribal resident of Gidher village in Singrauli, discovered that he had been awarded Rs 72.34 lakh for his 1.75 acre agricultural land, seven times higher than the amount that he was told he was eligible for. He also discovered that the records showed seven houses, which were apparently built by unidentified non-tribals.
When he filed a petition in the high court, the administration hurriedly transferred the entire amount to his bank account and deleted the names of the fake claimants from the records. This case is still pending in the high court.