The Uttarakhand High Court has ordered four former Chief Ministers of Uttarakhand to pay within six months the rent for the buildings occupied by them for free as former chief ministers and also the amount payable for other amenities like electricity, security and guard, staff, civil works, telephone, etc., while dismissing as "specious" the plea of the state government that the due rent be waived off in lieu of the "priceless services" rendered by them during their tenure in office.
"Services rendered during their tenure as Chief Ministers (even if taken to be priceless) does not justify conferring on them such largesse," said the bench of Chief Justice Ramesh Ranganathan and Justice RC Khulbe.
The court ordered the former Chief Ministers–Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, BC Khanduri, Vijay Bahuguna, Bhagat Singh Koshyari–to pay the rent due at the market rate. Narayan Dutt Tiwari was also in the list of ex-chief ministers who had occupied government accommodation for free even after demitting office but died during the pendency of the petition.
The high court not just ordered them to pay up the rent but also ordered that the same be paid at the market rate while rejecting what it termed "measly" monthly rent of Rs 1,000 to Rs, 1,200.
That is not all.
The court has ordered the government to compute within four months the amount due and payable towards amenities such as electricity, water, petrol, oil and lubricants etc., provided by the state government to these ex-chief ministers who will have to pay the same within six months failing which the same would be recovered in accordance with law, including under the provisions of the Uttar Pradesh Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Act.
As per the affidavit filed by the Additional Secretary/Estate Officer, which calculated the market value of the rent due from the ex-chief ministers, Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank occupied government accommodation for free from September 11, 2011, to December 13, 2016, for which the rent came to about Rs 41.64 lakh.
Khanduri occupied government accommodation from January 26, 2010, to September 10, 2011, and from March 7, 2012, to November 29, 2016, for which he is liable to pay a rent of Rs 48.49 lakh.
Vijay Bahuguna occupied government house from February 3, 2014, to February 12, 2014, and then from June 16, 2015, to February 15, 2017, making him liable to pay rent of Rs 37.90 lakh.
Bhagat Singh Koshyari has to clear a debt of Rs 47.57 lakhs for occupying government accommodation for free from December 18, 2003, to November 19, 2016, while Narayan Dutt Tiwari has to pay Rs 1, 12, 98, 182 for the period from February 29, 2007, to February 15, 2017.
Vijay Bahuguna's act of allotting to himself not just the Bijapur Guest House for his whole life, but also sanctioning crores of rupees for its renovation, extension etc., also earned criticism from the bench which said, "This does not reflect favourably on the manner in which the executive functioned, for not only did the sixth respondent confer on himself a benefit which he was not legally entitled to, the State Government also did not choose to cancel such allotment even after he demitted office. This act of the sixth respondent, in conferring a post retirement benefit on himself, when he held office of the Chief Minister, does show the State Executive in poor light. That such acts have been permitted to prevail, and have gone unchecked, is undoubtedly a matter of grave concern."
The order of the court comes on a petition moved by Uttarakhand-based NGO Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra Rlek through advocate Kartikey Hari Gupta who submitted that the expenditure on free housing and amenities to ex-CMs has put undue pressure on the public exchequer, more so in the State of Uttarakhand which has still not come to terms with the natural calamity which struck the state and that such unwarranted expenditure is a needless waste of public money, when as per the 2008-09 Annual Financial Description, the per capita income of the state was far below the average national income.
Specious plea of priceless services
The court termed as "specious" the stand taken by the government that the Council of Ministers had resolved to request this court to waive arrears of rent due towards the rent-free accommodation occupied by the ex-chief ministers, as they had rendered priceless service.
"Neither the resolution of the Council of Ministers, nor the counter-affidavit of the Additional Secretary disclose the nature of services (which is claimed to be priceless) rendered by respondents 2 to 6, post their demitting office of the Chief Minister. Those of respondent nos. 2 to 6, who held any other office post their demitting office of the Chief Minister, were provided the facilities to which they were entitled to with respect to the office which they held. That does not, however, mean that the State Government should fritter away precious public resources and needlessly burden, the already overburdened public exchequer, with this unauthorized expenditure on the specious plea that priceless services were rendered by respondent nos.2 to 6. Services rendered by respondent nos.2 to 6 during their tenure as Chief Ministers (even if taken to be priceless) does not justify conferring on them such largesse," said the bench.
Gupta contended that the state government had spent Rs 9,28,69,973 in providing various facilities to all the ex-chief ministers of the state unlawfully, i.e., without any legislative sanction.
Provision of rent-free accommodation
With the government relying on the Uttar Pradesh Ex-Chief Minister Residence Allocation Rules, 1997, to justify free accommodation to ex-CMs, the bench noted that the same was struck down by the Supreme Court in Lok Prahari's case.
The 1997 Rules do not confer any right on the respondents (ex-chief ministers) to claim that the rent-free accommodation provided to them, in Dehradun, was in accordance with the law.
What should the rent payable by the ex-chief ministers be?
Relying on judgment of the Supreme Court in Lok Prahari vs. State of U.P. and Ors., the bench said the word "appropriate rent" in the judgment cannot be read out of context as the Supreme Court has observed, in the earlier part of the said order, that government property cannot be allotted without adequate market rent.
"Since the very allotment of bungalows to the Ex Chief Ministers is illegal, the unofficial respondents (all of whom are ex-Chief Ministers) have received a benefit which they were not legally entitled to, and the public exchequer has been needlessly burdened in view of the exorbitant expenditure incurred by the State Government in securing buildings on rent for its offices and establishments, which could have been avoided if the luxurious bungalows, provided to the Ex-Chief Ministers in the State capital of Dehradun, had been utilized for the purpose of accommodating State Government offices. As bungalows, belonging to the State Government, were provided as rent free accommodation to the Ex- Chief Ministers, instead of being utilized for the public purpose of accommodating Government offices, it is but appropriate that the market rent is collected from them for the period during which they occupied these buildings," it said.
The court also rejected the argument of estoppel made by the respondents as it held that there can be no estoppel against the law or public policy.
"No estoppel can legitimate an action which is ultra vires, and no authority can be bound by an estoppel to do something beyond its powers. In the present case, allotment of residential accommodation to Ex-Chief Ministers, and the various other facilities extended to them was beyond the powers of the officers and, in as much as approval of the Governor was not obtained, such facilities could not have been extended to the Ex-Chief Ministers concerned. It is not open to the fourth respondent, therefore, to contend that the State Government is barred from recovering the said amounts on ground of estoppel," said the bench.
Read the Judgment Here