So, what is it? A wedding hall or an ecotourism centre? The jury is still out on that. The hall in question is one built in Seoni Malwa by Sartaj Singh, the local MLA and public works department minister of Madhya Pradesh.
The 75-year-old Singh has quite an interesting political history. He is the only Sikh in the Shivraj Singh Chouhan cabinet. Like many others in Indian politics, he, too, is a partition kid. His family moved from Rawalpindi in Pakistan to Itarsi, MP, in 1948.
He entered the Itarsi municipal council in 1971. In 1975, he was elected municipal chairman, but could not be sworn in, because the Emergency was declared on the day of the swearing-in ceremony. Singh went to jail and remained there until late 1976. He would eventually become chairman of the municipality (1978-1980).
Elected to the Lok Sabha from Hoshangabad in 1989, Singh held the seat for a decade. In 1996, he became Union health minister in the Vajpayee government. But, the government lasted only 13 days! He defeated Congress heavyweight Arjun Singh in 1998, skipped the 1999 Lok Sabha polls and won again in 2004. And, then, he made another twist. He ran for assembly from Seoni Malwa in 2008 and won.
The hall in question was built after Singh became state forest minister in 2009. Sources said constituents from Seoni Malwa had approached him to build a multi-purpose hall as the town did not have one. It was to serve, primarily, as a wedding hall.
Wanting to keep his vote bank in good humour, Singh sanctioned an ecotourism centre in Seoni Malwa―16km away from the nearest jungle. It was named after the local deity. The forest ministry released Rs2.25 crore to build the Bhilatdev Ecopark on 16 acres of revenue land linked to State Highway No 15. The funds came from the ecotourism board, bio-diversity board and forest development agency. Work started in July 2012.
Local residents raised money to build a 40ft-tall idol of Lord Shiva in the ecopark. No one asked why a deity was being installed in an ecopark. The MP Ecotourism Development Board website lists multiple amenities at the Bhilatdev Ecopark―one of them is “Mahadev Darshan”.
“Since it was the wish of the minister to please his voters, the officials of the forest department signed on the dotted line,” said Ajay Shah Makdai, local Congress leader. “Even the front elevation of the ecopark was designed to resemble a popular marriage hall in Bhopal. From no angle does the complex look like an ecotourism centre. It is more like a marriage hall.”
The main building cost Rs79 lakh and the rest of the amount was spent on the boundary wall, cafeteria and guest rooms. The money from the biodiversity board was meant for building an interpretation centre. It was instead used to build guest rooms, which are now mainly used by families of the bride and groom, during weddings.
On completion, the entire facility was outsourced to a contractor, who started renting it out for weddings. Meanwhile, the land was transferred from the revenue department to the forest department. Sources in Seoni Malwa say the hall is booked for weddings around 30 days in a year. Each wedding fetches around Rs50,000 in rent.
The arrangement was working fine until the Chouhan government was re-elected in December 2013, and Gauri Shankar Shejwar became forest minister in place of Singh, who got PWD. Shejwar audited the working of all ecoparks and insisted that no ecopark should be used for political meetings and weddings. Residents of Seoni Malwa appealed to Singh when Bhilatdev Ecopark refused to take their wedding bookings.
Singh knew he had no standing in the case. So, he formed the Bhilatdev Vikas Samiti (BVS), which made the local MLA its ex officio chairman. On August 3, 2014, Singh chaired the five-member governing board of the BVS, which unanimously resolved to divest the ecotourism development board of all powers over Bhilatdev Ecopark. The BVS board comprises three ex officio members and two private members―Singh, the local subdivisional magistrate, the municipal chairman, a journalist and a social worker. Both private members are staunch supporters of Singh.
Legal experts wonder how an organisation like the BVS can override the rights of the ecotourism development board, which is an autonomous body under the state forest ministry. Not surprisingly, the forest ministry auditor red flagged the move. And, the Comptroller and Auditor General pointed out the 16km distance between jungle and ecotourism centre.
Congress leaders say no action was taken because of Singh’s involvement. When Shejwar and senior officials visited Bhilatdev Ecopark, a mob of Singh’s supporters had gathered to protest the ministry’s refusal to transfer the ecopark to the BVS.
Ajit K. Shrivastava, chief conservator of forests (Hoshangabad circle), wrote to Anil Oberoi, principal chief conservator of forests, MP, and to the CEO of the ecotourism development board that he was helpless in the Bhilatdev Ecopark issue, because “the former forest minister said that that chief minister also wants the transfer of property [to the BVS]. And, nobody is above the chief minister.”
In the letter, Shrivastava says “the then forest minister developed the [ecopark] under guidance of his area representative Rinku Jain”. And, in the absence of the enforcement of ecotourism principles, the complex “resembles a municipality park meant for wedding ceremonies”. Shrivastava ends by suggesting that the “building which is being used for camping baraat [wedding parties]” be converted into a forestry museum as outlined in the original plan.
But, the letter has gone in vain. The Hoshangabad district magistrate has temporarily handed over the ecopark to the subdivisional magistrate, who is an ex officio member of the BVS. Sources said it was done on the instructions of the chief minister. THE WEEK made multiple attempts to contact Singh, who gave two appointments but cancelled both.
Shah asked, “How can a minister [Singh] transfer government property to a committee [BVS] which is meant for doing business?” He said Singh’s chairmanship of the BVS came “under the purview of office of profit”.
On February 12, local resident Sashi Sahu had the shock of a lifetime. Two months earlier, he had booked the ecopark for his daughter’s wedding, but, on the eve, forest department officials told him that it was a disputed site and could be used only for ecotourism. The marriage eventually took place after the district administration intervened.