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Baijal charged for 2002 divestment

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has booked Pradip Baijal, former disinvestment secretary, on a criminal charge for allegedly causing a loss of Rs 143 crore to the national exchequer about a dozen years earlier. CBI filed the first information report (FIR) on the matter on Thursday.

Baijal, under then disinvestment minister Arun Shourie, had overseen the sale of Laxmi Vilas Palace Hotel, a unit of India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC), in Udaipur to Bharat Hotels, which manages the Lalit Hotel brand in the national capital. The CBI alleged the hotel was sold off for Rs 7.52 crore when the actual market value was Rs 151 crore.

“I am totally unaware of any case or search at my place. No one has questioned me either. I am hearing this through the media,” Baijal  told Business Standard.

Baijal, who was also chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), had earlier faced investigation in the telecom spectrum case, and was subsequently found to be in the clear.  

“The disinvestment took place some 12-13 years ago; I don’t remember the case details now. The allegations that I favoured anyone are baseless, as the case file went to various committees. I was not the only person responsible who took the decision,” he added. Baijal, however, denied any political vendetta. “If that was the issue, the case against me would have been registered six months ago.”

The CBI began investigating the matter on the basis of an anonymous complaint in April this year. “It was alleged that during the period 2001-02, Laxmi Vilas Palace Hotel, spread across 29 acres of prime location land with 54 rooms with all accessories, was first drastically undervalued and then sold or disinvested to a private hotel situated on Barakhamba Road, New Delhi, at a price of Rs 7.52 crore,” said CBI in a press statement.

“However, as per then DLC rates, land in which the said hotel was situated was allegedly worth Rs 151 crore (approx) and in this way, an alleged loss of Rs 143.48 crore was caused to the department of tourism.”

The agency also named representatives of Lazard India, advisor to the government for the deal, and Kanti Karamsey  & Co, a private evaluator.  A mail sent to the spokesperson of Lalit Hotel remained unanswered, while Kunal K Vikramsey of Kanti Karamsey & Co said: “We have already given our statement to the agency. We evaluated the property on the basis of prevailing market conditions then.” Lazard India could not be reached for a comment.

The five-star Laxmi Vilas hotel was owned and operated by ITDC until 2002, when it was sold to Bharat Hotels as part of a series of disinvestments in ITDC properties. It is now known as the Lalit Laxmi Vilas. The hotel was a heritage property built by Maharana Fateh Singh in 1911. At the time of its disinvestment, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government had also sold two more ITDC hotels, Qutab and Lodhi, through a bidding process.

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