Congress chief Sonia Gandhi's daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has declared herself a horticulturist to extend her cottage, currently under construction, in the pristine, lush green environs of Chharabra, 14km away from Shimla.
Under the provisions of the Himachal Pradesh Tenancy and Land Reforms Act, 1972, non-Himachalis can purchase only up to 500sqm of land in the state for residential purposes. Since Priyanka has been allowed to purchase more land, ostensibly for security reasons, she has done so by declaring that she will turn into a horticulturist and plant an orchard around the cottage.
The Congress government in the state continues to go out of its way to provide and extend facilities to her. It is generally very strict about granting permission to non-Himachalis to purchase agricultural and forest land. Most often, exceptions are made in case of gallantry award winners or on compassionate grounds for the kin of martyrs.
The state government's recent decision to grant an extension of one year to her so she could provide evidence that she was using the land for the purpose for which it was acquired is, therefore, an exception.
The site, close to The Retreat, the summer holiday resort of the President, is located at an elevation of about 8,000ft above sea level and ideal for the farming of apple, peach and cherry. Some saplings have already been planted around the upcoming cottage.
Interestingly, the land for the cottage was allotted to her in 2007 at the fag end of current chief minister Virbhadra Singh's previous tenure. His successor Prem Kumar Dhumal, who led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, extended her two sanctions for additional purchase of land adjoining the site earlier allotted to her. There was no opposition to the move even though such allotments generally evoke sharp criticism by the locals in the hilly state. Dhumal's gesture could have been a kind of return gift for the Congress, which had similarly made an exception for former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee by allotting him land near the tourist town of Manali much before he took over as prime minister.
Priyanka Gandhi was, subsequently, twice allowed to purchase additional land adjacent to the one purchased by her in 2007 in view of security concerns and on the insistence of the SPG looking after her security that a larger area was required for foolproof arrangements. Since this could not have been a ground to seek more land, she was asked to declare herself as a horticulturist.
The land bought by her in two parts totals to 0.36.09 hectares, as per information earlier leaked from the deputy commissioner's office. After the initial purchase of 0.31.84 hectares on August 10, 2007, she bought a portion of adjacent land in 2011.
She and her mother had been paying numerous visits to the site to oversee the construction. In fact, in April 2011, she virtually got the entire cottage dismantled and had asked her architect to re-design it keeping in mind the hill architecture and the use of locally available construction material. For instance, she recently selected slates for the roof of the cottage from the Khaniyara slate mines in Dharamsala.
The cottage has also been in news in the recent past due to a petition filed under the Right to Information Act seeking details of land purchased by her in three instalments. The plea, filed by RTI activist Dev Ashish Bhatacharya, was earlier disallowed by the deputy commissioner of Shimla. He then moved the state information commission, which heard the petition and directed district authorities to provide information. However, Priyanka later moved the Himachal Pradesh High Court and cited security threats as the ground against the information commissioner's orders. The high court has now granted her a stay.
(Editor's note: This article has been updated on October 15, 2015. The earlier version erroneously mentioned that Priyanka Gandhi bought 36.09 acres of land, with the first purchase on August 10, 2007 of 31.84 acres. The actual land owned by her is 0.36.09 hectares (and not 36.09 acres) with the first purchase on August 10, 2007 of 0.31.84 hectares and the second purchase on July 29, 2011. The error is regretted.)