India and the US are embroiled in a diplomatic battle of sorts over a prime piece of real estate in New Delhi's Lutyens Zone, reports Mail Today.
Behind the tussle are allegations of corruption and questions are being raised if senior US diplomats in New Delhi were embroiled in illegal payoffs in a shady land deal.
The deal involves a two- acre house belonging to the US embassy, located barely half- akm from India Gate. What has raised eyebrows is that the embassy signed a deal with Greenline Developers to sell house number 10 at Tilak Marg for a steal at Rs 46 crore.
Real estate firms assessed the value of the property at Rs 250 crore. Even a three- bedroom flat in the area costs Rs 10 crore.
According to documents available with Headlines Today, the deal was signed in 2004 when David C. Mulford was the US ambassador to India.
The embassy sent a diplomatic note to the ministry of external affairs ( MEA) in December 2004, informing it of the deal and seeking approval for sale. The note ( no. 2004- 806 MGT) sated: “ The embassy would appreciate if the ministry could grant us an expeditious approval to conclude the sale of the property.” Documents reveal that in 2006, the ministry refused permission to sell the property. The US followed up the matter with the Foreign Office. It also figured in several diplomatic interactions between the two countries.
But New Delhi kept it pending since it provided it a degree of diplomatic leverage with the US. The negotiations over the Indo- US civil nuclear deal was another reason that the issue figured low in the MEA's priority list.
Senior officials said the reason for denial of permission for sale was a trade- off for a suitable property for the Indian consulate in the US. But ministry sources suspect either illegal payments or bribes were paid to the US officials or some slush money was channelled.
There's no other reason that a property costing several hundred crores was being sold for a pittance by the mission, they said.
The big question is if any illegal payments were made, then who received the money? And if there were no illegal payments, then why was the deal so grossly under- valued? The US diplomats have been mum on these questions. The country's ambassador to India Timothy Roemer was not available for comments.
In response to a detailed questionnaire, the US embassy spokesperson said: “ We do not comment on property transactions between the governments of India and the US. Your suggestion of corrupt behaviour on part of US embassy officials is unfounded and inappropriate.” While the embassy denied any wrongdoing, sources said Greenline Developers were believed to have initiated arbitration proceedings with the embassy.
This has led to the embassy putting pressure on the MEA to grant the approval for sale.
Headlines Today has accessed a string of letters between the MEA and the US embassy.
The pressure from Washington is also mounting now since a US court has exempted the Indian mission in New York from paying property taxes. The US is now invoking the principle of reciprocity.
With the US stepping up pressure, external affairs minister S. M. Krishna is believed to have stepped in and asked his officials that the MEA should buy the property at the price for which the deal was signed.
To prevent the sale to the private developer, the MEA has also written to the chairman of the New Delhi Municipal Council seeking verification of the property papers.
The two sparring sides, however, are keeping this fight under wraps, with the visit of the US President Barack Obama looming on the horizon.
An RTI application to seek details on the matter was rejected by the MEA on the grounds of secrecy.
The onus is now on the US and Indian agencies to investigate if any slush funds or favours were received by the US embassy officials and fix accountability.