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Tax scrutiny, model code dissent, taking on BJP leaders – controversy has followed Lavasas

Since his dissent during Lok Sabha elections, members of Ashok Lavasa’s family have been in the news. Now his wife, son and sister are under I-T scanner.

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New Delhi: Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa is known to keep a low profile and avoid the media glare. That was how it was when he was in the IAS and went on to become a powerful secretary in the Ministry of Finance, and he has preferred to keep it that way since his appointment to the Election Commission after retirement.

But controversy and headlines have not stopped following him — and his family — since May when he dissented against the Election Commission’s decisions to give clean chits to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah after they were accused of violating the Model Code of Conduct.

During the Lok Sabha elections, Lavasa dissented on three of the five EC decisions on complaints against Modi, and on one against Shah. A few days later, he even boycotted the commission meetings, saying his presence was “irrelevant and meaningless” since his dissent was not being recorded in orders.

Around the same time, his daughter, Avny Lavasa, a 2013-batch IAS officer from the Jammu and Kashmir cadre, hit the headlines after she sought an FIR against BJP leaders in the state for allegedly handing money in envelopes to reporters in Leh for favourable reporting.

Now, other members of the Lavasa family are making headlines for coming under the scanner of the Income Tax Department.

Novel Lavasa, an entrepreneur and former banker and wife of the Election Commissioner, has received tax notices for alleged discrepancies in her income tax returns.

The I-T Department has also surveyed the books of accounts of Nourish Organic Foods Ltd, a company in which Lavasa’s son Abir is a director, The Indian Express reported.

The commissioner’s sister, Shakuntala Lavasa, a paediatrician has also been sent a notice by the I-T department for buying a house from Ashok and Novel Lavasa. While the house in Gurugram was purchased at Rs 1.86 crore in 2017-18, its value is estimated to be Rs 7.2 crore by the department, the newspaper reported.

Ashok Lavasa declined to comment for this report. ThePrint could not reach Novel for a comment.

Who are the Lavasas?

A 1980-batch IAS officer from the Haryana cadre, Lavasa was appointed Election Commissioner by the Modi government in January 2018. Nearly a year and a half prior to that, in June 2016, the Modi government had appointed him finance secretary, following the convention of appointing the senior-most of the five secretaries in the ministry as the department’s top civil servant.

Known to be an upright and non-controversial officer in Haryana, Lavasa’s troubles with the Modi government only began during the Lok Sabha elections.

“Before the elections, he had a fairly good working relationship with governments across party lines… Otherwise why would he be appointed finance secretary for two years and then given a post-retirement assignment as important as that of an election commissioner?” said a senior Haryana cadre IAS officer who didn’t wish to be named.

Before his stint in the finance ministry, Lavasa, who originally belongs to Rajasthan, served in several central government ministries including as joint secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs; joint secretary, additional secretary and special secretary in the Ministry of Power; and then as secretary in the ministries of Civil Aviation and Environment and Forests.

A former banker with the State Bank of India, Novel has been an entrepreneur since 2005 when she resigned as a Class I officer with the bank after 28 years of service. Reports say Novel has been on the board of over a dozen companies, including four power firms. She was reportedly appointed to all four on the same day.

Their daughter, Avny Lavasa, who secured the 88th rank in the UPSC exam in 2013, is currently serving as the deputy commissioner in Leh.

An alumna of Lady Shri Ram College and Jawaharlal Nehru University, Avny is credited with significantly improving public transport services and reducing traffic congestion in Leh.

With Ladakh being designated a Union Territory after the Modi government scrapped Article 370 last month, Avny’s cadre will soon be merged with the Union Territory cadre (AGMUT) — directly bringing her under the central government.

The Lavasas’ son Abir has a business of organic foods.

The interests of Lavasas

Other than their government and business activities, the Lavasas have been involved in a number of activities — ranging from photography to sport.

Ashok Lavasa is an avid photographer and has held several exhibitions of wildlife and nature photography.

His passion for photography is well recognised even among his IAS colleagues. In 2016, NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant, a batchmate of Lavasa, tweeted one of his photos with the caption: “Finance secretary of India as a photographer. Ashok Lavasa’s shot of 1 of d Panchachuli peaks from Munshyari, Uttknd.”

Speaking to The Economic Times, Lavasa once said in an interview, “Photography is much like poetry or painting. The end product must strike a chord with the audience.”

People who have closely known the family say that Lavasa and Novel would take breaks from their busy schedule from time to time, and go to the hills and jungles to indulge their passion for photography.

In 2010, Lavasa penned a book on former IAS officer Ravi Mohan Sethi, called An Uncivil Servant: The Success Story of a Bureaucrat Turned Businessman.

While Lavasa had his own interests, his children Avny and Abir were into sports. The latter was even part of the Rajasthan Ranji cricket team.

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