Rishikesh/Haridwar/Dehradun: Pieces of unpolished furniture lay strewn in front of a building of what used to be a five-star resort at Ganga Bhogpur village in Uttarakhand’s Pauri Garhwal district. Behind it, an amla processing factory bears the scars of a mob attack. Cooped up between thick trees and a stream, the resort and factory — now a crime scene — are guarded by seven police personnel.
On the night of September 18, 19-year-old Ankita Bhandari, who worked as a receptionist at Vanantra resort, went missing. Her body was found six days later from the Chilla river barrage.
Following the murder, authorities sent in bulldozers at Vanantra and the entire building, including the section that housed her room, was demolished from the front. Although important forensic evidence might have been destroyed in the demolition, it was projected by the Uttarakhand government as a sign of its resolve to act against the owner, Pulkit Arya, the son of a prominent former BJP leader and Ankita Bhandari’s alleged killer. The ruling BJP has faced protests in Haridwar and other places over the mysterious death of the teenager.
Now, an investigation by ThePrint has found that Vanantra and the factory, called Swadeshi Ayurved — the two commercial entities on the now sealed property — had no permission to operate from the government departments. The resort was allegedly running for over two years and the factory was operating for over a decade under the benign gaze of the state government, ThePrint has learnt.
The land was purchased 14 years ago — the records of which ThePrint has exclusive access to — for agricultural purposes. Though Pulkit Arya converted the land for non-agricultural use the same year, he never applied for permission to operate a resort on it. And the factory operated without regulatory clearances.
ThePrint made repeated efforts to contact Yamkeshwar SDM Pramod Kumar, Pauri Garhwal District Magistrate Vijay Jogdande, and district tourism officer Prakash Khatri but received no response.
ThePrint contacted the directors of Swadeshi Ayurved, which is incorporated by Arya’s family, but could not get a response. This report will be updated once a statement is received.
Meanwhile, a senior official of the Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board (UTBD) said no application was received from Vanantra resort. “We never received any application from the owners of Vanantra resort. It was being run illegally,” said the official who did not want to be named. The UTBD is responsible for giving licenses to run resorts in the hill state.
The factory on Arya’s premises was registered with the Ministry of Micro, Small & Medium Enterprise (MSME) in 2020. But it allegedly did not seek permission to operate from the District Industrial Centre (DIC), which gives licence to factory owners to start production after all the other no-objection certificates (NOCs) like fire safety are obtained and submitted to it.
The DIC officials explained that establishments can start production after registration with the MSME ministry if they declare that they will obtain all NOCs in a stipulated time. But the factory on Arya’s land had not completed the formalities, they said.
“Although it had an MSME registration number, but its application with the DIC lacked several documents. We returned the application with several queries in 2020. Their reply is still awaited. As a result, the field verification of the unit was never done by the DIC team,” General Manager in charge, DIC Pauri, R. C. Uniyal told ThePrint. He added that since the factory is not approved, it was also not being provided with any tax incentive and other concessions offered to MSMEs.
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‘Illegal factor a nuisance’
For the residents of Ganga Bhogpur village in Pauri Gharwal district, the amla processing factory was a nuisance from the day it started.
Arya, a resident of Haridwar, entered the village 14 years ago on September 8, 2008, when he bought a piece of agricultural land, 0.8 acre, from one of Jagdish Ranakoti’s four brothers. Arya was looking for land to set up a pharmacy, the Ranakoti family claimed.
The Ranakoti brothers, barring Jagdish, are working in different cities in Uttarakhand as government employees and did not want to be named.
Bought at a circle rate of Rs 5 lakh per hectare in 2008, Arya allegedly paid a meagre Rs. 1.67 lakh for the land and recorded it for agricultural use. But within a month, on October 11, 2008, the land records — a copy of which is with ThePrint — show that Arya converted it into non-agricultural land.
ThePrint could not confirm the date on which Arya started the factory as there is no official documentation about it. In the Uttarakhand government records, the factory came into notice of officials in 2020 when papers were filed to the DIC for permission. But the residents of the village claimed that it was operating for over a decade with about 10-15 workers.
The village falls in a forest area around Rajaji Tiger Reserve and leopards, wild boars, and elephants among other wild animals are commonly sighted. But the factory on Arya’s plot, with allegedly no proper waste disposal system, was polluting the waters, claimed villagers.
One day, the angry residents gathered near a stream that had turned black with waste from the factory. Their cattle were drinking that water and falling sick.
When they confronted Arya, he filled a glass full of black water from the stream and drank it, said Mohit Sharma, owner of Rajaji Retreat resort in the area, who saw Arya gulp down that glass of dirty water.
“Look, nothing has happened to me. How can your cattle fall sick then?” Arya had allegedly said to the aghast villagers.
Surrounded by agricultural land, Arya’s factory waste was allegedly seeping into the crops of farmers who had land next to it. Jagdish Ranakoti, the farmer who was affected by Arya’s polluting factory, complained to him every time the black liquid entered into his field.
But Arya was unfettered, Jagdish claimed. “He treated everyone like his slave. He threw his weight around and boasted of his and his father’s political connections.”
Arya’s father Vinod Arya, a former minister and member of the national executive of the BJP OBC Morcha, and his elder brother Ankit Arya, Deputy Chairman of the Uttarakhand Other Backward Classes Commission, were expelled from the party when the case came into limelight.
Five days before Arya bought the land in Ganga Bhogpur village, on September 3, 2008, a private company, Swadeshi Ayurved, was incorporated with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs with Arya’s family residence in Arya Nagar, Jwalapur, as its registered address.
The company deals in ‘retail trade of new goods in specialised stores’, and Arya’s wife, Swati, is one of the directors of the company since July 2019. Products like juices, churans and candies are displayed for sale on the company’s website.
At the Jwalapur residence, surrounded by CCTV cameras, the big metal gates are locked from inside. The banner of Swadeshi Pharmacy was pulled down about three days ago and the family was last seen about a week ago, said shopkeepers in the lane.
The house help told ThePrint that he is the only one in the house and he doesn’t know where the owners are or when they will be back.
Requesting anonymity, a former employee of Swadeshi Ayurved, who worked closely with the family for seven years, said the factory at Ganga Bhogpur village was managed by Arya himself.
Swati, a chartered accountant, had a limited role, the former employee said. “Swati ma’am used to visit the factory only on festivals or on some special occasions. Her work was not linked to the factory’s daily running or production. Our owners, Pulkit and Ankit Arya, are very good human beings. Whatever we are hearing about them in the media, is all untrue,” the former employee said.
In July 2021, Arya and Swati incorporated another private company, Sanyukt Prayas Foundation, for social work. The company was registered at the same address as Swadeshi Ayurved. Little is known about this company.
ThePrint tried to reach Swati and Sunita Arya on the registered phone numbers of Swadeshi Ayurved and contact numbers on the company’s websites and social media accounts, but received no response. Swati’s personal number was switched off.
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With jungle view balconies, banquets, pool, and exquisite cuisine, Vanantra Resort was a sought-after luxury vacation destination — at least online — amongst the eight other resorts in the region. But to run a unit with such facilities is a huge task, the staff of other resorts in the vicinity explained. A host of licences and NOCs for fire, food, bar, pool, spa, among others are required to be obtained from various departments.
Arya allegedly had none. ThePrint checked with the food and fire safety departments which confirmed that Vanantra Resort was not in their records.
“District food safety department has not issued any license to the resort. Its registration needs to be verified. We have to see if it’s a case of fresh registration or renewal of expired one, if at all it was done earlier,” said Ajab Singh Rawat, Designated Food Safety Officer, Pauri.
ThePrint could not independently verify when Vanantra officially started as this information is not registered with the government.
Meanwhile, a former employee, Renu, who worked at the resort as a manager between December 2021 and May 2022, claimed she was employed by a Delhi-based firm that had taken the property from Arya on lease.
Locals informed ThePrint that before Arya started Vanantra resort, the building was given on lease to a third party which ran a resort then called Sam Resorts. “But some issue happened with Pulkit and the third party left almost immediately,” said Mohit Sharma, owner of Rajaji Retreat resort.
ThePrint called Sam Resort owners, but they refused to talk. Renu added that Arya constantly interfered with the resort, even when he had sub-let it.
The nine resorts around the village, meanwhile, informed that inspections by various government agencies were regular and if the resorts had any deficiencies, they had to pay fines or were sealed.
“The government checks our records regularly. A team came last month, the excise department comes to check the bar at the end of every month. Every six months, other departments like fire, food, pollution, and others are checked,” said Anshul Rana, General Manager, The Neeraj River Forest Resort, which is opposite Vanantra Resort across the Chilla river.
In fact, the management heads of at least three resort owners told ThePrint that just a month before Ankita’s disappearance and death, a team of members from the National Green Tribunal (NGT), along with the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), the tehsildar, the revenue officer, and a few others had conducted surprise inspections and checked the records of all nine resorts in August.
“A big team like this from various departments has never come before for checking. They checked everything, from CCTV cameras and fire [safety] equipment to pollution certificates, guest registers…,” said Sharma.
Many resorts were given notices to address deficiencies, such as non-functioning CCTV cameras, absence of fire NOC and non-availability of a tariff list. But Arya’s property, despite no proper documentation, had continued to function unhindered, they said.
(Edited by Tony Rai)
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