Sunday, June 12, 2016

MD HIZBULLAH AND ATUL DEV: How the Vyapam SIT chief, judges and journalists benefitted from government largesse in Madhya Pradesh

NB: Our Prime Minister makes high-sounding speeches in foreign countries, but the BJP/RSS government headed by him continues relentlessly to erode the norms of law and constitutional governance. Caravan magazine and the authors of this article deserve praise for alerting us to one more aspect of how this erosion is playing out. Only an active civil society can stem the rot: DS
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Law Of The Land: How the Vyapam SITchief, judges and journalists benefited from government largesse in Madhya Pradesh

BEFORE MERGING into National Highway 12, Hoshangabad Road runs through the swathes of new development that form the south-east extremity of Bhopal. It is one of the widest strips of tarmac in the city, which serves as the capital of Madhya Pradesh. The Bhopal Institute of Social Sciences, Barkatullah University and Major Dhyan Chand Sports Complex sit along one side of the road; modish two-storey houses dot the other.

The neighbourhood of Bawadia Kalan spreads out on either side of Hoshangabad Road, just south of Barkatullah University. Take a sharp turn off to the east, and you find yourself driving past restaurants, shopping malls, salons and schools, and plenty of construction. Take a left at one of the malls, and you come upon a vista of gated communities with names such as Royal Homes and Bungalow City, and a 32-acre, sparsely built-up tract of land fronted by a decrepit shopping complex.

This land once belonged to a Delhi-based firm headed by Sardari Lal Narang, who built the famous Odeon Theatre in the centre of the national capital. In the early 1960s, the firm carved it up into 350 individual plots and put them up for sale, as part of a project eventually named Ganesh Nagar. Three hundred of these plots were sold by 1980, but next to nobody came to live there. The place was considered to be out in the boondocks.

Through the late decades of the last century and the early years of the new one, Bhopal, like every major Indian city, grew explosively, swallowing up its surroundings. Property prices in Bawadia Kalan swelled. In Ganesh Nagar, plots that Narang’s firm once sold for Rs 1,000 or less were going for Rs 5 lakh by 2004. That year, one of them was bought by the father of a Bhopal-based lawyer named Devendra Mishra.

Mishra wears his dishevelled hair parted on one side, and often sports a few days’ worth of stubble to match. He speaks fast, and facts and figures burst out of him. When he was in his early twenties, and studying law at Barkatullah University, he fell from a first-floor balcony and damaged his spine, leaving him bedridden for a year. Following surgery, he could stand again, but moving around remained an effort, as it does to this day.

He finished his degree nonetheless, and started practising law in the early 2000s. He does not smoke, does not drink, and works with great intensity, primarily as an intrepid digger of information—on the state government’s dealings with corporations; on land grabs by the powerful; on laws being flouted for the construction of a big amusement park. “This is the only drug I take,” he told us in March, pointing to sheaves of documents in the back seat of his small maroon hatchback.

A year or so before his father bought the plot in Ganesh Nagar, Mishra saw a newspaper announcement that the Bhopal Municipal Corporation was going to be “developing” the colony—installing electricity, water and sewage connections. As that work proceeded, Mishra noticed that areas reserved for open space and shared amenities on the original map of Ganesh Nagar were disappearing under concrete. “In the name of developing, they were taking over the spaces left for parks and roads,” Mishra said.

In 2004, Mishra saw the shopping complex that still acts as Ganesh Nagar’s main landmark coming up on what was meant to be an open stretch to separate the colony from the adjacent road. He decided to get to the bottom of what was happening. In the coming years, he filed dozens of Right to Information applications, and talked to everyone he could get to who had any idea of the forces at play. With his effortful gait, he climbed the staircases of courthouses and government offices, ferreting papers out from the state government’s bureaucratic entrails. He discovered that the shopping complex stands closer to the road than is allowed under the norms of the National Highway Authority of India, and that it was owned by two real-estate companies, Girija Colonisers and Surendra Builders—the former of which is known to have ties to Jayant Malaiya, then Madhya Pradesh’s minister of urban development and now the state’s finance minister. All the information Mishra gathered confirmed what he already suspected: that municipal officials were handing open land to private firms.

Gradually, Mishra started to look with new eyes at the area around Ganesh Nagar as well. Sometime around 2010, his gaze fixed upon one plot in particular, located just under a kilometre away, near Bhopal’s Kendriya Vidyalaya Number 3. Past the school, the road narrows and turns towards Bagh Mughalia and Katara Hills—both, like Bawadia Kalan, being engulfed by Bhopal’s construction boom. Here, billboards claim space for a Planet City, a Royal City and a Divine City. To the south, fresh bungalows and multi-storey apartment complexes block out the horizon. Separating those from the road is a tract of scrubland the size of some half a dozen football fields, with no sign at all of its ownership.

Any developer would have wanted this land; numerous locals told us that, for anyone with money in Bhopal today, this is the area to buy property. Yet no one could tell Mishra who held it. The best lead he got was that the state government had reserved it for a cooperative society. But he could see no society tied to the location on the website of the district collector of Bhopal, which is meant to list all the cooperative societies in the city.

In 2012, Mishra submitted RTI applications regarding the land to the Bhopal collector’s office, Madhya Pradesh’s registrar of cooperative societies and the state’s revenue department. Replies started coming in the following year. (This was remarkably fast, as Madhya Pradesh has one of the slowest RTI response rates in the country. “People here have a lot to hide,” Mishra said, laughing.)

Even after all his experience from other RTI enquiries, what emerged from the replies left Mishra shocked. It turned out that the land did belong to a cooperative society. The state government, using its power to lease public land to residential cooperatives at discounted prices, had, in October 2007, signed it over for 30 years to the Nyayadhish Grih Nirman Sahkari Sanstha, or Judges’ Housing Cooperative Society—a body meant to include both sitting and retired judges with records of service in Madhya Pradesh. But the government had done so at unthinkably low prices—so low that the lease was almost a gift. “Why would the government want to give land to judges at throwaway prices?” Mishra asked.

The lawyer continued to pepper the government with RTI requests, and amassed a trove of papers running into thousands of pages that detailed the society’s workings. He discovered numerous irregularities: that, though the society was expressly registered for providing homes to judges and their families, it also included several lawyers, public officials and individuals with good political connections; that members were each allowed to claim a single plot in their name or appoint an immediate family member in their stead, but in some cases numerous relatives were listed as discrete beneficiaries; that the land was released to the society while its ownership was still under legal dispute by its previous owner, who lost it to the government in 1987 as a result of a cap on urban landholdings. Through a separate set of RTI enquiries, Mishra also discovered that the government had given land at similarly low prices to two cooperative societies formed by journalists, and that the workings of those societies were unusual too.

Mishra realised early on that the implications of what he had dug up reached into the highest ranks of Madhya Pradesh’s judiciary, media and executive. The release of land to all three societies, and the exceptional discounts granted to them, had required approval from the state’s cabinet of ministers—which is chaired by the chief minister. The latest membership list of the judges’ society, from 2012, named 160 people, many of them highly prominent. The journalists’ societies took in over 300 members, and included some of the most influential media figures working in the state.

Buried in the membership list of the judges’ society was one Chandresh Bhushan: a retired high court judge who, at the time the society received its land, was poised to become the deputy to the Madhya Pradesh lokayukta, or anti-corruption ombudsman. Mishra did not initially pay Bhushan particular attention, until, in November 2014, the former judge’s name started to play across newspaper pages and television screens.

Bhushan, the media reported, had been appointed to lead a Special Investigation Team tasked with supervising the investigation into the Vyapam affair—a corruption scandal that embroiled Shivraj Singh Chouhan and his administration, led to well over a thousand arrests, is suspected to have caused at least 40 deaths, and eventually occasioned, after a Supreme Court intervention, a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation... read more:

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