Lords of all they survey


The Lokayukta’s post has been lying vacant as most of the prospective candidates are embroiled in a co-operative society irregularity. Imran Khan reports

Is justice blind?: Justice SR Bannurmath (centre)
Is justice blind? Justice SR Bannurmath (centre), Photos: Bangalore News Photos


















LAST WEEK, Karnataka Governor HR Bhardwaj rejected the BJP government’s recommendation for appointing Justice (retd) SR Bannurmath as Lokayukta because he was embroiled in controversies, including allotment of land in the Yelahanka Judicial Layout in Bengaluru in violation of rules. The search for a Lokayukta is not going to get any easier because it has emerged that two Supreme Court judges and 13 high court judges were allotted plots in the same layout.

Is justice blind?: Justice SR Bannurmath's house at the Yelahanka Judicial Layout in Bengaluru
Is justice blind?: Justice SR Bannurmath’s house at the Yelahanka Judicial Layout in Bengaluru

Documents with TEHELKA show that Supreme Court judges TS Thakur and HL Dhattu were allotted sites by the Karnataka State Judicial Employees House Building Co-operative Society (KSJEHBCS) in violation of the Co-operative Societies Act and Model Bylaws. As many as 82 judges, including eight retired SC judges and two former Chief Justices of India, have been allotted sites despite the fact that they are not judicial employees.

Interestingly, Justice Shivaraj V Patil was forced to step down as Lokayukta in September after it was found that his name figured in the list of judges who had been allotted a site in the Yelahanka layout.

According to past judgments, judges are constitutional authorities and not judicial employees. For instance, in the case of Union of India vs Sankal Chand Himatlal Sheth on 19 September 1977, a five-member SC Bench observed that, “A HC judge is not a government servant, but the holder of a constitutional office. He is as much part of the State as the executive government.”

Subsequently, on 12 October 1995, in the case of Subramani versus Union of India, the Karnataka HC said: “A reading of Clause 7 (that deals with eligibility criteria) of the bylaws by no stretch of imagination can include the HC and SC judges (sitting, transferred, retired). Even assuming for a moment that certain judges have been allowed to become members of the society, it may be an irregularity in the conduct of the business of the society.”

Other prominent people who were allotted sites include HC judges Manjula Chellur, CR Kumaraswamy, Vasudevan Jagannathan, HN Nagamohan Das, Ajit J Gunjal, NK Patil, N Kumar, AB Hinchigeri, Anand Byrareddy, S Abdul Nazeer and Mohan M Shanthanagoudar. All allotments were made in violation of Clauses 10(B) and 53 of the KSJEHBCS bylaws.

Clause 10(B) clearly states that only an “employee of the Karnataka judicial department and who has put in a minimum continuous or intermittent service of five years in the state” is eligible for the plot. And Clause 53 says, “The society shall allot sites, flats and houses only to members who are eligible as per bylaw No. 10.”

In fact, the Joint House Committee report on land encroachment, submitted to the Karnataka Assembly in 2007, is scathing in its comments on the functioning of the KSJEHBCS and the judicial fraternity. “It has been unfortunate that the KSJEHBCS, which should have been a model for other co-operative societies, has become the leading law-breaker without fear of the law,” the report said. “It has indulged in acts of favouritism, cronyism and capricious indifference to law at will, obviously under the hubris that having HC judges and powerful persons as its members and beneficiaries will ensure immunity to its illegal acts. What is more disquieting is the readiness with which HC judges, who are not ‘employees’ under any government but are constitutional functionaries, should have eagerly become members of the HBCS and obtained sites. It is seen that some of them obtained sites not only for themselves but their kith and kin who are not judicial employees either.”

Thakur and Dhattu were allotted plots when they were judges in the Karnataka HC. Thakur was allotted site No. 1273 in 1996-97. He had paid Rs 1.54 lakh for a site measuring 5,436 sq ft. The current market value is estimated to be around Rs 2.17 crore. Dhattu was allotted site No. 2095 at the same layout for which he had paid a meagre Rs 61,598 in 1997-98. He was granted another site measuring 4,000 sq ft in 2002.

The eight retired SC judges — Justices GT Nanavati, RV Raveendran, MN Venkatachalaiah, S Rajendrababu, P Venkatarama Reddy, Shivraj V Patil, NG Venkatachala and K Jagannatha Shetty — have also violated the same clauses because they were allotted sites by the society.

According to documents available with TEHELKA, Nanavati, who probed the 2002 Gujarat riots, got site No. 2070 allotted on 14 October 1999. He was the Chief Justice of the Karnataka HC from September 1994 to March 1995. MN Venkatachalaiah, former CJI (February 1993-October 1994) was allotted site No. 1295, measuring 5,400 sq ft in 1997-98 for Rs 1.53 lakh and S Rajendra Babu, who also served as CJI (May 2004- June 2004) was allotted site No. 1389, measuring 9,605 sq ft, in 1994-95 for Rs 4.44 lakh, when he was a Karnataka HC judge.

“The allotment was done a long time ago,” says retired SC judge P Venkatarama Reddy. “As far as I know, more than 100 judges were allotted sites. A PIL has been pending regarding this. Whether judges are employees of the judiciary or not is the larger question.” Former HC judge M Rama Jois added: “I’ve been a member of this society from the start. There is no irregularity.” The others either refused to talk about the issue or were unavailable for comment.

As many as 82 judges were allotted plots in the society even though they are not judicial employees

But what appears to have been violated is not just laws but the very principles of the co-operative movement. In the case of Ishwarnagar Society vs Padmanand Sharma, the SC observed: “Co-operative societies are the best system that suit the needs of the poor and weaker sections. The object of a co-operative society is not to earn profits but to enable the members to improve their economic condition. Thus, co-operative societies like the present one, which seek to obtain land at concessional rates from the government and to build houses, must necessarily have a limitation in that only those who are in real need of houses should be permitted to become members and to take the benefit of land allotment.”

IT IS against the backdrop of this court observation that the palatial houses built by judges in the layout strike a jarring note. Most have been allotted massive plots larger than tennis courts. In fact, one retired judge has actually built a tennis court on his allotted land. Ironically, the land was granted by the state government. As the grant was for a public purpose, which was to provide subsidised housing to the needy, the government also subsidised the land grant with taxpayers’ money.

In a city where even the middle class makes extreme sacrifices to buy residential property, these judges were allotted sites at shockingly low prices: amounts ranging from Rs 25-Rs 240 per sq ft. This, when prices between 1994 and 2006 in this area were never less than Rs 1,000 per sq ft. The current market rate is over Rs 4,000 per sq ft. Some judges received multiple allotments (a violation of Section 10(a) of the bylaws), and in some cases they already owned houses in the city at the time of allotment.

Many judges have violated conditions laid down in the sale deed, which prevents them from selling the plots within 10 years, and some have since sold them at a huge profit. Some have not built houses on the plots within the stipulated two years.

In violation of a government order, the society exempted the judges from filing affidavits listing their assets. Under normal circumstances, it is through these voluntary declarations that the co-operative society filters the applications and eliminates those who already own houses.

Imran Khan is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.com.


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