The Karunanidhi government sold 29 acres belonging to IIT Madras to Tata Realty. Sai Manish reports on how commerce trumped education
THE LINK between the Tatas and the Tamil Nadu government under M Karunanidhi extends beyond Ratan Tata’s words of praise for former telecom minister A Raja’s leadership. Now, new evidence in possession with TEHELKA shows the government usurped prime land belonging to IIT Madras and sold it to Tata Realty for building an SEZ. All rules seem to have been broken to give this land to the Tatas at a time when the IIT is facing a land crunch for expanding its existing campus and staring at the prospect of reducing student intake.
No IIT land can be disposed of without the President of India’s consent. Despite that, 29 out of over 40 acres belonging to IIT on Chennai’s IT corridor were given away at the guideline value of Rs 12,050 per sq ft to the Tatas by the Karunanidhi government in 2008. Worth Rs 1,400 crore, it was the biggest ever real estate deal in Tamil Nadu, with a further investment of close to Rs 3,500 crore promised by the Tatas.
This happened with the full knowledge of IIT Director MS Ananth. Tatas will now build the Ramanujan IT City, a five-star hotel and high-end residential apartments.
If that was not enough, the remaining 11.42 acres was ‘gifted’ back to the IIT for building a research park with the IIT director even “thanking” the government for its largesse. This is strange because the IITwas facing severe space crunch. In fact, it is being forced to demolish some existing structures and replace them with multi-storeyed buildings to house new classrooms, staff quarters and laboratories.
IIT Deputy Director VG Idichandy admits that the institute’s expansion plans have been hit by lack of space. “With close to 8,500 students, we have reached saturation point. Unless we get more land for establishing a new campus, we won’t be able to accommodate more students.”
S Ramasundaram, who was the MD of Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation (TIDCO) when the MoU was signed with Tata Realty in the presence of Karunanidhi and Deputy Chief Minister MK Stalin, evades a direct response on the issue that is now threatening to snowball into a big controversy. “Everything was done according to rules and with the complete knowledge of the state government,” claims Ramasundaram. “I am no longer with the government and do not want to speak more on the matter.”
Ananth, who has been at the helm of IIT Madras for a decade, also pleaded innocence. “I didn’t receive a single rupee. I am still paying EMIs to a bank for my housing loan,” he says. “We never had a sense of possession over that land. I don’t know when that land was even given to IIT.
“Around February 2002, we became aware of the Town Survey Field Register of Tamil Nadu government in which the land was ‘registered in the name of IIT’. We then started referring to these records in order to persuade the government to give us possession of 11.42 acres for building the research park. No pressure whatsoever was put on IIT either by Ratan Tata or the government in this matter.”
Sanjay Ubale, Mumbai-based MD of Tata Realty and Infrastructure, said in response to TEHELKA’s queries, “We responded to a Request for Qualification (RFQ) issued in The Hindu dated 14.5.2007 by TIDCO, which is the industrial arm of the state government and were awarded the land through a formal bidding process… No objections were received from the IIT when we acquired the land. The land belongs to the government of Tamil Nadu and has been fully paid for through a transparent bidding process.”
When the IIT embarked on the process of setting up a research park in 2002, Ananth was the director. In a string of communications with senior-most bureaucrats between 2002 and ’07, he maintained that IIT must be returned its property for setting up a research park. Land records show 40 acres, most of it lying vacant and some of it was encroached upon by the now defunct MGR Film City. A request was sent to the government to return the land.
‘The land was earmarked for IIT but we never had a sense of possession,’ says MS Ananth
In a letter dated 1 March 2002, which is in TEHELKA’s possession, the land commissioner wrote to the revenue secretary, “On scrutiny of the Collector’s report, it is revealed that the land located in LR (Land Rent) No. 2, Block No. 6, Kangam village is registered in the name of IIT in revenue accounts. The owner is IIT. It is not known how land belonging to the IIT has been leased to the Film City without the IIT’s consent.” The commissioner even recommended “that the Film City be dismantled and the possession be given back to IIT”.
Armed with this information, Ananth wrote a letter to Chief Secretary Lakshmi Pranesh on 14 January 2004 asking back the land for setting up the research park. He did not get any response. But through a government order on 4 July 2005, the IIT was allotted 6.59 acres. Careful not to upset the state government over the sensitive issue, Ananth decided to be patient.
When the Karunanidhi government came to power in 2006, Ananth raised the issue again. In a letter dated 17 February 2007 to Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary LK Tripathy, he reiterated that the “land was registered in the name of IIT”. Failing to evince a reply, he wrote to Special Secretary Ambuj Sharma in May. Finally, on 3 June 2007, the government returned some more land that raised the total area to 11.42 acres. After this, Ananth dropped all claims on the remaining 29 acres.
Meanwhile, in February 2007, Stalin mooted the idea of an SEZ and floated tenders, which was eventually won by Tata Realty. This is just the point at which the IIT management fell silent. Coincidentally, that is also the time when Radia was doing an excellent PR job for the Tata group in Tamil Nadu, with relations between Ratan Tata and Karunanidhi getting extremely cordial. Tata’s letter praising Raja was sent on 13 November 2007. Four months later, in April 2008, Tata bagged the project.
When TEHELKA asked Ananth, who is just two months from retirement, about this, he said, “The land was earmarked for IIT but we never had a sense of possession. There was no document to prove that we were the ones occupying it. There is a difference between occupying the land and owning it.”
BUT IF that was the case then why did he maintain in 2002-07 that the land be given back to IIT? “My letters claiming ownership were not based on documentary proof,” argues Ananth. “I took a chance when I sent the letter to the Tamil Nadu government, thinking that they would yield to moral pressure. For 50 years, nobody cared about those 40 acres because we were happy within our existing campus. If for five decades, we didn’t bother about who owns that land, then how can we suddenly stake claim to being its owners?”
But when the land commissioner himself acknowledged that the IIT was the owner of 40 acres, why did the management accept a fraction?
“It would have led to further delays,” says Ananth. “You know how the government works. Time was running out. The research park was an ambitious project and it has already taken nine years to get it up and running. Within a few years, we already have patents rolling out of it. Every student has ideas and one good idea can change people’s lives. I have built this research park with great difficulty having interacted with eight or nine government secretaries who changed during the period. And I still maintain, it has been built with the cooperation of the state government.”
Tata’s project will have one of the city’s most expensive residential complexes, a convention centre and 3 lakh sq ft of retail space, apart from the IT park. Since this is where the IIT would have expanded its campus, commercial considerations have obviously won over higher education.
Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka