Twenty-two sitting and former Gujarat HC judges, including a serving Supreme Court justice, find themselves in the middle of a controversy with the high court on Monday issuing notices to them for allegedly accepting plots of land from the state government at lower-than-market rates.
Initiating suo motu proceedings, Gujarat high court’s acting chief justice VM Sahai asked the judges and the state government to send in their replies by Tuesday. Sahai, who acted on a letter written by two former judges alleging irregularities in the allotment of plots, retires on Wednesday.
The case not only raises the issue of conflict of interest as the government is party to a large number of petitions heard by a high court but also shines light on the growing incidents of impropriety and corruption among the higher judiciary.
In 2007, 22 judges were given plots of 400 sq mts each at subsidised rates opposite the Gujarat high court building in Gota area on SG Highway in Ahmedabad, by the state government. The chief justice of a high court is also among the beneficiaries.
In their letter, justice BJ Shethna and justice KR Vyas, a former Bombay HC chief justice, alleged that the government had committed several illegalities while allotting “expensive plots”.
The two are not among those who were given the plots of land, each of which will now cost between Rs 1.5 to Rs 2 crore. The judges had then paid Rs 25 lakh each.
The Ahmedabad civic body is to provide infrastructure such as roads, streetlights and other amenities free of cost to the housing society that has been named Niti Baug, where some bungalows have been built and some plots are lying vacant.
Countering the charge of irregularities, advocate general Kamal Trivedi argued that the allotment was done in accordance with the rules framed by the state government.
“The court cannot take up the matter because you yourself had desired to have plot under the scheme,” the state’s top law officer told the acting CJ, who retorted, “Where is my application if that be the case?”
Justice Sethna confirmed he had written to the court. “Yes, I have written to the chief justice regarding the allotment of plots to the judges but cannot share its contents.” When asked if he, too, wanted land, he said, “I have not got the plot is a fact.”
“The allotment of plots to the sitting judges by the Gujarat government was not in the interest of justice because judges of the high court are not employees of the state government,” said Vinod Pandya, an RTI activist, who was one of the first people to question the allotment.
A retired judge, who didn’t wish to be identified, told HT he, too, was offered land but he refused. “It’s a clear conflict of interest because you are taking favour from the government, which is a party in most of the petitions that you adjudicate as part of your judicial function,” he said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a noted lawyer said it was improper for judges to accept subsidised plots from the government which provided them all the facilities. “After retirement they get pension so where is the need for private plots?” the lawyer said.