A two-decade-old controversy over housing society plot allotments to some of the most prominent members of the Indian judiciary has become relevant once again as Supreme Court judge HL Dattu assumed the most powerful judicial office in the country on Sunday.
New Chief Justice of India Justice Dattu, and two of his Supreme Court colleagues – TS Thakur and V Gopala Gowda – are among the judges who accepted the plots in defiance of a 1995 ruling by the Karnataka high court that judges were ineligible to participate in the land scheme.
The issue of the allotments has surfaced repeatedly since 1994 when the first judges purchased the plots from the society meant for court employees.
Justice HL Dattu takes oath as the new Chief Justice of India on Sunday. (Photo Courtesy: Doordarshan)
Recently another top Judge, KL Manjunath, has seen his planned elevation to Chief Justice the Punjab and Haryana high court complicated by his participation in the allotment row, which has been cited in press reports as among the factors motivating a possible impeachment bid against him.
The state government originally acquired the land for the project from farmers in 1991 and sold it to the Karnataka State Judicial Department Employees House Building Cooperative Society (KSJDEHBCS) at a huge subsidy so that it could fulfill the ‘public purpose’ of housing court employees who could not afford alternative accommodation.
However, soon after the colony was formed near the Bangalore airport, judges too started enrolling as members and accepting the steeply discounted plots.
Sale deeds with HT show that Justice Dattu was first allotted a 2,400 sq. ft. plot by the society for Rs 61,598 at Rs 15 per sq. ft. on June 30, 1997.
He was allotted another 4,000 sq. ft. plot on October 26, 2002, for Rs. 1,02,666 at Rs. 25 per sq. Land in the surrounding areas was selling for no less than Rs. 1,500 a sq. ft. at the time.
A society official, who helped HT in this investigation, claimed that Justice Dattu surrendered the first plot in February 2003 after other members objected to the double allotment.
On June 21, 2010, he gifted the other plot to his grandson Mihir Adithya who was three years old at the time.
According to local realtors who spoke to HT, a minimum of Rs 8,000 per sq. ft. is now the going rate in the area. At those prices, the plot justice Dattu acquired for just over a lakh in 2002 and subsequently gifted to his grandson is worth more than Rs. 3 crore today.
Documents obtained by HT indicate that the judicial employees’ society irregularly allotted plots to at least another 73 judges between 1994 and 2006.
See: List of 73 judges
The society by-laws define a member as “an employee of the judicial department in Karnataka [who] has put in a minimum continuous or intermittent service of five years in Karnataka.” But judges, as affirmed by repeated Supreme Court rulings, are not employees of the department.
The matter of judges benefitting from this subsidised project meant for court employees was taken to the Karnataka high court through a writ and resulted in a ruling that the allotment to judges was an “irregularity”.
A division bench of the high court ruled on October 12, 1995: “A reading of Clause-7 of the bye-laws, in our view, by no stretch of imagination can include the judges of High Court or Supreme Court (sitting, transferred, retired)."
In an exclusive to HT, Justice (retd) MF Saldanha, who was part of the division bench, spoke about the ethical and legal questions arising out of the allotment.Watch:Justice (retd) Saldanha's interview to HT
But the allotment to judges did not stop. Judges Dattu, Thakur and Gowda purchased the plots from 1996 onwards, after this ruling was passed. Nearly 50 judges accepted plots from the society after the high court ruling.
A joint legislature committee of the Karnataka assembly submitted a report in 2007 and added: “It is most unfortunate that the KSJDEHBCS, which should have been a model to other house building cooperative societies, has itself become the leading law- breaker without the least fear or care for the law, propriety of public interest. It has indulged in acts of favour, cronyism and capricious indifference to law at its will. Obviously, High Court judges and powerful persons as its members and beneficiaries will ensure immunity to all its illegal acts.”
Although the committee’s report was put in cold storage, the issue came alive again with the appointment of former Supreme Court judge Shivraj V Patil as Karnataka Lokayukta in 2011. A media expose of the plots received by him from the judicial employees’ society forced him to resign as the state’s anti-corruption ombudsman just over a month after he took charge.
The Lokayukta’s post remained vacant for 17 months after Justice Patil’s resignation as the then BJP government struggled to find a judge who had not benefited from the scheme. Every time the government announced a candidate, the media would expose his allotment. Matters came to a head when the then governor HR Bhardwaj refused to approve the appointment of a former judge following media reports about his plot.
The present Lokayukta, Justice Y Bhaskar Rao, also a plot allottee, was appointed in an atmosphere vitiated by protests from sections of the opposition and hostile reports in the media.
The ethical question that laid siege to the Karnataka Lokayukta’s office for 17 months, however, did not prevent the mobility of judges through the collegium system of judicial appointments. Many went on to preside over various high courts in the country as well as the Supreme Court of India.Indeed, justice Dattu and Justice Thakur are today ranked second and third in terms of seniority in the apex court’s panel of 26 judges. They are also members of the collegium that vets and appoints judges to the higher judiciary.
HT met justice Dattu at his farmhouse and had a tele-conversation with Justice Gopala Gowda on September 12 to seek a response. Both judges declined to comment but said that a letter written to the society president by former Chief Justice of India, MN Venkatachalaiah, who is also an allotee, clarified everything.
Society president K Sippe Gowda told HT, “Justice Gowda called me a few minutes ago and asked me to give you that letter. But I have lost it. I don’t know where it is.” Asked how he could lose such an important document, he said, “I didn’t think it was that important.”
Justice Thakur did not respond to repeated requests for comment sent through his staff.
Today, the two colonies formed by the society are bustling centres of real estate trading with some of the biggest builders in the city hawking luxury apartments costing in excess of Rs 2 crore.
Despite a condition in each sale deeds requiring owners to construct a house within two years of receiving a plot those allotted to judges Dattu, Thakur and Gowda remain vacant.