PRITAM SENGUPTA writes from New Delhi: There has been a brief hiatus to the “crude and disgusting character assassination” of the father-son lawyer-pair of Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan, after the Union government made it clear the insinuations would not sway the composition or functioning of the committee to draft the Lokpal bill.
Now, as if to show the world that they are no wimps, the Bhushans have hit back—and how.
A week after Shekhar Gupta‘s Indian Express front-paged two reports (Part I, Part II) in what Common Cause, the organisation founded by Arun Shourie‘s father, calls “an orchestrated campaign of calumny, slander and insinuation”, the Bhushans have issued a four-page clarification on the allotment of two 10,000 square metre plots that so riled the paper and—no surprise—NDTV 24×7, which repeatedly asked “Should Bhushans Quit?“
The point-by-point rejoinder punches big, gaping holes in every single claim imputed by the Express lead story on April 20, authored by the paper’s Noida correspondent Pragya Kaushika and investigative reporter Ritu Sarin, and a follow-up story on April 21 authored by Krishnadas Rajagopal and Tanu Sharma.
In fact, it turns out, Express based the stories on an aggrieved allottee, whose petition for a better location of the plot than the one alotted to him and the Bhushans, had been thrown out by the Allahabad high court four days earlier, on April 16, a fact which Express artfully hid from readers.
Express also did not disclose to readers that a public interest litigation (PIL) challenging the scheme/allotments had been dismissed by a bench of the Allahabad high court in 2010.
# Express: “Bhushans get two prime farmhouse plots from Mayawati government for a song”.
Bhushans: The total price of the property is Rs 3.67 crore, plus additional annual lease rent of Rs 9.18 lakh per year for 90 years, which amounts to more than Rs 75,000 per month. “It seems some people have misunderstood the first instalment as the total cost of the land.”
# Express: “The political class may be evil and corrupt but that’s whom the Bhushans turn to when they want a farmhouse each—for a song.”
Bhushans: The allotment of land was not from any discretionary quota but from a regular scheme which was advertised in the newspapers and was open to any person. The Bhushans applied in March 2009, were interviewed in May 2009, and allotted the land in January 2010. They received the land in January 2011. By the time of the allotment, the rate of the land had gone up from Rs 3,100 per square metre to Rs 3,500 per square metre.”
# Express: The allotment raises “questions of conflict of interest, as [Shanti Bhushan’s son and Prashant Bhushan’s brother] Jayant Bhushan has appeared against Mayawati in the Noida statue park case.”
Bhushans: There is no connection between the cases and the plots. The Noida park case was argued by Jayant Bhushan tooth and nail in full media glare right till the end, as can be gauged from the judgement delivered…. “In fact, even now Prashant Bhushan and Shanti Bhushan are appearing against the Mayawati government in the Taj corridor case. The question of favouring the Bhushans by the Mayawati government does not arise.”
# Express: “In his declaration of assets, Shanti Bhushan… did not mention the discretionary manner in which Mayawati government allotted this land.”
Bhushans: “This allotment was not made under any discretionary quota. No criterion for allotment was mentioned either in the advertisement or the subsequent brochure of the scheme…. The brochure did not indicate on what basis the allotment would be made in case the number of applicants was more than the number of plots.”
# Express: “This allotment of Noida farmland is now the subject matter of case in the Allahabad high court by another allottee, former additional solicitor-general Vikas Singh.”
Bhushans: A PIL filed in the Allahabad high court challenging the scheme/allotments was dismissed last year by a bench of the HC. Another writ petition filed by Vikas Singh was dismissed by the Allahabad high court on 16 April 2011, ie four days before the Express “expose” appeared.
# Express: The cost of each farmhouse is Rs 3.5 crore and allottees had to pay just 10%—Rs 35 lakh—at the time of allotment, the rest in 16 instalments. This is less than a quarter of the market rate, according to Vikas Singh’s petition.”
Bhushans: “Allegations that the Bhushans have been charged less than the market price are totally unsubstantiated. No sales have taken place in the open market. No one has explained how the alleged market rate had been arrived at.”
# Express: On April 16, the Allahabad High Court heard a bunch of writ petitions, including that of Vikas Singh.
Bhushans: The petitions of Vikas Singh and two other persons who had not as yet been allotted a plot, was dismissed by Allahabad HC on 16 April 2011.
# Express: “The manner in which the farmland was allotted has been challenged in court.”
Bhushans: Vikas Singh’s grievance was that the better plots had been allotted to favoured persons and that his plot was in a very bad location. The Bhushans have been given plots in a totally undeveloped area unapproachable by any proper road. The delay in and poor location of the allotted land may be the reason.
# Express: “When it comes to individuals getting land allotted from the government much below market rates and without any lottery or auction, the Bhushans have always claimed to hold high standards of probity—for others.”
Bhushans: “No criterion for allotment was mentioned either in the advertisement or in the subsequent brochureof the scheme. Applicants were called for an interview which was supposed to determine their aiblity to pay the requisite amounts for the plot and to determine what the applicants planned to do with their plots…. The brochure did not indicate on what basis the allotment would be made in case the number of applicants was more than the number of plots. Even when the allotment was made, it was unclear as to whether at all the number of applicants was greater than the number of plots or whether a draw of lots should have taken place.”
Nevertheless, Express ran a quarter-page advertisement gloating over the “scoop” that wasn’t on April 21, the day the second story appeared. The Express story also became the cue card for the political class which wanted the Bhushans to subject themselves to the same scrutiny they subject others.