In Odisha, housing grants are a plot against the distressed

Successive governments have given away houses and plots meant for the distressed to senior judges, media persons, bureaucrats and politicians

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | January 17, 2012


The Odisha secretariat
The Odisha secretariat

If you want to know why there are few voices of dissent or resistance to the state in Odisha in spite of the fact that this is not a particularly well-governed one, here is something that might explain it: for the past 26 years, successive governments have been using their discretionary powers to give away government-built houses and housing plots in the capital city of Bhubaneswar and Cuttack to the members of the higher judiciary, legislature, bureaucracy and media at a rate substantially lower than the market price. What makes it all the more galling is that these houses and housing plots were actually meant for the people “in distress” but went instead to the privileged individuals who have high stakes in and obligations to make the state work.

The shocking revelations have come through a quirky turn of events that led the state government to disclose the list of beneficiaries to the assembly on December 9. The list carries more than 800 names involving a virtual who’s who of the state.

It has at least four of the 16 sitting judges of the high court – justices Bimal Prasad Das (next to the chief justice in seniority), Madan Mohan Das, Sanju Panda and Laxmikant Mohapatra. Justice Nityananda Prushty has retired, and currently heads the state administrative tribunal, and so have many others – justices Pradyumna Kumar Mohanty, Prafulla Kumar Tripathy, Radhakrushna Patra (currently heading the state human rights commission), Debapriya Mohapatra and SK Mohanty. Even a former CJI, Gopal Ballav Patnaik, figures in it. He got a 4,000 sq ft plot in Bidanasi in Cuttack in the year 2000, while serving as a judge of the supreme court. He has since then rebutted it saying that it was a ‘normal’ allotment, and not from the discretionary quota as the reply tabled in the assembly clearly states.

The bureaucrats who benefited from the quota include SN Tripathi, secretary (rural development), Suresh Mahapatra, secretary (water resources), Raj Kumar Sharma, secretary (revenue), Pradeep Jena, secretary (panchayati raj), Vishal K Dev, commissioner (Bhubaneswar municipal corporation), Alaka Panda, Janak Digal, Bishnupada Sethi, G Mohan Kumar and many others.

Senior police officers include BK Sharma, commissioner of police (BBSR-Cuttack), Prakash Mishra, special DG (national investigation agency), Suresh Palsania, DIG in CBI dealing with the 2G and CWG scams, Satyajit Mohanty (IG), Sudhanshu Sarangi (IG), Arun Bothra (DIG rank officer in CBI handing the Ishrat Jahan encounter case), Uma Shankar Mishra, former CBI director, Bipin Behari Mishra, ex-DG, Rajendra Mohan Patnaik, ex-DG, Anadi Sahoo, M Akhaya, SK Chatterjee and many other IPS officers.
Legislators who got prized houses or housing plots include the law minister in the Naveen Patnaik government, Bikram Keshari Arukh, who got a duplex allotted to him in Bhubaneswar in 2009. Two years earlier, his wife had got a similar house in the city. Both Arukh and his wife had claimed that they had no house or plot in the city while seeking the allotment under the discretionary quota but following an expose by the media late last year the minister surrendered one of the houses and managed to retain his cabinet berth. It was after this act of his that the chief minister scrapped the discretionary quota on December 7.

Other beneficiaries include Jual Oram, BJP’s state unit president and a former union minister, and a host of legislators – Manmohan Samal, Bijaya Kumar Nayak, Ramesh Chandra Pradhan, Sunil Kumar Patnaik (ex-MP) and Debendra Pradhan (ex-union minister).

Then there are leading media persons based in Orissa – Srimoy Kar, resident editor of the New Indian Express, Rajaram Satpathy, bureau chief of the Times of India, Siddharth Kanungo, bureau chief of Press Trust of India, Sampad Mahapatra of NDTV – and many others posted in and outside Orissa.

The discretionary quota system was introduced in 1985 by then chief minister JB Patnaik for the expressed purpose of allotment of houses or housing plots to the “deserving cases on compassionate grounds” as the law governing the land and housing development authorities of Bhubaneswar and Cuttack doesn’t allow any discretion. It listed nine grounds – victims of terror attacks or natural disasters, physically handicapped, dependent of a person who has made supreme sacrifice for the nation, members of security forces and government servants who got permanently disabled while on duty, individual cases of extreme hardship, eminent professionals “in distress” and any other deserving individual, including public servants, needing sympathetic considerations.
The quota (exercised by the urban development minister) was fixed at 10 percent of the assets on offer. Instead of those “in distress”, a perusal of the list shows that apart from the privileged class of people mentioned earlier the other beneficiaries are businessmen, well-paid professionals or a plain and simple class of people described as “housewife” – some of whom are married to the very same privileged class of people.

The practice continued until December 7, 2011. All the successive governments since 1985 – headed by Biju Patnaik and JB Patnaik in the 1990s and Naveen Patnaik since 2000 – continued it. The quota system was scrupulously followed in number in all the housing schemes the two cities offered in the interim but not in letter and spirit. The well-heeled applicants thought nothing of seeking favour of the government of the day. They also, in many cases, submitted false affidavits, saying that they had no houses or land in the city concerned. Some went on to make money by selling these plots/houses soon after allotment.

There have been whiffs of a scandal now and then but nothing disturbed the cozy arrangement until very recently. Way back in 1993, an applicant went to the court to challenge, among other things, the quota system, but his pleas were dismissed. In the judgment delivered in 2002 (Jadunath Panda vs Bhubaneswar development authority and others), the high court said: “In the case at hand, even though we have found the reservation in respect of certain categories are impermissible in law, in view of long lapse of time since the allotments have been made and possession delivered, it will not be just and proper at this stage to interfere with the said allotments.”

Look who all are distressed in Odisha…

Legislature
Bikram Keshari Arukh (BJD), law minister
Jual Oram (BJP), state party president, former union minister
Manmohan Samal (BJP), former minister
Bijaya Kumar Nayak (BJD)
Ramesh Chandra Pradhan, former MLA
Sunil Kumar Patnaik (Cong), former MP
Debendra Pradhan (BJP), former union minister

Judiciary
Four of 16 sitting judges of high court: 
Justice Bimal Prasad Das (next to the chief justice in seniority)
Justice Madan Mohan Das
Justice Sanju Panda
Justice Laxmikant Mohapatra
Justice (retd) Nityananda Prushty, head of the state administrative tribunal
Justice (retd) Pradyumna Kumar Mohanty
Justice (retd) Prafulla Kumar Tripathy
Justice  (retd) Radhakrushna Patra, head of the state human rights commission
Justice (retd) Debapriya Mohapatra
Justice (retd) SK Mohanty
Justice (retd) Gopal Ballav Patnaik, former CJI

Bureaucracy
SN Tripathi, secretary, rural development
Suresh Mahapatra, secretary, water resources
Raj Kumar Sharma, secretary, revenue
Pradeep Jena, secretary, panchayati raj
Vishal K Dev, commissioner, Bhubaneswar municipal corporation
Alaka Panda, IAS
Janak Digal, IAS
Bishnupada Sethi, IAS
G Mohan Kumar, IAS

Police
BK Sharma, commissioner of police, BBSR, Cuttack
Prakash Mishra, special DG, national investigation agency
Suresh Palsania, DIG in CBI dealing with the 2G and CWG scams
Satyajit Mohanty, IG
Sudhanshu Sarangi, IG
Arun Bothra, DIG rank officer in CBI handing the Ishrat Jahan encounter case
Uma Shankar Mishra, former CBI director
Bipin Behari Mishra, ex-DG
Rajendra Mohan Patnaik, ex-DG
Anandi Sahoo, IPS
M Akhaya, IPS
SK Chatterjee, IPS
 
Media
Srimoy Kar, resident editor, the New Indian Express
Rajaram Satpathy, bureau chief, the Times of India
Siddharth Kanungo, bureau chief, Press Trust of India
Sampad Mahapatra, NDTV representative


One judge of the two-member bench that ruled this was justice Pradyumna Kumar Mohanty (retired since then), who had himself got a plot in Cuttack in the year 2000 under the very same quota system. His defence for not recusing himself? He had got a plot from the Cuttack development authority while the case he was deciding related to the Bhubaneswar development authority.
In 2008, a Congress legislator, Debashish Patnaik, asked a question in the assembly seeking to know the names of judges and bureaucrats who benefited from the quota system. He got the answer, which listed 38 prominent names of higher judiciary and bureaucracy, but that didn’t ring a bell.

It was only in November 2011 when two news channels, CNN-IBN and IBN7, and the news magazine Open carried reports exposing and explaining how the quota was being misused to provide undue favours to the members of higher judiciary and bureaucracy, at the cost of those who were intended to be helped by the government, that the enormity of the violation became apparent. By then, a lawyer, Niranjan Tripathy, had approached the high court with a PIL, saying that the allotments under the discretionary quota were illegal because no policy or principle was being followed, and sought a CBI investigation.
On December 8, 2011, this PIL was dismissed on technical grounds – that this was not a genuine PIL and that the real motive was mere publicity – by a bench comprising of chief justice V Gopala Gowda and justice I Mohanty. Before dismissing it, the bench had issued an interim order on September 29, 2011, asking Tripathy “not to go to the press/electronic media for publication of any type of news item with relation to this case”.

And then, in its final order the court relied heavily on the fact that news items did appear in newspapers and electronic media despite the injunction to aver that the petitioner’s intentions were mala fide.

But a day later, on December 9, a written answer was tabled in the assembly by urban development minister Sarada Prasad Nayak in response to a question by Congressman Santosh Singh Saluja. This answer listed more than 800 beneficiaries, along with the ground rule of the discretionary quota. The game was up.

The unraveling of the plot, so to say, has led to a disquiet in the political circles. The opposition Congress may occasionally bark at Naveen Patnaik’s regime but it lacks bite. After all, it was the Congress regime that introduced the quota and then misused it to co-opt those who make the governance work – judiciary, bureaucracy and media.

In Bhubaneswar, it was tough to get hold of the ministers who had doled out houses and housing plots in all these years, or the politicians. They were all busy in their constituencies finalising tickets for the panchayat elections due next month, I was told. I could only speak to one, Kanak Vardhan Singhdeo, a BJP legislator who was rural development minister in the Naveen Patnaik government until the BJD-BJP ties snapped in 2009. He  tried to brazen it out, first by denying the very existence of a discretionary quota and then warning about the high court order banning publication of any report relating to allotment of housing plots to the judges. When nothing worked, he said he had followed the procedures as laid down in the brochures of the housing schemes launched during his time, and then added: “Why don’t you read those brochures?”

Rabi Das, senior journalist and a political analyst who was director of the Orissa state housing board between 1995 and 2004, says the brochures don’t (and need not) mention the quota. The brochures are meant to attract attention by highlighting advantages of the schemes. To him, discretionary allotment of plots is a simple case of bestowing favours on people who matter to “protect the interests of the government”. “The governments always want the judiciary, bureaucracy and the media to be on their side,” he says.

Rumours doing the rounds in the state capital suggest that the disclosures had a lot to do with some judgments of the high court that embarrassed the Naveen Patnaik government in recent months. These judgments include cancellation of land allotment to the Vedanta group to set up a university in Puri, handing over of prospecting licence of iron ore mines in Khandadhar (Keonjhar district) to South Korean steel giant Posco without adhering to the norms, scam in purchase and supply of daal (pulses) in the mid-day meal scheme and undoing of the government’s attempt to make the state cooperative bodies nominated ones instead of the elected ones. Once news reports appeared in the national media showing some high court judges in a bad light, there was no stopping the floodgate. The assembly reply of December 9 completed the process.

The government may have scrapped the quota system for now, the tendencies to co-opt and be co-opted into the system are too strong in Odisha to be brushed under the carpet for long.

(This first appeared in January 16-31 issue of the Governance Now magazine.)

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