Friday, August 22, 2014

The New Bandit Queen

Phoolan Devi, called the Bandit Queen, is dead, of course. But there are different avatars of the dreaded Devi, haunting the society all the time.

At least Phoolan Devi was oppressed by society; suffered sexual violence; and then decided to take the gun to protect herself. Thus banditry was perhaps forced on her.

But how about highly educated well-placed IAS officials looting like Phoolaan Devi and who still strut around as VVIPs? You will now get to read of one such unedifying saga.

A key player and beneficiary in the story is the Sri Ramachandra Medical College (SRMC), founded by the late Ramachandra Udayar, a liquor baron. He was known as MGR's benaami, and a pioneer of the private college business in Tamil Nadu.

It is ironic that the first two pioneers of the education business in TN are Udaiyar and Jeppiyaar, both of whom were liquor barons in their previous incarnations.

Even though this Ramachandra Medical College was apparently founded with MGR's money, Udaiyar got close to Karunanidhi too, in the tradition of many ‘businessmen.’ The relationship flourished even after Udayar’s death.

In February 2009, when the Eelam-related protests were at a peak in the state, the DMK chief took refuge in the SRMC, to escape the heat – his party was a constituent of the ruling UPA that studiously refused to intervene in Lanka, not wanting to prevent the decimation of the LTTE rebels, whereas Karunanidhi always sought to project himself as a savior of Tamils everywhere.
Karunanidhi after his purported surgery
In order to avoid taking any position then, he got himself admitted to the SRMC. He was then said to suffer from some spinal chord problem, making his critics jibe, “Does he have a spine in the first place to suffer from any disorder thereof?”

To get back to the story, a close relationship develops. No wonder then the SRMC benefits  immensely by the munificence of the Karunanidhi regime.

As part of the Tamil Nadu Housing Board’s "Neighborhood Housing Plan," the Karunanidhi government allocates 7.44 acres of prime land in Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai, an upper class suburb, to the SRMC.

First the Tamil Nadu Housing Board proposes to sell the land to the college at the rate of Rs.7.50 lakh per ground in 1998.But a senior government official revises it downwards to Rs.6.01 lakh, the rate at which lands in a neighbouring area had been sold by the government.

Learning about the rates proposed, the SRMC management tells the government that the rate of Rs.6.01 lakh  applies only to “developed lands,” whereas land being sold to it does not belong to that category. But a TNHB official baulks, insisting on market rates, and the matter is left in a limbo for a while, to be revived in 2005, when once again the TNHB harks back to the figure of Rs.6.01 lakh per ground.

A letter from the TNHB to the government,  this time decidedly sympathetic, suggests that since the SRMC is not performing any commercial activity, but only engaged in research activities, Rs.6.01 lakh could be an eminently reasonable rate.

Still, seven years after the original proposal, the college management bargains for a lower rate. Let it be no more than Rs.4.38 lakh per ground, they pray.

But the story had acquired a Kafkaesque air already – for the college was already in physical possession of the land whose sale was the subject of endless epistolary exchanges.  It was the CAG that unearthed the racket and criticized the government over the huge revenue loss in the process. Still nothing happens.

Things seem to move again when Karunanidhi comes back to power in 2006. Citing the CAG audit, the government fixes the price at  Rs.6.01 lakh per ground. By an order passed  on 3 March 2007, the TNHB is also solemnly ordered to collect an interest of 9.5% from 1998.

But Kafka is Kafka after all. The order remains unimplemented while the SRMC continues to occupy the land in question.

The Kafka world at last is dragged into the modern times thanks to our very virtuous version of the Bandit Queen, better known as Ms Sheela Balakrishnan.
Sheela Balakrishnan IAS (retired) 

This highly resourceful and well-connected former IAS official had been a Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu Government. Superannuation is for lesser mortals. So after her nominal retirement, she is re-engaged by the Jayalalithaa government , as an advisor.

She had been close to DMK ministers such as Arcot Veersamy, but still could ingratiate herself with Her Majesty Jayalalitha too in no time.

And it is she who swings the deal in favour of the SRMC management. It was all altruistic of course. Only on the side she ensures that her seemingly ne’er-do-well son, studying in that college, clears all his arrears at one go and  moves on to post-graduation in eye surgery.
Narayanan Balakrishnan MS (Ophthalmology) 
And only after the meaningless rules and norms in the way of the dear son of Sheela are cleared the TNHB land transaction is formalized.

So then at Ms Sheela Balakrishnan’s instance,  the Tamil Nadu Housing Board’s executive committee (?) met on 1 July 2014 and passed a resolution that 7.44 acres of land be made over to the SRMC at a rate of Rs.6 lakhs per ground.

Thus on 15 July 2014, the Tamil Nadu Housing Board sold the land to the Sri Ramachandra Medical Trust for Rs.33.46 crore.

But look at this. On 14 June 2012, a 513 sq.ft plot had been sold in Konkaiyamman Street, Thiruvanmiyur for Rs. 83,500 rupees, that is a sq ft going for Rs.5818, which, in turn, means the cost of a ground would be Rs.1,39,63,200.

By the same token for 7.44 acre sold two years later, constituting 135.2 grounds as it did, the cost should have been a whopping Rs. 188, 78, 24, 640 rupees. But instead of  Rs.188.78 crore the state government settles for a measly Rs.33.46 crore. Who is now to answer for a loss of over Rs.150 crore to the exchequer?

It may also be pertinent to note here that when the CBI raided the residence of Mr R Venkatachalam, Chancellor of the Sri Ramachandra Medical College, last year, they stumbled upon the following:
SRMC Chairman Venkatachalam
TN 07 BP 3999    BMW (3301)
TN 07 AK 3999   Jaguar Silver Grey (S Type)
TN 28 AX 3999   SKODA
TN 09 AQ 5      BMW Dark Cream colour
TN 07 AM 3999   S 329 Mercedes Benz
KL 03 D 9010     S 600 Mercedez Benz
TN 07 BM 3999   BMW Light Brown
TN 06 B 3999    Mercedes Benz Silver Grey
TN 22 CT 3999   Mahindra XUV
TN 20 S 3999    Toyota Qualis   

The man obviously is rolling in the wealth of huge capitation fees collected from students year after year. It is on such a man and his institution the government takes  pity and sells precious land at dirt cheap rates.

Who all benefited in the process apart from Sheela herself is a matter of speculation. And how much Jayalalithaa herself was kept in the loop is not clear either. All that is known is it was Sheela Balakrishnan, supposed to enjoy the full confidence of the Chief Minister, who rushed deal through.

Such is Sheela’s clout the tenure of her secretary, Venkataramanan, another retired IAS official, has been extended by five years.

Sheela Balakrishnan, DGP Ramanujam and Venkatramanan are the troika in charge, we learn. Of course of the three the first one wields power most and the loot goes on unchecked.

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