Law of the Land

How the Vyapam SIT chief, judges and journalists benefitted from government largesse in Madhya Pradesh

01 June, 2016


BEFORE MERGING into National Highway 12, Hoshangabad Road runs through the swathes of new development that form the south-east extremity of Bhopal. It is one of the widest strips of tarmac in the city, which serves as the capital of Madhya Pradesh. The Bhopal Institute of Social Sciences, Barkatullah University and Major Dhyan Chand Sports Complex sit along one side of the road; modish two-storey houses dot the other.

The neighbourhood of Bawadia Kalan spreads out on either side of Hoshangabad Road, just south of Barkatullah University. Take a sharp turn off to the east, and you find yourself driving past restaurants, shopping malls, salons and schools, and plenty of construction. Take a left at one of the malls, and you come upon a vista of gated communities with names such as Royal Homes and Bungalow City, and a 32-acre, sparsely built-up tract of land fronted by a decrepit shopping complex.

This land once belonged to a Delhi-based firm headed by Sardari Lal Narang, who built the famous Odeon Theatre in the centre of the national capital. In the early 1960s, the firm carved it up into 350 individual plots and put them up for sale, as part of a project eventually named Ganesh Nagar. Three hundred of these plots were sold by 1980, but next to nobody came to live there. The place was considered to be out in the boondocks.

Through the late decades of the last century and the early years of the new one, Bhopal, like every major Indian city, grew explosively, swallowing up its surroundings. Property prices in Bawadia Kalan swelled. In Ganesh Nagar, plots that Narang’s firm once sold for Rs 1,000 or less were going for Rs 5 lakh by 2004. That year, one of them was bought by the father of a Bhopal-based lawyer named Devendra Mishra.

Mishra wears his dishevelled hair parted on one side, and often sports a few days’ worth of stubble to match. He speaks fast, and facts and figures burst out of him. When he was in his early twenties, and studying law at Barkatullah University, he fell from a first-floor balcony and damaged his spine, leaving him bedridden for a year. Following surgery, he could stand again, but moving around remained an effort, as it does to this day.

He finished his degree nonetheless, and started practising law in the early 2000s. He does not smoke, does not drink, and works with great intensity, primarily as an intrepid digger of information—on the state government’s dealings with corporations; on land grabs by the powerful; on laws being flouted for the construction of a big amusement park. “This is the only drug I take,” he told us in March, pointing to sheaves of documents in the back seat of his small maroon hatchback.

A year or so before his father bought the plot in Ganesh Nagar, Mishra saw a newspaper announcement that the Bhopal Municipal Corporation was going to be “developing” the colony—installing electricity, water and sewage connections. As that work proceeded, Mishra noticed that areas reserved for open space and shared amenities on the original map of Ganesh Nagar were disappearing under concrete. “In the name of developing, they were taking over the spaces left for parks and roads,” Mishra said.

In 2004, Mishra saw the shopping complex that still acts as Ganesh Nagar’s main landmark coming up on what was meant to be an open stretch to separate the colony from the adjacent road. He decided to get to the bottom of what was happening. In the coming years, he filed dozens of Right to Information applications, and talked to everyone he could get to who had any idea of the forces at play. With his effortful gait, he climbed the staircases of courthouses and government offices, ferreting papers out from the state government’s bureaucratic entrails. He discovered that the shopping complex stands closer to the road than is allowed under the norms of the National Highway Authority of India, and that it was owned by two real-estate companies, Girija Colonisers and Surendra Builders—the former of which is known to have ties to Jayant Malaiya, then Madhya Pradesh’s minister of urban development and now the state’s finance minister. All the information Mishra gathered confirmed what he already suspected: that municipal officials were handing open land to private firms.

Gradually, Mishra started to look with new eyes at the area around Ganesh Nagar as well. Sometime around 2010, his gaze fixed upon one plot in particular, located just under a kilometre away, near Bhopal’s Kendriya Vidyalaya Number 3. Past the school, the road narrows and turns towards Bagh Mughalia and Katara Hills—both, like Bawadia Kalan, being engulfed by Bhopal’s construction boom. Here, billboards claim space for a Planet City, a Royal City and a Divine City. To the south, fresh bungalows and multi-storey apartment complexes block out the horizon. Separating those from the road is a tract of scrubland the size of some half a dozen football fields, with no sign at all of its ownership.

Any developer would have wanted this land; numerous locals told us that, for anyone with money in Bhopal today, this is the area to buy property. Yet no one could tell Mishra who held it. The best lead he got was that the state government had reserved it for a cooperative society. But he could see no society tied to the location on the website of the district collector of Bhopal, which is meant to list all the cooperative societies in the city.

In 2012, Mishra submitted RTI applications regarding the land to the Bhopal collector’s office, Madhya Pradesh’s registrar of cooperative societies and the state’s revenue department. Replies started coming in the following year. (This was remarkably fast, as Madhya Pradesh has one of the slowest RTI response rates in the country. “People here have a lot to hide,” Mishra said, laughing.)

Even after all his experience from other RTI enquiries, what emerged from the replies left Mishra shocked. It turned out that the land did belong to a cooperative society. The state government, using its power to lease public land to residential cooperatives at discounted prices, had, in October 2007, signed it over for 30 years to the Nyayadhish Grih Nirman Sahkari Sanstha, or Judges’ Housing Cooperative Society—a body meant to include both sitting and retired judges with records of service in Madhya Pradesh. But the government had done so at unthinkably low prices—so low that the lease was almost a gift. “Why would the government want to give land to judges at throwaway prices?” Mishra asked.

The lawyer continued to pepper the government with RTI requests, and amassed a trove of papers running into thousands of pages that detailed the society’s workings. He discovered numerous irregularities: that, though the society was expressly registered for providing homes to judges and their families, it also included several lawyers, public officials and individuals with good political connections; that members were each allowed to claim a single plot in their name or appoint an immediate family member in their stead, but in some cases numerous relatives were listed as discrete beneficiaries; that the land was released to the society while its ownership was still under legal dispute by its previous owner, who lost it to the government in 1987 as a result of a cap on urban landholdings. Through a separate set of RTI enquiries, Mishra also discovered that the government had given land at similarly low prices to two cooperative societies formed by journalists, and that the workings of those societies were unusual too.

In December 2006, Santosh Kumar Meena wrote to Shivraj Singh Chouhan asking that the judges’ society be given its land at a lower deposit than initially stipulated.

Mishra realised early on that the implications of what he had dug up reached into the highest ranks of Madhya Pradesh’s judiciary, media and executive. The release of land to all three societies, and the exceptional discounts granted to them, had required approval from the state’s cabinet of ministers—which is chaired by the chief minister. The latest membership list of the judges’ society, from 2012, named 160 people, many of them highly prominent. The journalists’ societies took in over 300 members, and included some of the most influential media figures working in the state.

Buried in the membership list of the judges’ society was one Chandresh Bhushan: a retired high court judge who, at the time the society received its land, was poised to become the deputy to the Madhya Pradesh lokayukta, or anti-corruption ombudsman. Mishra did not initially pay Bhushan particular attention, until, in November 2014, the former judge’s name started to play across newspaper pages and television screens.

Bhushan, the media reported, had been appointed to lead a Special Investigation Team tasked with supervising the investigation into the Vyapam affair—a corruption scandal that embroiled Shivraj Singh Chouhan and his administration, led to well over a thousand arrests, is suspected to have caused at least 40 deaths, and eventually occasioned, after a Supreme Court intervention, a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation.


THE NYAYADHISH GRIH NIRMAL SAHKARI SANSTHA was registered on 12 September 1999, with 21 founding members, under the Madhya Pradesh Cooperative Societies Act of 1960. On 29 December 2003, Lalaram Meena, a district court judge who was then the society’s vice president, wrote a letter to Uma Bharti, who had just been sworn in as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh at the head of a new Bharatiya Janata Party government. He asked Bharti to allocate eight acres of land for the judges, “in Shyamla Hills, near the Judge Colony, or near the Kendriya Vidyalaya in Jail Pahadi area”—both prime locations. There was no response from the chief minister’s office.

In August 2004, a court in Karnataka issued a non-bailable arrest warrant against Bharti for her involvement in a communal clash in the city of Hubli in 1994. This forced her to resign, and Babulal Gaur, another BJP leader, was appointed chief minister in her place. In the coming months, Meena wrote to Gaur at least three times. The society’s preferences had changed, and Meena now asked for a seven-acre plot in Bawadia Kalan. As required by law, the society also approached the district collector of Bhopal to ask that the desired plot be reserved for it. The collector, after checking that the land was available, issued a report approving the society’s request, and, as per procedure, forwarded a report to the state revenue department for further action. Still, Meena did not hear back from the chief minister, and the revenue department did not take the subject up.

By the end of April 2005, there was a change in the society’s leadership. Lalaram Meena remained a member, but was replaced as vice president by another district court judge, Dinesh Kumar. The society’s new president was an advocate named Santosh Kumar Meena. By the society’s own by-laws, Meena, as neither a judge nor an immediate family member of one, should not even have been able to join it.

The society’s address also changed. Earlier documents said it was headquartered at the Bhopal district court complex in the neighbourhood of Shahjahanabad. The court had since been moved, and now the society’s paperwork placed its office in the new district court premises, in Arera Hills. Several members of the society had also listed the district court as their place of residence in their registration papers. But there are, unsurprisingly, no residential quarters at the Bhopal district court. A letter we posted to the society’s claimed address was returned. When we met the district court’s superintendent, in March of this year, he attested that the court had not given permission for any cooperative society to run an office on its premises. Simply, no such office exists.

Following Meena’s request for a lower deposit, the revenue department referred the matter to the cabinet. In its note, the department stated that it “saw no justification” for a reduction.
Following Meena’s request for a lower deposit, the revenue department referred the matter to the cabinet. In its note, the department stated that it “saw no justification” for a reduction.
Following Meena’s request for a lower deposit, the revenue department referred the matter to the cabinet. In its note, the department stated that it “saw no justification” for a reduction.
Following Meena’s request for a lower deposit, the revenue department referred the matter to the cabinet. In its note, the department stated that it “saw no justification” for a reduction.

In November 2005, the BJP called an end to Babulal Gaur’s chief ministership, and put Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a relative unknown, in his place. Chouhan was reportedly the preferred candidate of several senior BJP leaders, but his elevation angered Bharti, who preferred Gaur. A few months later, Bharti fell out with the party and was temporarily suspended from it. She was eventually expelled, and founded a rival party of her own.

With the change of guard, Chouhan became Madhya Pradesh’s third chief minister in less than two years. The rapid handovers of leadership had left the state in turmoil, and the newcomer had no prior experience in public administration. Chouhan faced a challenge to establish himself.

Now, the fortunes of the judges’ society improved. Following letters from Santosh Kumar Meena, on 10 April 2006 an internal committee of the Madhya Pradesh revenue department held a meeting to discuss giving the society its desired land in Bawadia Kalan. The committee wrote a report valuing the land, and forwarded it to the cabinet of ministers for a final say on releasing the property. The cabinet, presided over by Chouhan, took the issue up at a meeting three days later, where it decided that the land should be handed over after receiving ten percent of the amount due for it as an advance.

So far, there was nothing grossly amiss in the procedure—although, according to Mishra, it is unusual for a society to approach the chief minster with a request for land. The society’s application had followed the standard chain of bureaucratic action: from the collector, who reserves a plot, via the revenue department, which determines its price, to the cabinet, which approves or disallows a lease. From here, however, something unusual happened.

The revenue department maintains a record of what are called circle rates: official land prices for particular locations across the state. The report it sent to the cabinet after the 10 April meeting valued the territory in question at a circle rate of Rs 2,300 per square metre—the circle rate at the time for residential land in that part of Bawadia Kalan. By that price, and with its total area at 7.39 acres, the society’s desired plot was worth Rs 6.88 crore. Cooperative societies, by law, are automatically given a 40-percent discount on public land—hence the incentive to form them. The revenue department’s report applied that discount, and stated that the society would have to pay a total of Rs 4.12 crore. The ten-percent advance expected of the society as per the cabinet’s decision, then, would have been just over Rs 41 lakh.

In September 2007, the cabinet, overriding the misgivings of the revenue department, ordered that the judges’ society be charged at a rate of Rs 60 per square foot.

But on 10 December 2006, Meena wrote letters to both the revenue department and Shivraj Singh Chouhan stating that the society had deposited an advance of just Rs 11.6 lakh. He had arrived at this figure by an alternative calculation, taking the price of the land to be not the circle rate, of Rs 2,300 per square metre, but just Rs 60 per square foot (translating to about Rs 600 per square metre)—the absolute minimum price, under the regulations of the revenue department, at which the Madhya Pradesh government can lease out public land in any urban centre with a population above one million. From there, Meena assumed a 40-percent discount, and computed a ten-percent advance based on the resulting figure. In his letters, he asked that the judges’ society be given the Bawadia Kalan plot based on the revised deposit alone.

This was audacious: the government could not give away even its remotest holdings in any big city at any lower than this price, but here it was being applied to prime land in the state capital. Mishra, in years of looking into the government’s dealings, had never once seen this rate applied for a cooperative housing society.

Two days later, Meena sent another letter to the revenue department. It explicitly asked that the judges’ society be charged not at the usual circle rate, but at either the minimum rate of Rs 60 per square foot, or, preferably, at a rate specified for agricultural land in the area in question—which, in an apparent loophole, stood even lower in 2007, at Rs 60 lakh per hectare, or Rs 55.7 per square foot. Meena did not offer any rationale for the request.

The revenue department, after considering this proposition, again referred the matter to the cabinet. The department’s new note betrayed disquiet regarding Meena’s uncommon request, noting clearly that it “saw no justification” (“auchitya prateet nahi hota hai”) for lowering the land’s price.

Yet the cabinet ordered that the land be released at Rs 60 per square foot anyway. On 6 October 2007, the Bhopal district collector signed a lease deed handing the land over to the society for a period of 30 years. According to that document, the society was charged a total of Rs 1.16 crore—the entire amount due after applying a 40-percent discount on the base price stipulated by the cabinet. It is probable that there was no full inspection of the society’s documents up to this stage, or that the findings of any inspection were ignored, since authorities would otherwise have noted that the society, and many of its members, had listed a fabricated address.

Following the drop in the base price, the society’s lease rent also plummeted. The lease rent is a standard fee charged of all cooperative societies, calculated at five percent of the price paid for a property, and due once every year. By the revenue department’s original reckoning, the judges’ society would have to have paid Rs 20.6 lakh per year, adding up to Rs 6.19 crore over three decades. At the price applied, the lease rent worked out to Rs 5.8 lakh per year, totalling Rs 1.74 crore. Combining the loss of potential revenue on both the cost and the lease rent of the plot in Bawadia Kalan, the loss to the exchequer adds up to Rs 7.4 crore.

The society was originally registered with a membership of fewer than two dozen judges. At the signing of the lease deed, it included 150 judges, six judges’ relatives and four lawyers. Among its members, alongside Chandresh Bhushan, were Deepak Verma, then a judge at the High Court of Madhya Pradesh and later a justice of the Supreme Court; Ved Prakash Sharma, Anurag Kumar Shrivastava, DK Paliwal and CV Shirpurkar, then district court judges and now serving on the state high court; the retired high court judges RS Garg and AK Saxena; Shardendu Tiwari, a lawyer and the son of PP Tiwari, who was then the state’s chief information commissioner; Kashinath Singh, then a district court judge, and a special judge for the Madhya Pradesh lokayukta since early last year; and Rashmi Agarwal, until recently a legal advisor to the lokayukta and now a district court judge, as well as her husband, Akhilesh Agarwal, the chief engineer of Madhya Pradesh’s public-works department.

The cabinet did not exceed its legal powers in releasing the land at the minimum rate, but it is clear that it accorded the judges’ society extraordinary treatment. A retired civil servant who held a senior position in the Madhya Pradesh bureaucracy in 2007, and asked not to be named, told us that the revenue department, of its own volition, “will never, never recommend a subsidy”—that is, an extra drop in a plot’s price. “Why would we do that? But there’s not much bureaucrats can do when a decision has been taken by the cabinet. That is essentially the wish of the chief minister. When that happens, we abide.”


GOING BY THE RECORDS of the judges’ society, Chandresh Bhushan’s address is the Bhopal civil court, which operates out of the district court complex in Arera Hills. When we called him in March to arrange an interview, though, he called us over to his home in Vidya Nagar, a short drive from Bawadia Kalan along Hoshangabad Road. He met us in a white kurta and bifocals, and invited us into his home office. Even months into the new year, a calendar of 2015 still lay under the glass sheet that covered his desk.

Bhushan told us himself that the house we were in was his own. Under section 72-B of the Madhya Pradesh Cooperative Societies Act, “Where a society gets any land from Government or any other agency on concessional rate for the housing purposes, it shall be compulsory for the member thereof to submit an affidavit to the effect that there is no plot/flat/house in his name or in the name of his family member in that Municipal area.” Later, we confirmed in Bhushan’s tax records that the house does indeed belong to him. (Last month, Jainendra Kumar Jain, a founding member of the Rohit Cooperative Housing Society in Bhopal, was arrested on a raft of charges that included lying about his property holdings in his affidavit. Jain, in recent years, has been protesting that parts of the society’s land have been illegally occupied by members of Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s family.)

When we asked, Bhushan admitted that he was a member of the judges’ society. “I became a member because I wanted a bigger house,” he said. “I am living in this MIG house”—MIG is bureaucratese for “middle-income group”—“and it is not catering to my needs. It is always better to deal with the government than private establishments—they are always trying to mug you.”

We asked him about the cabinet’s extraordinary discount for the society. “I do not know if that is the case,” he said. “I gave them the money that they asked from me to become a member. I do not think it has any subsidy.”

We told him that the land had been handed over at about a quarter of its expected price, and offered to show him corroborating documents. “So?” Bhushan asked. “If there is a policy, and I think it is done as per the law, one wouldn’t feel the need to oblige in return.”

WHEN BHUSHAN WAS MADE the head of the Special Investigation Team in late 2014, he was drawn into a storm that had been building for decades. Vyapam—the Vyavasayik Pariksha Mandal, or Professional Examination Board, which takes its popular name from its Hindi acronym—was formed in 1982, to conduct admissions tests for public institutes of higher learning in Madhya Pradesh. In September 2007, the state legislative assembly in Bhopal passed the Professional Examination Board Act, which expanded this autonomous body’s ambit to also include holding exams for jobs in the police, the departments of education, excise and transport, and other government organisations. Allegations of malpractice in Vyapam’s work had surfaced at least as early as the mid 1990s, and had kept coming ever since. These, however, were dismissed as isolated cases, and Vyapam was never investigated.

On 5 July 2009, an ophthalmologist named Anand Rai tipped police in Indore off to widespread irregularities in the PMT—the Pre-Medical Test, for entry into medical school—organised by Vyapam that year. Ten days later, he backed this up with a complaint to Madhya Pradesh’s department of medical education. Rai had long suspected Vyapam of foul play, but began paying especially close attention to it in 2005. That year, he was one of thousands of students who sat a Vyapam-administered MDMS entrance exam, for post-graduate medical study. The published results ranked Rai sixty-fifth in the state, allowing him to continue pursuing his medical career, but the list of those who topped the ranking from his examination centre, in Indore, made him suspicious. “They were not very bright students,” he told us over the phone this April. “They were all sons of politicians or bureaucrats, they were all friends, and roamed the city in very expensive cars. And they all sat in the same room to write the exam.”

A few days after Rai’s tip-off to the police, a small group of legislators brought his concerns up before the legislative assembly. One of them was Paras Saklecha, then an independent MLA representing a constituency in the city of Ratlam. Saklecha told us that at the time, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who also held the state portfolio for medical education in addition to his responsibilities as chief minister, promised to look into things. But there was no official action until November, when Saklecha and his associates brought the issue before the assembly again. By then, Rai had also approached the High Court of Madhya Pradesh asking for an independent enquiry into Vyapam. On 17 December, the chief minister appointed an investigation committee, and empowered it to look into the 2009 PMT.

The committee did not report any findings for almost two years. Finally, in November 2011, with opposition leaders clamouring for an update, it announced that it had identified 114 students at public medical colleges who had paid to have impersonators write entrance exams in their names. All of them were rusticated. And yet—though eight such impersonators had also been caught during a PMT earlier that year—there was no investigation into how impersonators had been allowed into examination centres, or whether these cases were part of a larger scheme.

Chandresh Bhushan, a retired high court judge and a member of the Nyayadhish Grih Nirman Sahkari Sanstha, was appointed to head a Special Investigation Team overseeing an enquiry into Vyapam.

In the assembly, opposition leaders demanded that Chouhan order a wider investigation to look into the PMTs from 2011 and 2012 too, which had also come under suspicion. The chief minister relented, but instead of setting up an independent committee, his government ordered public colleges to conduct individual investigations. According to Saklecha, those enquiries led to over 50 cases of exam misconduct being registered with police across Madhya Pradesh by the end of 2012.

Still, the government refused to entertain allegations that there was a systemic problem. Soon, however, it was forced to. On the morning of 7 July 2013, as over 40,000 students prepared to give that year’s PMT, police raided several hotels in Indore on an anonymous tip-off. At Hotel Pathik, on the city’s outskirts, they arrested a young man who identified himself as Rishikesh Tyagi, but couldn’t remember the date of birth on his identity card, or the name of his father as listed there. It transpired that he had come from Uttar Pradesh to write the exam under a false name. In all, 20 such frauds were arrested that day. When questioned, they pointed to a man named Jagdish Sagar.

Sagar was arrested a week later. Investigators discovered that he had been working as a middleman between aspirants, Vyapam officials and at least 300 paid impersonators. He had developed a taste for vintage wine, luxury cars and showy jewellery, and a search of his home uncovered Rs 13 lakh in cash stuffed into a bedroll.

It became clear that Sagar was but one of many middlemen running such rackets. Besides employing impersonators, they relied primarily on three other methods of cheating: leaking answers to select candidates prior to exams; having Vyapam officials manipulate examinees’ submitted answer sheets; and the “engine-bogie system,” where chosen candidates were seated close to capable students instructed to share their answers.

The payments ranged from Rs 25,000 to Rs 5 lakh, and sometimes more, according to the method used. These were then shared out among all those assisting in the cheating, including officials throughout the Vyapam hierarchy.

Police investigations began all over Madhya Pradesh. In August 2013, the state government brought in the Special Task Force of the Madhya Pradesh police to begin a new enquiry, under the supervision of the state’s high court. The following month, police arrested Pankaj Trivedi, the controller of examinations at Vyapam since 2011, on charges of facilitating cheating for friends and relatives of ministers and bureaucrats. One of Trivedi’s alleged accomplices was Nitin Mohindra, who had joined Vyapam in 1986 as a data-entry operator and had risen to the post of systems analyst, giving him access to all of Vyapam’s computer records.

Numerous activists and politicians believe the Special Task Force probe into the Vyapam scandal protected members of the Madhya Pradesh cabinet, including Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

Trivedi and Mohindra were found to have tampered with hundreds of answer sheets over multiple years—and to have manipulated hundreds of roll-numbers to rig seating arrangements for “engine-bogie” cheating. Among those they helped was one Anita Kumari—the daughter of Prem Chand Prasad, the personal secretary of the chief minister. For the PMT in 2012, Kumari was told to only answer questions she was certain of the answers to, and leave the rest to be filled in by Vyapam officials. When investigators studied Kumari’s answer sheet, they found that she answered 61 of the 200 questions herself—half of them incorrectly—and that 130 of the 139 remaining questions were answered later—129 of them correctly—in a different ink. But even with the unattempted questions filled in, her score was too low to secure admission to the best colleges. So someone used correction fluid to alter nine of her original wrong answers. Kumari’s published score earned her a place in Bhopal’s prestigious Gandhi Medical College.

In October 2013, the STF submitted a charge sheet detailing its findings to the high court (according to the Times of India, the document was 160,000 pages long). Alongside this, the STF also gave the court a list of 856 students found to have gained admission to their colleges through fraud. A supplementary charge sheet followed in the next month—this time 23,000 pages long—accusing 34 individuals of involvement in cheating schemes. They included Trivedi and two other middlemen, Sagar, and a host of students and students’ guardians.

The STF discovered that, besides entrance tests for educational institutions, five of Vyapam’s recruitment exams for administrative and police posts in 2012 had also been rigged. In November, First Information Reports were filed against 153 people involved in these cases. One of them was Sudhir Sharma, a mining baron and close friend of Shivraj Singh Chouhan (several of Chouhan’s relatives are reportedly connected to Sharma’s mining operations).

Sudhir Sharma was a close associate of Laxmikant Sharma, a BJP leader and former mining minister for Madhya Pradesh, who took on the state portfolio for technical education in 2008. Laxmikant Sharma was arrested in June 2014 on charges of rigging the recruitment of teachers through Vyapam. According to electronic spreadsheets maintained by Nitin Mohindra, he had also recommended 15 candidates for recruitment as police constables.

In all, the STF’s investigation led to the arrests of several hundred individuals—the large majority of them students, guardians and middlemen. The only minister the investigation implicated was Laxmikant Sharma, and even after that was done it took over six months for him to be arrested. This left activists and opposition politicians following the STF’s work suspicious, as they believed that other cabinet members, and Chouhan himself, had much to answer for too.

In April 2014, Anand Rai again approached the high court, with a complaint alleging malpractice in the assignment of seats in private colleges reserved by law for top performers in Vyapam exams, and complaining that the STF was limiting its scrutiny to public institutions alone. “We waited until then because we thought that the STF was working,” Nikhil Tiwari, Rai’s lawyer, told us. By that point, however, “it was clear that they were letting the real culprits go.”

Numerous prominent politicians shared similar concerns. Digvijaya Singh, a Congress leader who served two terms as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh before Uma Bharti, told the media that the Vyapam scam was just the tip of a “corruption iceberg” in the state, and that the STF, under pressure from Chouhan, was going easy on high-profile culprits. Bharti herself, by now reconciled with the BJP and a cabinet minister at the centre, said the Vyapam scam was even bigger than the infamous fodder scam in Bihar in the late 1990s. Both former chief ministers joined a chorus of voices asking for an enquiry into Vyapam by the Central Bureau of Investigation—which would supersede the STF, and be independent of the Madhya Pradesh judiciary.

The STF carried on with its investigation, but demands for a CBI probe kept growing louder. In November, the High Court of Madhya Pradesh rejected several pleas for the investigation to be handed over to the central agency, including one in a petition from Digvijaya Singh. In dismissing Singh’s plea, the high court ruled instead to constitute a Special Investigation Team to act as a watchdog over the STF’s work, and ordered that all documents related to the investigation be handed over to it. This SIT answered directly to the high court. In this ruling, the court also revealed that it had only been monitoring the STF’s enquiries into two exams—the PMTs and the MDMS tests—leaving out six others that had by this time also been found to have been rigged. To chair the SIT, the court appointed a former high court judge, Chandresh Bhushan.

The creation of the SIT did nothing to appease critics of the investigation. In April, we spoke to Vivek Tankha, a senior lawyer and former advocate general of Madhya Pradesh, who has represented Anand Rai, Digvijaya Singh, and several other petitioners in Vyapam cases. The STF’s probe, Tankha told us, “was completely forged,” and “did more to save people than anything else.” Just how the SIT was meant to allay such worries, and how it went about overseeing the STF, was never made clear. “All the reports submitted by the SIT to the high court were under seal—‘in-chamber proceedings,’ as they were called,” Tankha said. In effect, “we, to this day, have no idea what work did the SIT do—or whether it did any work at all.”

So far, Vyapam had remained on the fringes of public consciousness. The media in Madhya Pradesh, Bhushan told us, mostly started paying attention to the Vyapam story only after the creation of the SIT. The national media, too, took, at best, only lukewarm interest.

Then, on 4 July, Akshay Singh, a Delhi-based journalist with the TV Today group, met with the parents of Namrata Damor in the town of Meghnagar, in eastern Madhya Pradesh. Damor had died in 2012, in what was initially ruled a suicide. More recently, there had been serious suspicion that her death was linked to the Vyapam scandal. While interviewing Damor’s father, Singh started frothing from the mouth and collapsed. He was taken to a hospital, where doctors declared him dead.

The journalist’s sudden demise caught the unblinking attention of the national news channels, and reporters, particularly from outside Madhya Pradesh, began to look closely into it, and into the Vyapam story. There was no shortage of gruesome details to keep audiences occupied.

Singh’s death appeared to be part of a wider pattern. Individuals linked to Vyapam in one way or another had been dying with alarming frequency. Over a dozen of them had met suspicious ends by the end of 2014, and more such cases kept coming. In March 2015, Shailesh Yadav, the son of the governor of Madhya Pradesh, was found dead in his home. In April, Vijay Singh, a witness in the STF investigation who had implicated an officer serving under Laxmikant Sharma, disappeared on the day he was due in court for a hearing. His corpse was later discovered in a lodge run by a BJP MLA. In July, Arun Sharma, the dean of a medical college in Jabalpur, was found dead in a Delhi hotel. Almost exactly a year ago, Sharma’s predecessor, DK Sakalley, who had identified and expelled students who cheated their way into admission, had been found burned to death in his garden.

The state administration, meanwhile, remained unfazed. In an astonishingly apathetic interview given to the Indian Express, Babulal Gaur, by now Madhya Pradesh’s home minister, said, “Whoever is born has to die one day. It’s mrityulok”—the land of death, as Hindu mythology characterises the human realm. “Pareshan hone wale hote rahe. Mai to mast rahta hu.” (Let those who worry keep worrying. I’m not troubled.)

By the time of Akshay Singh’s death, the Vyapam scandal was thought to have claimed at least 40 victims. As the deaths mounted, numerous petitioners, including Tankha, approached the Supreme Court to ask that it bring the investigation under its supervision. With the glare of the media now firmly on Madhya Pradesh, and pressure for a CBI enquiry mounting, on 7 July Shivraj Singh Chouhan finally asked the state’s high court to call the central agency in. Two days later, the Supreme Court formally ordered a CBI probe under its guidance, and asked the High Court of Madhya Pradesh to step away from the investigation. With that, the SIT was dissolved.

Since the CBI took over, the suspicious deaths of people connected to Vyapam have stopped. Beyond that, however, there appears to have been little progress. To date, the CBI has not reported any findings to the Supreme Court (the next hearing in the case is scheduled for late June).

BHUSHAN RETIRED AS DEPUTY LOKAYUKTA in February 2014, before assuming his position on the SIT that November. At his home, we asked if he saw any possible conflicts of interest in his work as a result of the judges’ society receiving land from the government. He did not. We pointed to the large number of judges included in the society with him, and to specific irregularities such as the fact that the president of the judges’ society is a lawyer. He did not see cause for concern in any of that either. “If there is a policy,” Bhushan said, “everyone, all citizens, should be able to benefit from it.”

Some leading legal figures disagreed. When we put the facts of the judges’ society to Krishnaswami Chandru, a retired judge of the High Court of Kerala, he said, “The government is the biggest litigant, and they’re always trying to give these kinds of freebies. It is unethical on the part of the judges to accept it. … Judges can’t do that, but it is happing everywhere, and it is a saddening picture.” Gopal Subramanian, a senior advocate and a former solicitor general of India, said that, in working with the law, “you have to be very careful of what you are being offered outside the line of conduct. It saddens me to hear it, but this is where we are now. This is my opinion, and I am very clear about this: consciously or unconsciously, it affects the judgments of the judiciary.”

As we continued to probe, Bhushan got fidgety. “I am just a member,” he said. “I wanted a house and I didn’t wish to deal with private builders, it is hard enough to even get land in good locations.” He told us to go speak to “the people who are running this thing.”

We did.

ONE MARCH MORNING, we met Lalaram Meena at a large maidan in old Bhopal, at a meeting of representatives of the Meena, Majhi, Keer and Pardhi communities. The news had been full of the recent unrest in Haryana, where the Jat community was demanding a share in affirmative-action benefits, and the various community representatives in Bhopal were planning a similar movement. Meena, now retired, was a guest of honour. He showed up at about 11 am, an hour after the sloganeering started, dressed in a bright saffron kurta. After several smiling handshakes, he took a seat at the back of the crowded stage, and began receiving well-wishers and supplicants as the slogans continued.

Meena seemed more than happy to meet when we had called him to arrange an interview, and remained so as we went through a few minutes of niceties. With that done, we asked about his former role as the vice president of the judges’ society, and about his letters to Uma Bharti and Babulal Gaur. Meena got irritated. “It was all done according to the provisions of the law,” he said. “Why do you want to know all this? Why should I tell you anything?”

Later that day, we met Santosh Kumar Meena, who remains the president of the society. At the Bhopal district court, we had learnt, Meena is known first as the head of the BJP cooperative cell in Bhopal—which liaises with commercial and residential cooperatives in the city—and as a lawyer only second. His law firm is located in the old part of the city, near the Bhopal Talkies cinema, on the second floor of a building named Bal Vihar. As we climbed a dark staircase up to it, at about 7 pm, the air smelled sharply of whiskey. Down an unlit corridor, through a door and behind a rolled-up metal shutter, we found the place.

Meena was late. But there was a man in an outer office, with his eyes pinned to a file, who asked us to wait. We sat in complete silence, amid faded curtains, empty cupboards, unwashed teacups and a dusty typewriter. Pictures of Meena occupied several corkboards on the walls. There were many of him receiving awards, and at least two of him at public functions alongside Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Curiously, there was also one of children sitting in an examination hall.

After an hour, Meena showed up: a burly figure with a heavy moustache, dressed in a safari suit and running shoes. We headed into his private office, where a screen streamed security-camera footage from the outer room. Meena seated himself in an office chair with a towel draped across its back. Behind him, a shelf displayed a collection of dusty hardbound law books, most of them still in plastic covers.

Meena asked for a visiting card, glanced at it, and tossed it aside. “Why do you want to write about this?” he said when asked about his role in the society. “There are so many cooperative societies in Bhopal.”

Are there more for judges than just this one, we asked. He didn’t reply.

“How are you the president of a cooperative society that is meant only for judges?” we asked. “There are many people in Uttar Pradesh with names like Collector Singh,” Meena said. “They are not collectors now, are they? Just because the name says ‘judges’ society’ does not mean it is only for judges.”

Lalaram Meena (left) approached two sitting chief ministers, Uma Bharti and Babulal Gaur, requesting land for the judges’ society. He failed to hear back from either one. The society’s fortunes turned under the leadership of Santosh Kumar Meena, following Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s rise to the chief ministership.

We pointed out that the society’s by-laws say it is. “Your documents are old,” he replied. “Be careful about what you are saying. Your magazine could fold if you print this stuff.”

So who is allowed to become a member of the society, we asked. “Those who can,” Meena said, sniggering.

He echoed what we had heard from Chandresh Bhushan: that judges, and lawyers too, are also citizens, and have the right to benefit from government schemes. Then, he compared the three arms of the government—the judiciary, the legislature and the executive—to the deities Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. “Don’t you know they all pray to and feed each other?”

Over our conversation, Meena boasted repeatedly of the cabinet’s approval of the society’s acquisition. “Remember that what you are trying to find fault with is the decision of the chief minister,” he said.

As we prepared to leave, Meena told us, “Ye sab chhodo. Smart aadmi lagte ho, koi aur story karo. Jis cheez ko touch karne ki koshish kar rahe ho, wo aisa paththar hai jiske chaaro taraf blades hain. Pakadne ki koshish karoge to haath kaat jaayega.” (Leave all this stuff. You look smart, do some other story. What you are trying to grasp is a stone with blades on all sides. If you try to catch it, it will cut you.)


“WHY DID IT TAKE a Delhi journalist’s death for everyone to take note of what had been going on for years?” Devendra Mishra quizzed us one day. Several people had asked us this over the course of our reporting, and their answers always pointed, rightly, to the self-centred, blind-beyond-the-capital culture of the national media. Mishra seemed to be pursuing a similar line of thought, so we kept quiet and stared at our notes. But he wasn’t. “Because,” he said after a brief pause, “journalists in Bhopal would rather take favours from the government than do journalism.”

In August 2008, two separate cabinet decisions awarded land in Bhopal to two cooperative societies of journalists as well. The Rajdhani Patrakar Grih Nirman Sahkari Samiti was allotted 11.6 acres close to the city’s airport; the Abhivyakti Grih Nirman Sahkari Samiti was given 6.3 acres in Bawadia Kalan.

In both cases, the administrative procedure hewed closely to the template laid out by the judges’ society. The journalists’ societies had approached the government asking for extraordinary discounts on the prices of their desired plots. (In Bawadia Kalan, the revenue department’s stipulated rate had by this point risen to Rs 3,000 per square metre.) The cabinet had ruled to give both societies land at the minimum possible price—Rs 60 per square foot.

Between them, the two journalists’ societies take in over 300 people—99 in the Abhivyakti society, according to a members list from March 2012, and 208 in the Rajdhani Patrakar society, according to a members list from September 2013, with two individuals named in the lists of both. The lists include journalists who have worked for or contributed to numerous national media houses: Rasheed Kidwai, of The Telegraph; Hemender Sharma, of Times Now; Ashutosh Gupta, of Zee TV; Milind Ghatwai, of the Indian Express; Kumar Shakti Shekhar, earlier of NDTV, and now with Daily O; Mrigendra Singh, the editor of Dainik Jagran in Bhopal; Manish Sharma, formerly of Punjab Kesari; Praveen Dubey, formerly of News 24; Sandip Pouranik, of the Indo-Asian News Service; Brijesh Rajput, of ABP News; Deepak Tiwari, of The Week; Anurag Upadhyay, of India TV; Rakesh Dixit, formerly with DNA and the Hindustan Times and now a freelancer; Rajesh Sirothia, of Outlook and Agnibaan, a Madhya Pradesh daily; Manoj Kumar Sharma, of IBN7; and Deepti Chaurasia, of India News. Those named among both societies are Rajendra Sharma, the owner and editor of the Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh newspaper Swadesh; and Shureh Niazi, of India Today.

The Abhivyakti society also includes Rajiv Mohan Gupta, of the family that owns Dainik Jagran. Gupta lives in 74 Bungalow, one of Bhopal’s most exclusive areas, and his family owns an estate in the city that served as a set for the 2010 Bollywood movie Raajneeti.

We went to meet Dinesh Gupta, the president of the Abhivyakti society, at his office in Patrakar Colony, in south Bhopal. Gupta is a small, balding, bespectacled man, with a sagging paunch. He brings out a Hindi monthly called Power Gallery, in which one would be hard-pressed to find a single byline other than his own. In our half-hour meeting, we raised numerous concerns surrounding journalistic ethics and likely conflicts of interest. Gupta lost his cool more than once. Most of his answers were off the record, but the contempt in his tone was unreserved.

On the procedure used to secure the extraordinary discount, Gupta said he would not tell us anything because he was “not compelled to.” He said that “no government can hide its follies by doing journalists favours, and no journalist will ever hold a story that can further his own career.” And yet, Gupta had not broken the story of the discount granted to the judges’ society even though he was aware of it at least as early as February 2009. In a letter he wrote to the revenue department that month, which Mishra uncovered through his RTI requests, Gupta argued for the Abhivyakti society’s lease rent to be calculated using the cabinet-approved price of Rs 60 per square foot. In doing so, he explicitly cited the treatment of the judges’ society as a precedent.

Gupta pointed out to us that the appeasement of journalists was not an invention of the Chouhan administration. “This place that you are sitting at now”—that is, Patrakar Colony—“was also constructed for journalists by Arjun Singh,” he said. This was true. Singh, a Congress leader, was the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh from 1980 to 1985, and again between 1988 and 1989. In his time, he accommodated journalists in government bungalows, and granted them several tax exemptions. Many such policies that Singh initiated continue to this day, and implicate all the governments that succeeded his.

Gupta said his magazine had run a cover story on the Vyapam scam. This was in its August 2014 issue—over a year after the raids in Indore that first brought the scandal to wide prominence. He gave us a copy of it. The subhead on the cover stated that pressure from the scandal was affecting the government’s work.

The president of the Rajdhani Patrakar society is KD Sharma, a special correspondent with the Hindi daily Nai Dunia. He called us to his home in Tulsi Nagar, also in the south of the city, where he greeted us in a T-shirt that read “PR kiya to darna kya.” (Why fear if you’ve done PR?)

Sharma spoke at length about the Rajdhani Patrakar society, but denied getting any special discount for its land. He said that the idea of forming the society came up in 2007, after “a diktat came that all non-government personnel occupying government accommodations had to vacate them. There were a lot of journalists living in government quarters here—MP is one of the few states in the country that takes care of journalists. It was a tradition set by Arjun Singh.” At some point that year, “a group of journalists met Shivraj Singh Chouhan. It was good timing. The government was happy to oblige the press, since elections were coming up the next year.”

We asked Sharma the same questions on ethics we had asked Gupta. “Probably, yes, there is some conflict of interest if you really think about it,” he said, looking away. But, he added, “this is almost a tradition in the state.” To emphasise the point, he repeated it in Hindi. “Parampara hai.”

“And then,” he went on, “this is why most of the journalists here become journalists anyway. In MP, we say that people who are journalists are the people who couldn’t do anything else. And indeed, if there is a policy, everyone should take advantage of it—including journalists.”

THE INDIA COFFEE HOUSE in New Market is a perennial hang-out for the Bhopal media. We spent a morning there, which turned into an afternoon, meeting some of the most prominent members of the two journalists’ societies. Political gossip and jokes flew around the tables, and the coffee kept flowing. Almost everything that was said was off the record.

The arguments we heard used to justify the societies’ behaviour were not surprising, even if put forward with some mortification. This, numerous journalists said, was a grey area. It is not like somebody from the government would say anything if you do an unfavourable story, we were told. The question remained, however, as to whether anyone would do that kind of story in the first place. One of our interviewees admitted that it was “very, very difficult to have a story criticising the CM published in MP newspapers.”

The conversation kept coming back to the meagre salaries that many media houses pay their staff. Admittedly, there must be more than a few journalists in the societies who could never afford property in Bhopal if not at a discounted rate. But many of the journalists who have benefitted in these cases do not fall into that category. The societies include a good number of industry veterans, in some cases bureau chiefs and high-ranking editors, who get paid sufficiently well. And what need of property from a cooperative society for a man such as Rajiv Mohan Gupta? Many of the people in these societies are not those in real financial need, but those with the connections and influence to offer the government something in return for its munificence.

Several journalists told us that, compared to other deals between the media and the government in Madhya Pradesh, the journalists’ societies’ workings were nothing. When we told Mishra of this, he agreed dispassionately. Everyone, he said, knows about these things. And yet, even though specific names were taken at the coffee house, nobody could show us documents exposing any compromises. The journalists, it seemed, brought these things up not to convey concern, but to divert our interest. That we learnt of such impropriety from prominent journalists at coffee-house confabulations instead of in newspaper stories and television reports was itself proof of the depth of the problem.

Later, seated out of earshot of his peers, one senior reporter told us, on the promise of anonymity, “I am also a member, but I have no defence. You should write about this as you see this. There is no doubt in my mind that I have taken a favour.”

We contacted all the journalists named in this story for comment. Shureh Niazi said he was previously a member of both societies, and claimed to have cancelled his membership in each. Rajendra Sharma denied that he was a member of either society, and said that any documents saying he was must have been forged. Rasheed Kidwai said he took his membership at a time when he did not own property, but had since bought a house and was looking to cancel it. Milind Ghatwai said he was a member, but that he would not be taking land. Ashutosh Gupta only said “You have wrong information” before he cut the call. All others simply acknowledged being members of their respective societies.


THE NATURAL PLACE for Mishra to turn to alert the government to his concerns and discoveries was the Madhya Pradesh lokayukta. So, in September 2013, he filed a complaint with the anti-corruption authority, detailing all the irregularities he had uncovered with the judges’ society—the false addresses, the exceptional discount, the members who are not judges—and submitting copies of relevant documents.

The following January, the lokayukta dismissed his complaint. “According to the Section 8(c) of the Madhya Pradesh Lokayukta Act of 1981, we can not investigate the allegations that you are making,” its reply read. That section imposes a five-year statute of limitation on initiating enquiries into the action of public servants.

Chandresh Bhushan was deputy lokayukta at this time, and Rashmi Agarwal, also of the judges’ society, was serving as legal advisor to the authority. “I knew nothing will come out of the complaint,” Mishra told us. “But I had to try it for trying’s sake.”

In March, we headed to a beautiful building in Bhopal’s Old Secretariat area that serves as the office of the lokayukta. We found Rashmi Agarwal in her spacious office on the first floor. We asked about her association with the judges’ society, and also that of her husband, the chief engineer of the city’s public works department.

“I don’t know,” she said with a smile. We showed her copies of the society’s documents. “I am not sure,” she said. “I do remember giving the money for something like this, but I don’t think I have gotten anything from it. I really don’t know what to say.”

“But why are you concerned about this?” Agarwal asked after a long pause. “I don’t see any reason why you should be worried about it. Someone who is an aggrieved party should come forward.”

Agarwal told us that she had not heard about Mishra’s complaint against the society to the lokayukta, but agreed with its disqualification under section 8(c). “That is how it is,” she said.

We asked whether she, as an advisor to the lokayukta, saw any problem with the conduct of the society, or with the government’s dealings with it. “I can’t say. I don’t know. Why are you asking me? I do not know anything,” she said. “If there is a policy, it shouldn’t be a problem, I think, but I can’t really say.”

Dinesh Gupta’s letter to the revenue department in February 2009 argued for the Abhivyakti society’s lease rent to be calculated using a land price of Rs 60 per square foot. Gupta explicitly cited the treatment of the judges’ society as a precedent.

“Why would you call it a problem?” she asked. We pointed out that the government had granted a large favour to people whose responsibilities included keeping it in check—one of whom was the head of the SIT that supervised the investigation into Vyapam.

The legal advisor laughed, and told us, “My opinion shouldn’t matter.”

BUT IT DOES. The views of prominent members of the judiciary on where the red line lies in accepting concessionary treatment from the government have a crucial bearing on the quality of a country’s democracy. And Madhya Pradesh is not alone in having to confront this question of judicial ethics.

Indian courts have had opportunities to consider where that ethical line might fall. Their judgments in relevant cases, though, when read together, do not offer a clear precedent.

Several states have considered the specific matter of the allocation of public land to judges under cooperative housing societies. In the most recent instance, in August, a bench of the High Court of Gujarat, led by the state’s outgoing chief justice, issued notices to 27 high court judges regarding land that they received from a cooperative society in 2008. Those notices were prompted by letters from two retired high court judges, one of whom complained of not being given the plot he wanted by the society. The matter was brought before a Supreme Court bench led by HL Dattu, then the chief justice of India, which, noting the high court’s “mortal hurry” in initiating proceedings, stayed the notices to the judges and issued notices to the Gujarat revenue department and the Ahmedabad district collector.

Another example came in 2012, when the Bombay High Court dismissed a petition that alleged illegalities in the allotment of land in the Bandra-Kurla area of Mumbai, including its release “at nominal and/or throwaway prices as compared to prevailing market rates,”  to two cooperative housing societies, one of them made up of judges. The judgment stated, among much else, that “there is nothing illegal whatsoever in the allotment of Government lands to Co-operative Societies of persons from diverse walks of life,” and, citing the rigours of judicial duty, that judges “need space, both physical as well as mental, which would permit them to concentrate on their judicial work beyond Court hours.”

Going further back, in 1995, the High Court of Karnataka ruled that judges were not eligible for property in the Karnataka State Judicial Department Employees’ House Building Co-operative Society, stating that “by no stretch of imagination a Judge of the High Court or the Supreme Court can be stated as an employee of the Judicial Department.” According to a 2014 investigation by the Hindustan Times, however, numerous judges—including HL Dattu, and the current chief justice of India, TS Thakur—defied that ruling and received plots from the society anyway.

The legal intricacies of these cases, and of the allocation of land to the judges’ society in Bhopal, are subject to debate. Also, a judge receiving property in a cooperative society does not in itself act as proof of any corruption. But it is clear that all these instances throw up vital concerns of judicial probity. In addressing them, the judiciary could perhaps take cues from the late Supreme Court judge VR Krishna Iyer. In his 2010 book Wake Up Call for the Indian Republic, Iyer criticised the Kerala government for giving away cars to four high court judges. He emphasised the importance of judges remaining above suspicion, and that they are “expected to be incorruptibly above purchase, pollution, or pleasure from any quarter, executive or other.”

The Supreme Court echoed this view in the “Restatement of Values of Judicial Life,” a code of ethics ratified by all its sitting judges in 1999, which was subsequently adopted by all the high courts in the country. It reads:

1. Justice must not merely be done but it must also be seen to be done. The behaviour and conduct of members of the higher judiciary must reaffirm the people’s faith in the impartiality of the judiciary. Accordingly, any act of a Judge of the Supreme Court or a High Court, whether in official or personal capacity, which erodes the credibility of this perception has to be avoided.

10. A Judge shall not accept gifts or hospitality except from his family, close relations and friends.

15. A Judge should not seek any financial benefit in the form of a perquisite or privilege attached to his office unless it is clearly available. Any doubt in this behalf must be got resolved and clarified through the Chief Justice.

When we brought the judges’ society up with Harish Salve, a Supreme Court lawyer and a former solicitor general of India, he replied via email, “I do not subscribe to the theory that allotment of land would interfere with the independence of the judiciary.” But, he added, “the allocation of housing sites—be it to civil servants, judges, or journalists—has become controversial on account of the lack of a cohesive policy. … I believe that [the] time has come that [the] Union Government makes a uniform policy for allocation of land—and a system is created in which any allocation of land by the State Governments is cleared by the Union Government and perhaps even the Chief Justice of India.”

We reached out for comment to all the members of the judges’ society named in this story that we did not meet in person. Deepak Verma, RS Garg and AK Saxena said they did not remember becoming members of the society. Ved Prakash Sharma first denied being associated with it in any way, but then acknowledged that he was a member. Kashinath Singh and CV Shirpurkar also confirmed their membership. DK Paliwal, Anurag Kumar Shrivastava and Shardendu Tiwari had not responded to our messages at the time this piece went to press.

AS OF MARCH, construction had begun at the site of the Abhivyakti Grih Nirman Sahkari Samiti. The ground was being levelled, a gate was coming up, and a signboard proclaiming the society’s ownership stood nearby. The members of the Rajdhani Patrakar Grih Nirman Sahkari Samiti, meanwhile, were in the process of taking possession of their land: the final administrative step in individuals receiving property from a cooperative society, when the property released to the society as a whole is divided into discrete plots to be signed over to separate members. KD Sharma told us that construction on the society’s site would soon begin.

But the territory of the Nyayadhish Grih Nirman Sahkari Sanstha, the first of the three societies to be allotted land by the government, remained forlorn (and was still not listed on the website of the Bhopal district collector). The society’s members have been unable to take possession, Mishra explained, because the legal action by its previous owner has still not reached a close.

The Urban Land (Ceiling and Regulation) Act, passed in 1976, put a limit on the amount of vacant urban land that could be held by any single person. Back then, this land was owned by one Chandmal Daga, of a wealthy Bhopal family. Daga was found to have property in excess of the new limit, and, in 1987, the property came into the government’s hands. But after the economic liberalisation of the early 1990s, the act came to be seen as an unnecessary impediment, and it was repealed in Madhya Pradesh in 2000. Two years later, Daga approached the state’s high court, arguing that the land should be returned to him on two grounds: that the government had never paid him the compensation he was due under the act, and that the act itself no longer applied. After he died in 2005, Daga’s family filed another petition, in 2008, which also named the judges’ society among the respondents. Both petitions were dismissed by the high court in 2012, and the government was directed to pay Daga’s family the unpaid compensation, with interest. Unsatisfied, that same year, the family filed a writ appeal with the high court, and the case is still pending.

Besides setting back the development of the housing society, the delay in possession also has another implication. By the conditions of the society’s by-laws, members assume the power to sell the rights to their individual holdings on to other parties beginning ten years after the land was signed over by the government—in this case, after October next year. Without receiving possession, however, they cannot do so. The revenue department’s circle rate for the society’s land has now risen to Rs 27,000 per square metre—an almost 12-fold increase on the 2007 circle rate of Rs 2,300 per square metre. Compared to the Rs 1.16 crore the society actually paid for it in 2007, at the present circle rate the entire 7.39 acre property is worth Rs 80.74 crore: an almost 70-fold return on the investment.

On our last visit to the site, it was covered with wheat—planted, some nearby squatters said, by an itinerant farmer. We failed to find this man, but his crop, resplendent and ripe, shone under an exceptionally bright afternoon sun. A dry wind rippled softly through the stands. Amid the countless shades of brown and yellow, the land betrayed glints of gold.

This story resulted from a collaboration with Cobrapost.

Editor’s note: This text has been amended to include two more names of sitting or retired judges of the High Court of Madhya Pradesh who benefitted from land discounts from the state government, adding to the previous list of six.