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No beating about the bush.
The story of President Pratibha Patil’s palatial home was doing the rounds for quite sometime. However, it was only when Moneylife first wrote about it on 11th April and then followed it up with nine other articles that it triggered off a national debate in the media and social networking sites—a remarkable example of what the RTI, Internet, Twitter and Facebook combine can do what the largest of media companies cannot and will not do. A recap by Moneylife columnist Vinita Deshmukh
I happened to meet Col Suresh Patil (retd) at a felicitation function of Pune’s Padma awardees about four weeks back, when he mentioned about President Pratibha Patil building a palatial post retirement home in Pune. It was a short conversation but I kept this at the back of my mind and decided to follow it up, especially because he mentioned he had procured some documents under the RTI (Right to Information) Act.
Immediately the next day, I called him up and asked him to meet me along with the documents he was talking about the previous evening. When I went through the documents I was shocked to note that as against the home ministry rules wherein a retired president of India is eligible for maximum 4,498 sq ft of an ‘existing’ government accommodation, documents showed that she was building a mansion on a whopping 2,42,000 sq ft land. I wondered why the Pune media had not gone to town with this story, despite the fact that he had held a press conference. News items though had appeared, on an issue which was too potent to be tamed/silenced.
Three press conferences were held since July 2011 but there was tame reaction from the media in Pune. Col Suresh Patil (retd) who took up the campaign against this “land grab” not only held press conferences but visited newspaper offices to tell his story, but no one was listening. By any standard of journalism, it was a mind-blowing story for any journalist—of the President of India, Pratibha Patil who holds the highest office in the country, building a palatial post retirement mansion on a sprawling 2,42,ooo sq ft prime defence land in Khadki.
I penned this story with all relevant details in my RTI column of 11th April, which appears in Moneylife every Wednesday (and of which I am also the Consulting Editor).
Sucheta Dalal, the firebrand journalist who broke the Harshad Mehta scam in April 1992 and is the Managing Editor of Moneylife and Debashis Basu, the Founder Editor and Publisher, immediately sensed the importance of this story. They not only gave it the prominent place of on www.moneylife.in but used the social networking sites to good effect. Sucheta, who has more than 20,000 followers on the Twitter, tweeted the story link and so did Debashis. They also uploaded it on the Facebook. Lo and behold, by the morning of 12th April, it had gone viral and my story titled “President Pratibha Patil grabs 2,61,000 sq ft of land meant for soldiers and officers” had aroused the entire nation. In these days of the Internet, the marriage between an Internet website and social media networking can be formidable, as proved by the editors of Moneylife in first uploading the story prominently and then transmitting it in cyberspace.
Thereafter, the electronic and the print media followed up the story, with CNN IBN managing editor Rajdeep Sardesai giving credit to Moneylife and taking up the issue first in electronic media. And then everyone else picked up the story and highlighted it in their respective channels/newspapers. Even then, Indian Express tried to side with the powerful by blowing up the story on Col Suresh Patil who was being maliciously targeted by the Defence Estate Office for encroachment on some temporary sheds of his outhouse. This newspaper had nothing to say about one of the largest and shocking cases of irregularity done by none other than the President of India.
Thereafter, Sucheta and Debashis welcomed every story I wrote on the issue, based on additional documents under RTI by activists Col Suresh Patil (retd), Comm Ravindra Pathak and Anoop Awasthi, a formal naval officer and well known RTI activist (who was the one who procured vital documents under RTI).
I filed 10 stories between 11th April and 27th April. In these times when editors across newspapers prefer to be status quo-ists and don’t take chances with stories that take on the establishment, it was the courage of conviction of Sucheta and Debashis that brought the truth to tens of thousands of readers across the country and the globe. Each of my stories was placed on top of the website and each one was posted on Facebook and Twitter to a large body of followers.
Of course, we never expected the story to reach the logical end so soon. It is an example of how democracy can win if the media plays it strong and powerful, the way Moneylife consistently did. There is also one bigger lesson to learn from the outcome of this story. That, every journalist should make RTI as an integral and mandatory part of his or her professional career. As it is—even with the ‘proof’ through RTI that land was illegally given to Ms Patil, the President of India’s official press release on Friday mentioned about vilification campaign against Pratibha Patil. However, the fact is, the black and white documents made her defence-less and she was compelled to surrender the land, within four weeks of Moneylife having broke the story.
Last but not the least, hats off to the three soldiers—Col Suresh Patil (retd), Comm Ravindra Pathak (retd) and Anoop Awasthi, a naval officer of short service commission. All three of them tenaciously fought the battle against all odds, with a mission to pursue it to the logical end. The next week, they had planned for a PIL in the Supreme Court, with Sucheta playing the mediator between them and the best lawyers.
However, good sense prevailed upon the President and she surrendered the land. So, it is apt that she be given due credit for upholding the highest tradition of democracy wherein peoples’ sentiments and laws are respected.
A very big lesson from this story is that, please do not be cynical. I kept questioning myself, “Will anything happen?” It happened, and really fast. Long live democracy. Long live spirited journalism and activism. Long live peoples’ voices. Long live RTI and may it be used in the service of public-interest journalism.
(Vinita Deshmukh is a consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005, and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte. She can be reached at [email protected])
Around two million people have been hurt by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that took place 26 years ago. “The Chernobyl disaster underscored that mankind must be extra careful in using nuclear technologies,” Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych said. Is India listening?
The impact of Chernobyl nuclear disaster we see today is not just the exclusion zone around the destroyed reactor, but enormous radioactive contamination still observed in the now independent states of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. There are vast territories in Russia’s Bryansk Region where the levels of background radiation are still too high for people to live safely in the area. Ironically, Russia, one of the countries most severely affected by Chernobyl, prefers to ignore the immense renewable energy potential and still placing its bets on more nuclear power plants.
Indian nuclear power plants are situated in Zone II and III except Narora plant in Uttar Pradesh, which is situated in Zone IV. Is the government doing enough to ensure that our nuclear plant are safe and can withstand any disaster, natural or otherwise? Here is an international report highlighting the Chernobyl disaster and the measures taken by the Ukrainian government to protect its citizens from the after-effects of the disaster.
Twenty-six years to the day after the world’s worst nuclear disaster, Ukraine on Thursday began construction of a vast new metal shelter to contain the stricken Chernobyl reactor.
The 20,000-tonne structure, big enough to enclose the Statue of Liberty, is due to be completed by 2015, allowing the delicate and dangerous job of dismantling the reactor and cleaning vast amounts of radioactive waste still around it to begin.
“The Chernobyl disaster underscored that mankind must be extra careful in using nuclear technologies,” Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych said at the commencement ceremony. “Nuclear accidents lead to global consequences. They are not a problem of just one country, they affect the life of entire regions.”
The 26 April 1986, explosion spewed a cloud of radiation over the northern hemisphere, forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes in Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia. The Soviet government initially tried to hush up the explosion and resisted evacuation of neighbouring settlements, as well as failing to tell citizens how to protect themselves against radiation.
A concrete “sarcophagus” was hastily erected over the wrecked reactor, but it has been crumbling and leaking radiation in recent years and a new confinement structure is necessary.
Mr Yanukovych said two million people have been hurt by the tragedy and it was the state’s obligation to protect and treat them. But his reassurances fell flat with Chernobyl clean-up workers and victims. About 2,000 protesters rallied on Thursday outside parliament in Kiev, demanding more compensation and pensions.
Mr Yanukovych also thanked international donors for pledging 740 million euros (615 million pounds) to build the new shelter and a nuclear fuel waste facility. The biggest donors are the G8 industrial nations, including Japan, itself still recovering from last year’s Fukushima nuclear meltdown.
“It feels good to note Ukraine wasn’t left alone with its pain. We felt the whole world came to our rescue,” Mr Yanukovych said.
Vince Novak, director of the Nuclear Safety Department with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which part-funds the project, praised Ukraine’s commitment.
“It is definitely important to know there is a strong commitment in Ukraine to do everything necessary to ensure that the Chernobyl project progresses well,” he said. “We have no room or margins for delay, for errors or for poor performance.” Mr Novak said 1,000 workers are now beginning to piece together the giant arch from French steel on an assembly site 200 metres away from the exploded reactor. After it is assembled in the coming months, workers will begin to lift it to slide it over the reactor. The contours of the new confinement building should become visible by the year end. Then a front and back section will be built.
Preparatory work has been under way since 2008. That included cleaning up the assembly site, replacing contaminated soil, and then putting it in concrete, which now enables employees to work without special radiation protection.
EAS Sarma, former secretary to the Government of India, has also written to PMO hoping that someone there will have the sanity to think outside the narrow confines of Department of Energy and be statesmanlike in reviewing the safety of nuclear power. There are a myriad ways to find answers to our energy problem without committing the people of this country to a dangerous nuclear future.
Following persistent agitation by three intrepid activists, and supported by several exclusive articles in Moneylife alone, written by Vinita Deshmukh, the President of India, Pratibha Patil agrees to give up the land on which she was building a palatial post retirement bungalow
President Pratibha Patil has announced that she will now give up the large tract of A1 army land that she had grabbed to build a palatial post-retirement bungalow. This follows persistent newsbreaks only in Moneylife for the last one month and continuous agitation by activists in Pune.
A statement from the Rashtrapati Bhavan said, “Considering the fact that the issue has got linked with the issue of war widows accommodation by some people, the President has chosen to forego the aforesaid allotment of accommodation proposed to be made to her as her post retirement home in Pune.” It also said that, “What has pained the President the most is the fact that she is now being portrayed by some people as one who, by agreeing to accept a defence accommodation for her post retirement home, is insensitive to the cause of war widows and ex-servicemen. But facts are to the contrary. She has always been proud of our brave jawans who are ever-ready to display their spirit of sacrifice while defending our borders. She has the highest regards for our war widows who have lost their dear ones for the sake of security and integrity of the nation.”
It was Moneylife which broke the story that Pratibha Patil, president of India and the supreme commander of the armed forces was building a palatial home for herself on a whopping 261,000 sq ft of land in Khadki Cantonment in Pune (out of which the bungalow occupies about 4,500 sq ft). The land belongs to the defence. It was planned to have a fortified home. It was more than the stipulated 2,000 sq ft norms as stipulated by the law. Here is our first article
President Pratibha Patil grabs 2,61,000 sq ft of land meant for soldiers and officers
The issue came to limelight after information was revealed under the Right to Information (RTI) following a query by Col Suresh Patil (retd) and founder of Justice for Jawans (JFJ), RTI activist Anup Awasthi and Indian Ex-servicemen Movement (IESM). They campaigned against Ms Patil’s ‘snatching’ away land meant for soldiers and officers.
The RTI application was sent to the President’s office. As per the reply, under the President’s Emoluments and Pension Act, 1951 and rules framed under the President’s Pension Rule, 1962, “where suitable government residence is not available for allotment to a retired president, the size of the residence to be taken on lease to be provided to a retired president shall have a living area not exceeding 2,000 sq ft”.
In an earlier response from the Rashtrapati Bhavan, to a campaign by a group of ex-servicemen, said that, “No illegality has been committed. The land has been allotted to the President for use during her lifetime and will continue to belong to the defence ministry," it said rebutting charges that the plot had been "given" to the President.”
Vinita Deshmukh, who consistently followed the story, told Moneylife that, “She is absolutely thrilled by the response from the President. It is truly a people’s victory.”
Moneylife has been consistently at the story. After the first article, Vinita wrote about the fact that Pratibha Patil’s house stands on defence land meant only for military use with military spending its resources for her benefit.
(Pratibha Patil’s house stands on A1 defence land meant only for military use; military spending its resources for her)
Soon after the above story was published, it went viral in the social media. However, the President's office came up with a denial which did not address the core issues, but was carried faithfully by the mainstream media (Pratibha Patil’s Pune Bungalow: Denying the undeniable ).
The protests gathered steam and spread both nationwide. (Protest against President’s land grab set to spread countrywide)
Further, it was found out that Pune Cantonment Board’s reply to RTI application says that the cantonment comes under the jurisdiction of the Maharashtra Tree Act. Apparently, trees too were being uprooted to give way for the palace.
Trees cut illegally for President Pratibha Patil’s Pune bungalow?
Even the home ministry questioned the President’s move. The president’s office instead stood ground and stated their reply, which was full of factual errors.
Ministry of defence had questioned ‘precedence’ of allocating defence land for President Pratibha Patil’s retirement home
With the social media and nationwide protest at the peak, the President office sent an emissary to pacify the RTI activists. However, the Governor of Tripura, DY Patil, had planed to fly down to Pune to pacify activists opposing President Pratibha Patil's post-retirement home; tweets depleted his confidence and he sent his confidante instead, who in turn asked the soldiers to "tone down the agitation". Thus showing the power of the citizens.
Twitter buzz scares away Pratibha Patil's emissary sent to pacify protestors of Pune land grab
Vinita Deshmukh finally wrote that many unanswered questions remain. By the time, the nation was fed up.
President Pratibha Patil’s palatial home in Pune: Many unanswered questions