Friday, March 31, 2023

Day of Reckoning?

Day of Reckoning?
A deluge of BSP supporters at the Kanshi Ram memorial in Lucknow/Photo: UNI
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Above: A deluge of BSP supporters at the Kanshi Ram memorial in Lucknow/Photo: UNI

In a scathing indictment of the former UP chief minister, the Court has said that she may have to return Rs 2,000 crore spent by her on statues. This is the 17th time this matter has come up for hearing

By Atul Chandra in Lucknow 

For Mayawati, the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the day of reckoning seems to be drawing near. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) president may have to return crores of public money which she spent on installing hundreds of statues, including her own, in Lucknow and Noida during her tenure as chief minister.

On February 8, the Supreme Court hinted that Mayawati may be asked to return the money—approximately Rs 2,000 crore—from her own pocket. A verdict in the case could settle once and for all the issue of spending public mo­ney on building statues. The former chief minister and several others are al­ready facing an inquiry by the Enforcement Directorate for the alleged multi-crore scam.

A PIL filed by advocate Ravi Kant in 2009 came up for the first time in the court of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, who remarked: “We primarily think Ms Mayawati should return this money she has spent from the public exchequer on statues, elephants.” Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna were the other two judges on the bench. Incidentally, ever since the PIL against Mayawati was filed, it has come up 17 times for hearing, but no progress has been made.

The PIL had sought a restraint order against the Mayawati government to prevent it from misusing public funds for political advantage. According to the petitioner, about 90 percent of the culture department’s budget was spent on building statues of Mayawati, her mentor, Kanshi Ram, and the BSP’s party symbol, elephants.

Posting the matter for April 2, Justice Gogoi said: “Please come prepared on the next date of hearing…you now know our tentative view.” When senior lawyer and BSP MP Satish Mishra sought a date in May in view of the likelihood of Lok Sabha elections being held in April, the CJI refused to heed his request. “No, we won’t defer it. Please don’t make us say anything more. We would want to say a lot more, but don’t make us. Come prepared on the next date,” Justice Gogoi simply said.

A late entrant on Twitter, Mayawati tweeted her reaction on the Supreme Court’s observation a day later from her Twitter handle, @Sushri Mayawati, asking the media and BJP leaders to stop kite flying. “Humble request to media please don’t distort oral observation of Hon’ble court. Sure to get justice in this matter also. Media and BJP leaders please stop kite flying.”

Another tweet from her justified the memorials. “Marvellous Sthals/Memorials/Parks etc. built to honour hitherto ignored great Sants, Gurus and great men born in deprived and oppressed Dalit and OBCs are new grand identity and tourist attraction of Uttar Pradesh which gives regular income to government,” Mayawati tweeted, and added that her party’s position will be placed before the apex court at the next hearing. SC Mishra also said that too much was being made out of the Court’s observation.

Mayawati had attacked the BJP and RSS the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s Statue of Unity in November 2018. She had said: “All those in the BJP and RSS should apologise, especially to the people of Bahujan Samaj” for terming the statues installed by the then BSP government to honour Dalit icons like Babasaheb Ambedkar and others as wasteful expenditure.

Money for Mayawati’s whimsical project, spread over app­roximately 500 acres in Lucknow and Noida, came from budgetary allocations in 2008-09 and 2009-10 and over Rs 2,000 crore was alleged to have been spent on the statues.

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India in its report tabled in the UP Assembly in July 2014 had said that the four memorials—Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Samajik Parivartan Sthal, Manyavar Kanshiram Smarak Sthal, Baudh Vihar Shanti Upvan and Eco Park in Lucknow and Manyavar Kanshiram Green Garden, Noida—were originally sanctioned on an outlay of Rs 943.43 crore in 2007. By the end of her tenure in 2012, this was revised to Rs 4,558 crore.

According to one estimate, Rs 4,708 crore was said to have been spent on Dalit memorials and parks in Lucknow alone. These included: Rs 1,363 crore on Ambedkar Samajik Parivartan Prateek Sthal (125 acres); Rs 730 crore on Kanshiram Memorial (70 acres); Rs 655 crore on Ramabai Rally Sthal (51 acres); Rs 460 crore on Baudh Shanti Upvan (10.8 hectares); Rs 1,000 crore on Kanshiram Eco Park (70 acres); Rs 300 crore on Gomti Vihar Park (30 acres) and Rs 200 crore on Gomti Park (20 acres).

Besides these, Rs 685 crore was spent on Dalit Prerna Sthal and Green Garden spread over 80 acres in Noida. Two other memorials—Ambedkar Park at a cost of Rs 86 crore over 10 hectares and Buddha Park (Rs 46 crore) over four hectares—were set up in Greater Noida’s Badlapur, Mayawati’s village.

With reference to Mayawati, who was in power in 2009, the petition said that hundreds of crores of tax payers’ money was being spent “for personal glorification” by constructing statues of leaders in power. According to the petition, 60 statues of elephants costing over Rs 52 crore were installed in a park which amounted to wasteful expenditure of public money. It also claimed that such open display of the BSP’s party symbol was a violation of Election Commission directives. (On the EC’s order, these elephant statues were covered during elections.)

In the very first hearing on June 29, 2009, the apex court slammed the BSP chief. While issuing a notice to the state and Mayawati, who was the chief minister, the Supreme Court said: “The huge public funds which are meant for improving conditions of people living below the poverty line cannot be legitimately diverted for erecting statues and parks.” While telling the state to set its priorities right, the Supreme Court said that public money must be spent judiciously. Mayawati then gave an undertaking that no further construction work would be undertaken at the Dalit memorials in Lucknow.

In 2012, Akhilesh Yadav had called the memorials a Rs 40,000-crore scam. Explaining how he arrived at that humongous figure, Akhilesh said that the price of land used must also be accounted for. Akhilesh’s father, former Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, had even threatened to demolish the statues.

This time around, Akhilesh was discreet in his reaction in view of the political alliance he has entered into with the BSP. “I don’t have full information about this. The Court might have made some observations. BSP’s lawyers will put their side in the Court,” Akhilesh said.

Besides the case coming up in the Supreme Court, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) has also registered a criminal case under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act to investigate financial irregularities in the construction of these memorials. The ED case is based on a complaint filed by the state vigilance department in 2014. The vigilance department alleged that the construction of memorials had caused “a loss of Rs 111,44,35,066 to the government exchequer and unlawful gain to public servants and private individuals”. ED teams searched the premises of seven officials and other persons in connection with the alleged scam.

Earlier, the UP Lokayukta indicted Naseemuddin Siddiqui and Babu Singh Kushwaha, cabinet colleagues of Mayawati, and 12 BSP legislators for wrong-doing in the purchase of sandstone for the memorials. It was on the Lokayukta’s report that the vigilance department lodged an FIR against them in 2014.

Others mentioned in the FIR included engineers and officers of Rajkiya Nirman Nigam, Public Works Department and Noida.

In 2010, Mayawati decided to create a special force called the State Special Zone Security Force for the protection of all the Dalit memorials built by her government. An amount of Rs 9 crore was allocated for this force of about 1,000 personnel.

The recent Supreme Court oral observation, however, has sent confused signals to many. Questions are being raised as to why the top court merely passed an oral order suggesting that Mayawati should return the money instead of just postponing the hearing to a later date? There is also an emerging opinion that the Court may have given away its mindset in the case.

It remains to be seen how the SC looks into the matter on April 2.

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