A veteran journalist for nearly 40 years, having worked for Samyuktha Karnataka, a regional daily and covering political news for nearly two decades, Gunda Bhat is a well-known name in the field of journalism in Karnataka. Bhat received a BDA plot in 2002 from the state government, under G-category as a mark of respect for his contribution to journalism. He built a single-storey house on the allotted site at Dollar’s colony near JP Nagar.
For sometime now, his house in the JP Nagar locality of Bengaluru is under threat of demolition by the BDA. Furthermore, in an interim order declared on March 15th 2009, the Karnataka High Court barred further construction on this plot.
Under the G-category, the chief minister allots BDA sites to eminent personalities. People who are awarded the land are essentially moved up in line and unlike other ordinary citizens they do not need to wait for a BDA site for six to eight years. Stray BDA sites are to be used for this, the BDA distributes such sites. The selling price is to be 10 per cent above the current allotment rates of the BDA, as per government orders issued on this matter.
In the past, many chief ministers have allotted sites to actors, MLAs, sports personalities, artists and — and even people vaguely identified in BDA records as “housewives” and “coolies.” Since 1997 journalists who are responsible for covering the government have also received land grants from the CM’s office.
BDA alleged that Gunda Bhat had produced false affidavits while obtaining the land. The authorities said that Bhat already possessed another site at Jayanagar, which the state rewarded him in 1976. BDA sent him a show-cause notice soon after the second allotment after finding that Bhat had lied in his affidavit. BDA then cancelled the second site and announced the fortification of the entire amount that Bhat had paid for the site.
However, Bhat denied these charges and maintained that the site was given at the discretion of the chief minister.
It is not unethical because I did not have a site or a house anywhere in the state when this site was allotted,” said Bhat. He admitted that he owned the Jayanagar site prior to the second allotment but he clarified that he had no site in his name during the second allotment. But BDA records show that Bhat had transferred the first site to his elder son, to sponsor his son’s higher studies in the United States. At present, the matter rests with the High Court. Bhat refused to comment about his case directly and said he would not say anything because the matter is still in court.
However, during an interview he did not sound apologetic that he is residing in a BDA plot that is also the second allotment to him. When questioned directly, one of his friends shot back at the interviewers and asked if journalists aren’t citizens to apply or receive land from the government? Gunda Bhat’s is not an isolated case.
In 2002, a Karnataka rural journalist filed suit against the government as well as his colleagues, claiming they lied on their applications and their receipt of the land was unethical.
M S B Rao, a Bangalore-based rural journalist, filed the lawsuit against the Chief Minister, Principal Secretary (state government), BDA Commissioner and ten journalists in the Karnataka High Court. He questioned the “eminence’ of the journalists who were awarded sites and alleged that the journalists not only own sites prioto the G-category allotment, they also sell the same at higher costs.
What’s your take?
“This is clearly unethical on the part of the journalist”, says Rao. “What extraordinary services have they done or what contributions to the society have they made?” he asked.
As the BDA commissioner during the time the lawsuit was filed, Jaykar Jerome remembers the high drama, yet recalls only a few things now. “I know of the PIL that was filed in 2002-03 which was during my time. This was time that the whole thing came into open,” he says. He was BDA commissioner from the year 1999 to 2004. He says that many people were sent show-cause notices and the law would be strictly followed by the BDA.
In its ruling in February 2004, however, the High Court refrained from issuing notice to the respondents stating that it could not go into the facts of each case or investigate it. It merely asked the BDA to verify the claims made by Rao and take action in accordance with the law.
On January 6th 2009, Gunda Bhat filed a litigation against BDA protesting against the organisation’s decision to cancel his site. The Karnataka High Court ruled the same month , barring construction out on the plot till further orders from the court. In March this year, the court reiterated the same order, says Dr Puttaswamy, Public Relations Officer of BDA.
“BDA cannot verify details in affidavits”
Current BDA Commissioner H Siddaiah confirms that despite it being illegal, many journalists have lied on affidavits. The BDA asked for specific information whether the journalists getting these lands possessed land awarded to them or any of their family members previously, but the facts were always concocted, BDA officials claim.
“If one files a false affidavit, it’s a crime”, says Siddaiah. He also adds that the selection of a journalist for allotment was entirely “the prerogative of the government.”
Jaykar Jerome, commissioner of BDA from 1999 to 2004, echoes similar concerns and says the BDA merely implements the government order of allotment of land.
In an interview, Jerome confirms that there have been cases where people have submitted false affidavits and family members of the applicants already owned a plot given by BDA or KHB, yet he argues that the BDA cannot possibly verify details provided by the allottees. “There is no way the affidavits of each and very person can be verified. I have to accept it on good faith. That is why an affidavit is submitted,” he says.
“It is very unfortunate that a senior journalist would do that (engage in malpractices) when there were young journalists who applied through the general category on my advice, and got the land,” he says. (The ‘general’ category Jerome refers to is the regular BDA allotment, not to be confused with G-category allottments.)
Journalists, fast-tracked BDA allotments, and ethics
The Press Council of India (PCI) condemns giving sites to journalists. A study conducted between 1985 and 1995 by the PCI stated that a journalist should not accept benefits such as “concessions on airfares and other transport, accommodation and land” from the government. The results of the study were published in a booklet – Ethic and Code of Conduct.” The council also observed “indiscriminate disbursement of money from the discretionary funds of the Chief Ministers encouraged unfaithfulness to the mission of journalism and promoted corrupt practices.”
Ammu Joseph, a senior journalist based in Bangalore says that though the letter of the guidelines is less clear, the “spirit” of the guidelines issues by the PCI is very clear. The detailed section on allotment of houses to journalists refers to a particular situation prevailing in the national capital. In the guidelines on undue favors to journalists there is reference to the provision of (temporary) accommodation as opposed to allotment of land or buildings on an ownership basis for housing purposes.
Ammu says that it’s not professional or ethical for journalists to ask for or accept personal favors from the government and/or individual politicians and argues that journalists must be wary of accepting favors and facilities from any source — governmental or otherwise — that might compromise their personal integrity and their professional duty to the public.
“G-category plot allotment to journalists comprises undue favors that could encourage unethical practice of the profession,” she says.
She also observes that the PCI’s guidelines and recommendations are not binding and have, therefore, not been taken very seriously by the media. In fact, most media professionals are barely aware of what the PCI does or says. Also, the PCI’s jurisdiction, such as it is, extends only over the press — it doesn’t cover the electronic media.
A former high-ranking Karnataka government official, who has worked closely with the G-category allotments, said giving land to journalists is the “easiest way” for the state’s top politicians to cultivate favorable coverage. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
“You don’t want hostile media,” he says. “You want media which is supportive of you, which builds up your image. So it is the easiest way to buy support. After all, you are not paying from your pocket. It’s government quota. It can be given to anyone. I mean, you give the land and then you give a site, and then you buy the support.”
But S M Krishna, the former Karnataka chief Minister who held office from 1999 to 2004, denies the allegation. Approximately 20 journalists, including Gunda Bhat, received land as a part of G-category allotments during Krishna’s tenure.
“This is not true,” says Krishna. “I never bothered about their coverage. Journalism is a very sacred sector, which can’t be bought over by sites.”
A senior and prominent journalist currently in the business press said that the chief minister’s office had approached him to offer a site, which he refused. “Media handlers called me. I was too surprised and said that let me think over and come back to you”, he says. He explains that “media handlers” are people in the chief minister’s office who act as a bridge between the government and media.
He adds that it was easy for a journalist to fall for such an offer, especially because a journalism job gives one no post retirement benefits or securities. However, he refused the offer because of “moral and ethical reasons.” But there are still many who accept it, he says. This journalist spoke on condition that he not be named and cited his current employer’s policy as a reason for requesting anonymity.
Dakshin Murthy, a senior journalist* with The Hindu and a faculty at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media (IIJNM), takes a similar line. He was also offered land under this category, but he refused.
It is a favour, says Murthy. “I refused as I did not want favour from the government.”
Murthy adds that the G-category allotments should be “completely abolished” or there should be some stricter measures to ensure that the sites should be awarded to truly deserving and ‘eminent personalities’.
Yet, there are other journalists who do not consider accepting the allotment as a favour if the individual accepting the land does not already own a site.
“As journalists, like any other citizen we are entitled to get land from BDA and under G-category government allots site to people recognizing their services. How is it unethical?” argues Sridhar Acharya, former Associate editor, Prajavani, a Kannada daily. “Favour is only to the extent of being allotted out of turn”. he added. In fact Sridhar, who himself resides on a Karnataka Housing Board site felt that journalists are not only entitled to such properties but they should also receive other benefits from the government.
V N Subba Rao, a senior state journalist was given a G-category plot in January 2006, after the City Improvement Trust Board (CITB was the BDA’s predecessor) previously awarded him land in 1973. He had sold the CITB site after 12 years. He was the chairman of Karnataka Press Academy at the time of the second allotment.
Editor and publisher of weekly magazine Sanchari Loka was allotted a BDA site in October 2007, after trying to get a site for seven to eight years. S V Muddappa first wrote to the then Chief Minister J H Patel in 1998, requesting him to award a plot to him. Two letters of recommendations from H Nagappa, Minister for Agricultural Marketing and Vimala Bai J Deshmukh, Minister for Women and Child Welfare, accompanied this request. Also attached to this request was a copy of a November 1998 issue of the magazine that he publishes.
He was finally allotted a site at BTM layout in October 2007. The site cost him a little over Rs.2.50 lakhs and he officially took over the land within days of the government order approving the site. Later he approached the CM’s office and wrote letters to the chief minster and Rabindra Nath, Minister of Agriculture in June 2008, asking them to direct the BDA to give him a bigger site.
Journalist and editor of a Mysore based daily, Mysore Diganta, Malali Nataraja Kumar was allotted a site in May 2007. What probably pressed his case for consideration was a letter by senior politician H D Devegowda to then Chief Minster Dharam Singh, a testimony that stated that he did not own any land or property in Bangalore and requested the chief minister’s office to consider his plea seriously.
Citizen Matters was unable to contact these individuals for their comments. ⊕
*Article updated 12 September 2009.