New Delhi: Sportspersons of international repute cannot claim to be exclusive or above the law and seek benefits from the state, especially for commercial ventures, the Calcutta High Court observed in its judgment that quashed West Bengal government’s decision to allot land to former Indian cricket team captain Sourav Ganguly.
Ganguly, the current president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), was allotted the land in 2013 by the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government to develop a school.
A division bench led by acting chief justice Rajesh Bindal said the facts of the case clearly established that the allotment done in February 2013 was in violation of the state’s land allotment policy. It was done “with closed eyes,” “as if it was not a state property but a private limited company which was permitted to deal with its property,” justice Bindal observed.
Bonafides of the allottee were not examined nor due process followed either by the state cabinet or by the board of directors of the West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (WBHIDC) while making the allotment, the bench remarked, while commenting on the “speed” with which the proposal was cleared in Ganguly’s favour.
The judgment was delivered on a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by NGO – Humanity, Salt Lake, challenging the allotment, which, it said, could have been done only through a public auction.
The court did not spare Ganguly as well even as it took strong exception to the state and corporation’s conduct in the matter, which, it said, showed the current BCCI chief was “able to play with the system”.
Previous land allotments to Ganguly
This is not the first time the state of West Bengal had allotted land to the cricket star against the rules. In September 2011, the Supreme Court struck down a similar decision of the state to lease land in Ganguly’s favour in 2009.
In its Tuesday order, the HC censured the state for repeating the mistakes that led the top court to quash the last allotment.
“Facts clearly established that respondent number 9 (Ganguly) was in a position to dictate his terms, as if it was not a case where the State was dealing with its property, where fair and transparent procedure was required to be followed. Rather, it was a case in which the respondent was able to play with the system. It was not for the first time that he was able to do it. This time also, the plot was allotted to him without any advertisement,” the high court said.
The bench imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 each on the state and WBHIDC and also a cost of Rs 10,000 on both Ganguly and the education society he had formed to set up the school.
The fines are to be deposited with the West Bengal Legal Services Authority within four weeks, the court clarified. The state and the corporation were, however, given the liberty to recover the costs from the officers who were responsible for the “irregular allotment” in Ganguly’s favour.
According to the court, Ganguly should have acted in accordance with the law, especially considering that the arbitrary allotment made in the past was set aside by the apex court.
In the PIL, the petitioner had questioned the allotment letter of 27 September 2013 by WBHIDC, saying “favouritism” was writ large in the state’s decision. It was argued that Ganguly applied to the state chief minister for allotment, immediately after the 2011 verdict. And the land was allotted to him following a similar procedure that was held as arbitrary by the SC.
The state cabinet on 5 February 2013 had considered Ganguly’s request for a plot of 2.5 acres in Kolkata for building a school of international standard for the children of West Bengal. On 9 February 2013, WHIDCO’s board of directors made the decision to allot him the two acres of land.
After the formalities were done, an allotment letter was issued on 27 September 2013. Thereafter, the corporation also reduced the lease premium to be paid by Ganguly to Rs 5.27 crore from Rs 10.98 crore.
The petitioner argued the plot was allotted for the construction of a school, which is commercial use. According to the policy, the plea contended that such an allotment could be made only on the basis of a tender notice. However, there was nothing on record to establish that Ganguly had followed procedure. As he had access to the “corridors of power,” he directly made a representation to the chief minister, the petitioner alleged.
Infructuous petition, says Ganguly
Both counsel for WHIDCO and Ganguly submitted that the latter had surrendered the plot and the amount deposited by him had been refunded. Therefore, nothing survived for adjudication in the petition, rendering it infructuous.
Additionally, the state argued that in terms of the land allotment policy, the government was empowered to allot plots at its discretion, while relaxing the criteria. And, the same was done in Ganguly’s case considering he was a cricketer of international repute and had proposed to set up an institute for education and sports.
However, due to the PIL pending in the HC, Ganguly himself withdrew from the project. The cricketer’s lawyer said though there was no interim order, to avoid taking a risk, the project had not taken off. Having lost interest, Ganguly finally surrendered the land in August 2020.
‘All are equal under the law‘
The court rejected the arguments made by the state of West Bengal and Ganguly and went on to deal with the issues on their own merit as well as the state’s conduct.
“It is a case in which the rules, regulations, and the law laid down by the Hon’ble Supreme Court and this Court has been given complete go-bye at the whims and fancies of the persons in charge,” the court remarked.
It said it appreciated Ganguly’s “contribution as a sportsperson” and that he had brought laurels for the country in cricket, but observed that “when it comes to law, our Constitutional Scheme is that all are equal and no one can claim to be exclusive, above the law and seek benefits from the State, especially when the question arises for allotment of plots for commercial ventures.”
It said no one “ever raises a finger when the Government showers awards and benefits to the sportspersons when they win any tournament, but this system is not to continue in perpetuity.”
If Ganguly is interested in the development of sports, especially cricket, in which he has many achievements to his credit, there may be many state sports establishments with which he can associate himself to motivate budding cricketers, the court added.
The bench emphasised that land policy was meant to infuse transparency in the decision-making process, while dealing with public assets. But in Ganguly’s case, the same was flouted. Therefore, it added, there was a need to have a defined policy to guide on all issues so that there is no arbitrary exercise of power by applying a “pick and choose formula”.
‘Ganguly had good access to corridors of power’
The bench weighed in on the SC’s 2011 judgment that held Ganguly’s society was not a public trust as five of its members were family members staying at the same address. It was also observed in that verdict that Ganguly may be a well-known sportsman but did not have the expertise as an educationist.
“As is evident from the previous litigation, the respondent No. 9 (Ganguly) had good access to the corridors of power, which is writ large from the facts of the case,” the court said.
The judges noticed that in his application submitted to the chief minister, Ganguly clearly mentioned he sought the plot for a commercial venture and not for some charitable purpose.
“It makes interesting reading as if State property was to go for a charity and that too for a commercial venture,” the court commented.
It also frowned over the reduction of lease money to Rs 5.27 crore from Rs 10.98 crore, and also at the change of the location of the plot at Ganguly’s request. Furthermore, authorities took no action even though Ganguly retained the plot without seeking an extension of time to start his project. This, the court observed, also flouted the rules under the land allotment policy.
As for the state defence — that it possessed discretionary powers to relax the procedures in special cases — the court responded that such an argument will not “save the illegal allotment made in favour” of Ganguly, which, the court held, was an “arbitrary exercise of power on the fact of it.”
(Edited by Paramita Ghosh)