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17 June 2008

Bottling The Truth Or Sugar-Coating It?

Shivraj Patil must come clean
M Ratan

Ambala, New Delhi, Latur, June 6: Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil’s record in office may not be much to write home about — a string of terrorist attacks across the country since he took charge and no sign of a breakthrough in any case. On one front, at least, the Minister has delivered — by providing the clout of his official address to help his son’s businesses, from a distillery in Haryana to a sugar mill in Maharashtra.
An investigation by The Indian Express in New Delhi, Ambala and Latur has found that the Home Minister’s son Shailesh Patil and daughter-in-law Archana Patil have cited the Home Minister’s official residence, 4, Janpath, as their address when they became part of a Rs 149-crore distillery project sprawled across 52 acres in Ambala.
Records obtained from the Registrar of Companies and pollution board authorities show Shailesh and Archana Patil joined as directors of N V Distilleries Ltd on May 9, 2005. The plant started bottling operations for major brands, including Seagram’s, three months ago.
Shailesh Patil, who works out of an office in his father’s residence, told The Indian Express that he has a 50% stake in the distillery. But its chairman Ashok Jain claims that the Home Minister’s son “has no financial stake.” Jain, however, admits: “Having Shailesh Patil on board added to the profile of my project.” He isn’t off the mark.
For, records show that the Union Environment Ministry violated its own guidelines to clear the distillery’s expansion (more of that later). And several officials in the Haryana Excise and Pollution Control departments admit to be under “strong pressure” due to what they call the “4, Janpath connection.”
When contacted, Shailesh Patil declined to discuss this project and said: “Given my family background, I like to keep a low profile. There is nothing about the distillery project we have to hide. I feel very satisfied that such an investment in a rural area provides employment opportunities for poor farmers.”
At the distillery site, villagers of Badoli — where most of the land acquisition was done — allege they have been “cheated” by the distillery owners since they were not provided employment as they had been promised. Village Sarpanches of adjoining Gola and Sherpur villages allege their land has been “usurped” as the distillery expands its operations.
Far away from the distillery, in his father’s former constituency Latur, Shailesh Patil is also the chief patron of a sugar cooperative mill in Nalegaon. That factory, which Shivraj Patil helped start, is steeped in losses and debt, is fighting scores of legal battles and is struggling to survive even as it is making expansion plans.
The annual report of the factory describes Shailesh Patil as a “young leader” who is the “margdarshak” or guide and whose picture is printed ahead of that of the chairman.
Chairman Manikrao Patil, a doctor who is related to the Home Minister’s family, says he has been running the factory for the last two years “with the help of Shailesh.” He admits that “Shailesh’s presence helps as he involves himself in getting the required permissions and also in interacting with the commissioner of co-operatives in Pune and at the CM’s office.”
Workers and the management headed by Manikrao blame the previous one for the factory’s plight and even accuse it of corruption. The previous management, which was headed by Basavjirao Patil, a local Congressman, in turn, blames it on “market conditions and the vagaries of cane farming.”
But everyone is unambiguous about one aspect: the involvement of Shailesh Patil. Says Basavjirao Patil: “During my tenure, too, Shailesh Patil took equal interest and would accompany me when I had to meet government officials. At the government level, he is the one who makes phone calls when we need any help. He also has helped us when we have had to answer banks.”

Report by Ritu Sarin & Smita Nair for The Indian Express

In a series of four investigative reports (June 7-10), a national daily with editions from 10 cities, The Indian Express, recently accused Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil of letting his son, Shailesh, and daughter-in-law, Archana, carry on their business of a distillery in Haryana and a sugar mill in Latur, a former constituency of the minister, from his official residence: 4 Janpath, New Delhi.

It is alleged that using his father's official standing in the UPA Government, the son is "pulling strings" to secure all necessary clearances -- environmental and bureaucratic -- without a hitch. It's interesting to note how promptly the minister's official Janpath address opens its doors in matters of convenience. The fact that the home minister's son and wife are living with him, the latter could not possibly be unaware of the former's business and industrial activities. No wonder, Shivraj Patil or any spokesperson representing him -- the Principal Information Officer(PIO) or the DPIO directly dealing with the Home Ministry in the Press Information Bureau(PIB) -- has not thought it fit to respond to the serious charges of the minister's alleged connivance in his son's dubious operations.

The Indian Express claims to have sent a fax followed by a reminder, seeking the minister's rejoinder. But he has clearly chosen to remain silent. Neither his party, the Congress, nor the PMO headed by a man reputed for high integrity and principles has chosen to come out with an explanation of the alleged misuse of the minister's official residence as a business address of a relation of his (son or whoever that might be). What an example of transparency and accountability!

With ministers like Shivraj Patil, does the ruling party need any more enemies?

The writer is known for his letters that are published at frequent intervals in various national newspapers

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.