President Pratibha Patil’s Pune land: How Moneylife’s flow of stories and use of social networking triggered citizen’s victory

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 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])