At the age of 57, when a majority of them get ready to settle comfortably into retired lives, Chennai-based businessman VBR Menon graduated from a law school in Bengaluru. The seasoned businessman became a full time law practitioner in 2014, when he was 62.
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Over the last two years he has been filing only Public Interest Litigations (PILs) on several significant issues bothering Chennai, including land and water. His cases have been seriously pursued by the Madras High Court and have led to the judiciary issuing several directions to the authorities.
In an interview with Citizen Matters, VBR Menon talks about his personal decision to quit business and take up law, the motive behind filing PILs, and why he thinks it is important to file these.
- Mr. Menon, tell us a bit about yourself and why you chose to take up the legal profession at this stage of your life.
I was a businessman, dealing in the automobile industry and real estate for 30 years. When I turned 60 I decided to hand over my business to my son and take up law, as I was deeply interested in legal matters. I graduated in law in 2010.
The main purpose of entering this profession was to contribute towards improving judicial performance; public interest litigations filed in the High Court were taking an inordinately long time to reach a logical end. I wanted to speed up the system.
I lived a full life for myself till I was 60, but now I want to contribute to society. I want to do as much as I can to solve the issues that citizens are facing.
- How did you get into activism, and so late at that?
I come from a political background. I was into student activism when I was in college in Kerala and used to fight for the students’ benefit. I think it is in my blood. Now after retiring from business I have got an opportunity to serve society, it gives me a kind of pleasure.
- When did you start filing PILs? How did it all start?
I started filing PILs in 2015. Before that, for around a year and a half, I was fighting private litigations just to understand court proceedings and get a feel of it. Things took a different turn when Chennai was inundated by the floods in November 2015.
Upon studying the issue, I realised that the floods could have been avoided, had they done desilting of the Chembarabakkam lake prior to the rains. So that is how the water bodies of Chennai caught my attention. The case regarding water bodies is one of the major PILs that I have filed as an advocate.
- Tell us about the case and how it stands now.
In the petition on water bodies in Chennai, I appealed to the court to issue direction to the government to desilt water bodies, because most of them have lost their natural capacity due to excess silt.
But as an advocate, I do not just point out the problems, I also propose solutions. In this particular case too, I have proposed easy and possible solutions to water issues. Desilting should be seen as a profitable venture. The government should allow private individuals to desilt under the supervision of the PWD. The best way is to engage persons who may be willing to take the silt for their benefit without any cost being incurred by the department.
- Did these proposals lead to anything?
The case is ongoing. But the HC has issued some directions to the authorities based on my plea. The government has decided to desilt small water bodies like tanks and small lakes and passed an order two months ago, allowing private individuals to desilt these up to a depth of one metre, under the supervision of the PWD.
The PWD has also made a proposal to the TN government for desilting and rejuvenation of larger lakes like Chemabarabakkam, but that would take some time to materialise.
- Apart from water, you also seem to be interested in land and property issues. What is that case all about and what is happening with it?
Land and property are my pet subjects because I was into real estate and I know everything about it. I know the practical problems that the common man faces. A land survey has to be made in entire Tamil Nadu, the last such in the State having been made over a century ago (in 1910). With rampant encroachments having taken place over the years, it is necessary for the government to first identify and mark its land boundaries.
This survey should be done scientifically through GPS or an aerial survey. Now that the revenue department has the land records of the British era, they can superimpose the findings from this survey (GPS or aerial) with the old records. This will help them find out how much of government land has been encroached and how much of it is left.
Following the court case, the State government has sent a proposal to the Centre asking for funds. I believe, they should be able to complete the survey in 5-6 years.
- Would you also press for the eviction of those who have encroached the government land?
I am not demanding eviction. All I am saying is that it is important to identify and mark the boundaries for whatever government land is available now and stop any further encroachment in future. Also, collect a nominal fee from the encroachers as penalty and transfer ownership rights to them, so that the government also gets some funds which can be used to protect the remaining government land.
- Apart from filing PILs, do you also take up cases for others?
No. I do not. I have restricted myself to choose and fight the issues that I have been wanting to address since long. However, the only exception so far has been the case of postgraduate medical college admissions in Puducherry.
The deemed medical universities were demanding exorbitant fees from the students who were admitted through common counselling in the State quota. I took up this case owing to the request of Kiran Bedi who is the Lt General of Puducherry. The issue is solved as of now and it has prompted me to take up the fee issue in MBBS admissions.
- How many PILs have you filed so far?
I haven’t counted. May be 20 in the last two years.
- How has the response to your petitions been — from the judges, your colleagues, people and the authorities?
They do take my cases seriously. I am the only advocate in the High Court with this unique background. I do not file cases for publicity or personal benefit, but with the intention to help society. I do a lot of homework on the subject before I file a case.
Initially, people could not understand why I was doing what I do. I spend approximately Rs 1 lakh from my pocket every month to fight 4-5 cases. But now they are aware of my intentions. In fact, in one of the cases, the advocate appearing for the opponent patted my back for fighting for a good cause.
As far as the authorities are concerned, they too take me on a serious note because they are aware that my intentions are straight. My PILs are not against anybody in particular. I want to achieve results by working with the government and the judiciary. My role is that of a catalyst.
- It must be consuming a lot of your time and energy?
Each petition will take 15-20 days of preparation. Since I fight 4-5 cases simultaneously, it takes up all my time. I have set aside another five years to continue this court battle.
- What do you want to tell those who are willing to file PILs?
First, be selfless – do not come with a personal agenda. Second, propose a solution when you highlight the problem; work along with the government. Third, take subjects of your interest, the subjects that matter to you and of which you have a good understanding.
- Do you think PILs are often misused at present?
Yes, to a great extent. That is because a lot of them come with a personal agenda and also they easily succumb to pressure and are lured by temptation.
- Have your ever received threats or been offered bribe since you deal with sensitive issues such as real estate?
I have not received any threats so far. But in the case of registration of unapproved plots the real estate guys did try to bribe me. But I pointed out to them that transparency in the system would help builders and agents as much as it would benefit the people at large.
The reason for a large number of unauthorised plots is the delay in sanctioning approval. Let there be transparency and a definite time frame for sanction approvals, and automatically, a majority of the layouts and plots will be approved.
- What do you think are the most important issues that need to be raised and addressed in Chennai at this moment?
One should take up cases wherever the procedures are not transparent and involves corruption. A person filing a PIL should first understand what the common man goes through. In my case, what has worked to my advantage is the fact that I have been through a lot of these issues myself when I was doing business. I have seen all kinds of people. It’s very important to understand ground realities if you want to fix the system.