Ashok Kheny: miles of uncertainty


He’s standing in entrance of his workplace on the outskirts of Bangalore alongside a peripheral ring street his firm has constructed resulting in a proposed 111km expressway that may theoretically cut back the three-hour driving time between Bangalore and Mysore to an hour.

The objects of Kheny’s consideration are Amar and Prem, two massive, well-fed bullocks of the sort generally seen in south India, who’re being led up the manicured lawns by considered one of Kheny’s employees. When inside earshot, they choose up their tempo to a trot and patiently permit Kheny to nuzzle them and pose for pictures.

Kheny rescued the bullocks from a butcher and donated them to an animal shelter, solely to take them again once more when he noticed they have been ailing. His take care of them stems from greater than only a concern for animal welfare. His firm Nandi Infrastructure Hall Enterprises Ltd (NICE) is known as after the Hindu god Shiva’s mount, Nandi, a bull often depicted kneeling, and worshipped alongside the god.

In temples devoted to Nandi, devotees kneel earlier than the statue of the bull, whispering their issues into its ear, within the perception that Nandi will, in flip, convey them to Shiva.

Kheny has extra causes than most to desire a convention with Nandi. The huge infrastructure challenge that his firm is constructing has been mired in delays for the previous 18 years. Out of the unique proposal of a 111-km street, in addition to hyperlink roads and interchanges in each Bangalore and Mysore that may collectively move by 149 villages over 4 districts, requiring some 20,193 acres of land, all that to this point exists is the 41-km ring street on which Kheny stands, some 9 km of hyperlink roads and 5 km of expressway.

No floor has been damaged for the 5 industrial townships envisaged alongside the route and since 1995, when the challenge was authorized by a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Karnataka state authorities, NICE has fought 550 lawsuits associated to the challenge at varied ranges of the judiciary, together with no less than six within the Supreme Courtroom.

Within the final 18 years he has additionally branched into appearing, enjoying small film roles, into movie manufacturing (he has even made a movie with Hindi actor Salman Khan, aside from Kannada films). And he owns a cricket staff of film actors from his native Karnataka.

However the street challenge, for which Kheny is known, has remained mired in controversies. It’s truthful to say that the final 20 years haven’t been easy crusing for Kheny. And but there isn’t a definitive clarification as to why the challenge has been so delayed.

Some contend {that a} long-running feud between the businessman and H.D. Deve Gowda, Karnataka chief minister when the MoU was signed in 1995 and who went on to turn out to be prime minister in 1996-97, has been accountable for the delay.

Allegations of mutual backstabbing, kickbacks and greed over actual property have shadowed the challenge for years, and every insists that the opposite is solely accountable.

However the particulars of such allegations are murky and the courts have repeatedly cleared Kheny and his firm of wrongdoing.

Nonetheless, protests in opposition to the expressway have continued, pushed by activists, farmers teams, native politicians and Deve Gowda himself.

Some observers have framed the battle as a caste battle, its two protagonists every representing a caste group: the Lingayats (Kheny) and the Vokkaligas (Deve Gowda). Fellow businessmen, politicians, journalists and locals are sharply divided as to who’s accountable for the imbroglio.

No matter be its origin, the hostility has engulfed Kheny’s popularity and overshadowed the remainder of his profession. Kheny feels these grievances acutely and claims to have been deserted by all people besides his mom and his spouse. However he refuses to surrender on the challenge. Actually, he insists with an incongruous bullishness that it’ll but be a hit. “All people will get persecuted,” he says. “Jesus Christ acquired persecuted. Mahatma Gandhi acquired persecuted. You realize Basaveshwar (a Karnataka social reformer from the eleventh century) acquired persecuted.”

In 1994, Kheny was considered one of many prosperous Indians pursuing a profitable profession within the US. After finishing his engineering diploma at Karnataka Regional Engineering School, Surathkal, he studied at Worcester Polytechnic in Massachusetts for a Masters diploma in 1969 earlier than taking a job at American railroad firm Penn Central, which later grew to become Conrail. In 1978 he based SAB Engineering and Constructions Inc., a part of which he later bought to the American Worldwide Group Inc. He claims he helped to put the primary fiber optic community between New York and Los Angeles and from Florida to Washington DC for the telecommunications agency AT&T. Neither AIG nor AT&T responded to e-mails searching for remark.

In 1992, he married Rita, an Italian-American, and some months later his father died. The next yr, Kheny travelled to India and was taking his mom to go to Mysore, when, he says, he acquired the concept of constructing the street. The state freeway linking Bangalore and Mysore was in unhealthy form, he says, and again in Bangalore he complained concerning the state of the street at a dinner the place there have been authorities officers current. Kheny says they advised him that it was frequent amongst individuals who had gone overseas to complain concerning the infrastructure again dwelling. “Why don’t you do one thing about it?” he says they advised him.

Two years later, having wound up his US companies, Kheny was again with an bold plan for the expressway, hyperlink roads and 7 proposed industrial developments. On 20 February 1995, in response to the MoU, William F. Weld, then governor of Massachusetts, met Deve Gowda. “In the course of the dialogue,” the MoU states, “the pursuits of the consortium comprising Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., an organization registered within the State of Massachusetts, in collaboration with the Kalyani group of firms, and SAB Engineering and Building, in taking over the development of specific highways in Karnataka State was mentioned”. Whereas Kheny signed on behalf of his firm, SAB, his first cousin B.N. Kalyani signed for the Kalyani group. On behalf of the federal government, the doc was signed by the then secretary to the federal government public works division, C.R. Ramesh. The MoU was witnessed by Deve Gowda and Weld.

A yr later, in 1996, Kheny included NICE Ltd and a framework settlement was signed by Kheny for NICE and Ramesh for the state authorities on 3 April 1997. The challenge was authorized and the work was anticipated to take 10 years to finish.

The main points of the settlement have prompted allegations that it was closely tilted in favour of NICE. Critics level to the truth that as per the settlement, the federal government gave up its proper of eminent area for the land beneath growth, the truth that NICE’s arbitrators are primarily based in London. Eminent Area refers back to the energy of the federal government to acquire particular person property, forcibly if required, if the land is required for public functions.

“To say it’s one-sided is an understatement,” stated a former Karnataka authorities bureaucrat who didn’t need to be named. “GoK comes out as a subordinate to NICE.”

In his defence, Kheny says that his challenge acquired far fewer advantages than the Bangalore Worldwide Airport, which can be held by a personal agency. Attorneys say that having arbitrators abroad was par for the course, that when the challenge was signed firms didn’t like appointing arbitrators in India due to the inordinately very long time they took.

“Until 2002 we didn’t have idea of institutional arbitration so firms that wished it could appoint individuals in Singapore, the US or London,” stated Anil Xavier, president of Indian Institute of Arbitration and Mediation.

There have been additionally allegations that authorities officers have been in cahoots with NICE from the start. For instance, C.R. Ramesh, who had signed each the MoU and the framework settlement as a secretary to the state’s Public Works Division, subsequently did some work for NICE as a advisor after he retired from authorities service.

A NICE spokesperson confirmed that Ramesh had signed the framework settlement on behalf of the federal government and that after he retired he was employed on the behest of former Karnataka chief minister J.H. Patel, to assist the corporate in its fixed interactions with the Karnataka authorities. The problem was additionally raised as a part of a 2005 lawsuit on varied facets of the challenge however the choose had stated Ramesh was not responsible.

Dismissing the allegations, Kheny insisted that Deve Gowda had foiled his intentions on goal. As soon as he had the expressway contract, Kheny says, he started to obtain calls from all types of influential individuals, lobbying him to change its path to keep away from their land: together with a “complete bunch of politicians” and “some retired judges”. It was superb, he stated, “All people desires to shift the street.” He claims Deve Gowda despatched him a listing of lands to keep away from on his route. “He referred to as me up. He stated, ‘Let go of this 1,100 acres of land, then in place I’ll provide you with 5,000 acres.’ I refused,” Kheny stated. “And he (Deve Gowda) stated, ‘I’m going to punish you.’”

For the villagers who dwell alongside the 41km stretch of ring street round Bangalore, constructed to service the non-existent expressway, Kheny is both a saint, or the satan incarnate, relying on who you ask. These with jobs manning the ring street toll cubicles have solely good issues to say. Others, who’ve misplaced land to the challenge, complain that the expressway was diverted by influential landowners to keep away from their land, that it’s nothing greater than an actual property challenge in disguise.

Whichever model you consider, Kheny’s presence is ubiquitous alongside what is usually referred to as the “NICE street”. As solidly constructed as his bovine associates—final yr he underwent bariatric surgical procedure, a weight-reduction process—with a thick neck, a mop of jet black hair and wide-set brown eyes, Kheny is one thing of a showman: the NICE workplace is neglected by a 60-foot billboard of himself and its entrance corridor is adorned with photos of the boss appearing in varied film roles, together with one wherein he performed a bygone king—full with a turban and a big moustache—in an unbelievable rebirth drama.

Kheny was born right into a family with a equally wealthy household mythology; he’s the second of 5 siblings, of a rich household in Bidar, the northernmost district of Karnataka. On the higher ground of the Bidar home, there’s a wood hand mounted to a pole. The hand, in response to native villagers, is a logo of Kheny’s nice grandfather Maharudrappa. The idea is that Maharudrappa, whose charity is famous, was paralysed as a result of he gave a lot. Native legend has it that when an epidemic of plague struck the countryside, Maharudrappa housed the villagers in his fort-like dwelling. The wood hand on its pole is taken in a procession across the village yearly, after which the villagers are fed.

The youthful technology of Khenys work within the manufacturing trade: Kheny’s older brother, Shivkumar, is a director at Kalyani Metal. His sister Sunitha married their first cousin Babasaheb Kalyani, who at present heads the 12,000 crore by income Kalyani group, which has pursuits in metallic working, metal and auto element making. The Kalyani group can be the most important investor in NICE Ltd.

Kheny has a plethora of different enterprise pursuits except for NICE, nonetheless. He additionally holds directorships at LXY Properties Pvt. Ltd, Premier Flats Pvt. Ltd, Ashok Kheny Infrastructure Pvt. Ltd, Bonick Builders Pvt. Ltd, Ashok Kheny Motors Pvt. Ltd, AKK Builders Ltd, Nandi Financial Hall Enterprise Ltd, Nandi Engineering Ltd, Nandi Infrastructure Capital Co. Ltd, Nandi Mental Properties Pvt. Ltd, Nandi Freeway Builders Ltd and Nandi Worldwide Infrastructure Engineers Ltd.

BF Utilities Ltd, itself a subsidiary of the $8.8 billion Bharat Forge, holds 74.82% in NICE. Babasaheb Kalyani holds 4.62% whereas Kheny himself holds 19.81%,

Nor are his enterprise pursuits restricted to infrastructure: he additionally owns an organization that produces films, AKK Leisure Pvt. Ltd. He’s at present making two films, one every in Hindi and Kannada. He owns a 19% stake within the Movie star Cricket League, a cricket league of film actors from state movie associations, wherein he says Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd (BCCL), has a stake. Kheny individually owns the Karnataka Bulldozers, the Karnataka staff within the league. In response to an official with the Karnataka Bulldozers staff, Kheny additionally holds a 30% stake within the Kerala Strikers.

BCCL CEO Ravi Dhariwal didn’t reply to a question searching for remark. BCCL, writer of The Occasions of India and The Financial Occasions, competes with HT Media Ltd, which publishes Hindustan Occasions and Mint.

Kheny admits that he had arrange Bonick Builders within the expectation that it could be capable of develop actual property however when the federal government didn’t hand over land, he did nothing with the corporate. Bonick doesn’t “have one sq. centimetre” of land, Kheny stated. He held directorships in another corporations, however no stake, he stated.

A customer to Deve Gowda’s son H.D. Revanna’s home will overhear the title “Ashok Kheny” a number of occasions in different individuals’s conversations within the ready space. The 2 males appear inextricably linked—Kheny because the south pole to Deve Gowda’s north. Besides, within the legal guidelines of physics, opposites entice.

Deve Gowda was born 18 Could 1933 into an agrarian household in Hassan district, Karnataka. He contested elections and have become a member of the Karnataka Legislative Meeting in 1962 as an unbiased candidate, in response to his web site. He was elected as a member of Parliament from Hassan in 1991 and went on to turn out to be the chief of the state Janata Dal and was elected chief minister in December 1994.

Within the early nineties, Deve Gowda, who likes being referred to as mannina maga (son of the soil), was persuaded by then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to attend the World Financial Discussion board, in Davos. In response to Deve Gowda, Rao had wished “a non-Congress, non-BJP chief minister to attend” as a consultant to encourage overseas funding. “I went there and naturally we invited the buyers to return to India. So this is likely one of the firms to return to India,” he stated, of NICE. Nonetheless, Deve Gowda insists he solely signed the Kheny MoU as a witness, and that bureaucrats ironed out the small print.

“It’s a loot,” he says of the challenge. “He has not proceeded from the primary stage in any respect. See the sweetness?”

Deve Gowda claims that Kheny has acquired “2,000 and odd acres” round Bangalore and that he’s sitting on priceless actual property. On the espresso desk is a lined spittoon, which the politician makes use of as soon as. He suffers from respiratory difficulties and has quite a lot of sputum, he says. Requested about persistent hypothesis of his family’s land within the Bangalore-Mysore space, he says: “Even when one gunta (a neighborhood unit of land. 40 guntas make an acre) of land belongs to my household or my kin or any benami land (land beneath fictitious possession), let or not it’s taken as we speak.”

Deve Gowda is just not the one one to see the street because the disguise for an actual property enterprise. “That street won’t ever come up as a result of it’s principally an actual property challenge,” says a former Karnataka authorities official, who stated he had interacted with Kheny a number of occasions as a authorities consultant. “As a result of to begin with they aren’t within the street.” The previous official stated Deve Gowda had arrange a raitha sangha, or farmers’ group, who sometimes go and protest or “plough up the street”.

In 1996, a yr after the MoU was signed, Deve Gowda grew to become the prime minister of India for 10 months, heading a coalition of regional events. In that yr’s elections, Rao was defeated and the rival Bharatiya Janata Social gathering was unable to point out a majority, resulting in the autumn of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 13-day authorities. It isn’t straightforward to establish precisely when issues started to bitter between the politician and the businessman, however he grew to become a staunch critic of the challenge within the 2000s. Since then, he has led avenue protests, supported indignant farmers, written letters to the present prime minister Manmohan Singh criticizing the challenge, printed a e book alleging wrongdoing, and even taken half in a starvation strike in New Delhi to protest in opposition to the challenge.

There are a number of opinions on his motivations: “Very clearly what has occurred to contribute to the fallout is the sharing of spoils between the political class and the enterprise class,” stated Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and professional vice-chancellor of Jain College.

For his half, Kheny has a popularity for being very litigious, having fought some 550 instances. “He’s combating solely to make cover-up,” Deve Gowda says. NICE’s spokesperson claims that a lot of the instances are ones filed by land losers and that NICE could have filed “20-30%” of the five hundred, aside from 4 in opposition to journalists. “When individuals say issues with out a shred of proof, the corporate doesn’t have any recourse,” he stated.

Others say that, within the absence of a government-provided various, any argument on a difficulty just like the BMIC (Bangalore-Mysore Infrastructure Hall) is colored by the truth that Kheny has no less than constructed a part of an excellent street the place none existed earlier than.

Ashwin Mahesh, a Bangalore resident who has a analysis appointment on the Indian Institute of Administration, and is an adjunct college member at Indian Institute Data of Know-how (IIIT), stated, “Their (the individuals’s) judgement is it an excellent street, and that itself turns into a judgment on each different side of the challenge. It’s not that the opposite stuff isn’t necessary, or shouldn’t be the main focus, however at a public notion stage, it’s onerous to get to that stage. The rapid perceptive factor is: it is a street. The others are, frankly, not value calling roads,” he stated.

As as to whether the challenge settlement unduly favoured Kheny, Mahesh stated that the road between the challenge proponent and the federal government was usually blurred—a critical however frequent drawback with infrastructure initiatives in India.

“No, it was a good settlement, accomplished when land costs have been low and no person was constructing infrastructure of this type,” stated Mohandas Pai, ex-chief finance officer of Infosys and present chairman of Manipal World Schooling Companies Pvt. Ltd. “It’s a political battle since Ashok didn’t do favours nor favour individuals when it got here to land acquisition. Many highly effective individuals’s land was to be acquired and so they opposed it.”

Pai stated he had met Kheny with Baba Kalyani and attended the inauguration of the challenge as a result of the Bangalore leg of the challenge would assist quite a lot of firms—together with Infosys—that had their workplaces in Digital Metropolis on Bangalore’s outskirts. “All of us supported his street as a result of it made a giant distinction to some 1 million individuals who use Hosur Street,” connecting Bangalore to Digital metropolis, he stated. Hosur street goes on to Hosur in Tamil Nadu.

Kheny says that there have been no adjustments to the unique alignment of the street. “Between right here and Mysore, 55 MLAs are there. If I favoured one man, 54 others would soar on me. And never solely that, for each man who acquired elected, two guys who didn’t get elected, they suppose they deserve the suitable. So, I’ll have over 150 individuals after me, okay. Overlook about them, how concerning the DCs, tahsildars, village accountants, quite a few panchayats and many others are there,” Kheny says. DCs discuss with deputy commissioners. They and tahsildars are senior income division officers.

Kheny has one other fan base close to his ancestral village: farmers, who misplaced their land to the Karanja dam close to Kheni Ranjol and are protesting the quantity of presidency compensation, paint the person as a saint.

Suryakant Patil, of the Karanja Melugade Horata Samithi, a committee arrange by farmers who misplaced their land to the Karanja dam says that with out Kheny’s hand-holding, they’d not have survived. He says Kheny helped them file a public curiosity litigation, helped them out with cash. Patil says villagers in a clutch of villages in Bidar misplaced some 15,000 acres of land to the submergence space and one other 5,000 acres to a canal. Round 8,500 households have been affected.

Kheny hasn’t cheated anyone, says a villager from Hemigepura, a village alongside the peripheral ring street. The person, who says he misplaced some 6 acres of land to the challenge however was given a job at considered one of NICE’s many toll cubicles, together with compensation and the promise of a brand new developed plot, stated that on the time Kheny purchased his land, the going charge was 6.5 lakh an acre. Now that the realm has come beneath the jurisdiction of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), land values have gone up as a result of as soon as the land falls beneath town civic physique, it is going to allocate areas for civic facilities and administer to the realm.

“They shouldn’t have bought it earlier,” stated the villager. “They need to have protested earlier. Having bought it earlier due to the lust for cash, now in the event that they protest… No? Now it’s (beneath) BBMP (the land goes for) as a lot as 1.5 crore. At the moment it was solely that a lot ( 6.5 lakh). Now, you can not make Kheny the villain,” he stated.

Not lots of people agree.

“Sadly the individuals who took the reason for the farmers didn’t know methods to cope with this concern. It’s an absolute fraud,” stated T.J. Abraham, an activist, who has filed a lawsuit in opposition to the corporate for alleged irregularities within the challenge.

Kheny is conscious of his unpopularity in some quarters. He’s at all times surrounded by bodyguards, as many as six generally though they don’t appear to be carrying weapons. There are 24 guards in complete, who work in shifts, says an worker, who didn’t need to be named. They’re necessitated by the protests in opposition to his street, protests that are stirred by politicians, the person says. In a latest protest, the place social activist Medha Patkar threw her weight behind the land-losing farmers, farmer after farmer spoke on stage, denouncing equally the street itself and Kheny.

Even within the face of almost 20 years of such antipathy, nonetheless, Kheny has not referred to as off the challenge; quite the opposite, he nonetheless appears genuinely enthused by it. He’s blissful to point out off his plans for the peripheral street, together with the brand new workplace formed just like the eponymous bull, a 300-acre movie metropolis and even a monorail operating alongside the street’s median. There are plans to construct a cricket stadium (“retractable roof, retractable floor”), which Kheny says will go up for approval inside a month.

Anil Kheny, Kheny’s cousin, calls him a Hattavaadhi or a cussed man. When requested to clarify why any person who got here from wealth would need to be concerned in a protracted battle with politicians and farmers, he mused: “If I determine to do it, I’ve to do it. He’s that sort of man.”

Aman Malik in New Delhi contributed to this story.

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