On April 26, Bombay High Court issued an interim order striking down a plea for an injunction against activist-journalist Krishnaraj Rao and flat-buyer Shilpi Thard, filed by reputed real estate developer Lodha Group, in their Rs 100 crore defamation case against Rao and Thard. The case was filed in January, after Rao posted a series of articles and videos questioning the quality of Lodha New Cuffe Parade project at Wadala, Mumbai. Lodha in the court hearing has maintained that nothing wrong with the flats purchased by the defendant and that Lodha has fully complied with any rectification work, which in itself was minor and not that unusual, reported Moneylife.
Therefore, they claimed to be “the aggrieved innocent victims of a smear campaign and the published material is the handiwork of extortionists whose demands have not been met.”
The court almost entirely rejected Lodha group’s plea to gag Rao from publishing any further content about Lodha and any of their projects. The next hearing is slated to take place in June-July.
Speaking to The Logical Indian, Rao said that he was contacted by Shilpi Thard, who, along with her husband Amit Jaisingh, owns two flats in the Dioro building of New Cuffe Parade project in Wadala, together worth Rs 6 crore. “I met Shilpi for the first time in September 2018. This was not the first time I was visiting this project, I had previously visited the project in the guise of being a potential flat-buyer, and I had a fair idea of what was wrong with it. My suspicions only got confirmed when I did a thorough inspection of Shilpi’s flats.”
In November, Rao drafted an article attaching various photos and videos in support of his allegations of poor quality construction, the copy of which he mailed to the Lodha group asking for a rebuttal. “All I got was an auto-generated mail from the top brass. I also sent a reminder mail, which again was ignored. Hence, on November 12, 2018, we published the article and Youtube videos,” says Rao, who had been writing investigative articles about various Lodha projects since August 2017.
In late December, one of the eight videos went viral on Youtube and on WhatsApp. “It showed how all the internal walls of the house, plus one crucial external wall near the front door, were made of fragile gypsum board, a.k.a. Plaster-of-paris sheets. The Lodha group responded by sending Thard and me a notice to take down the ‘offensive material’. However, we started making more videos after we were served notice,” says Rao.
Soon afterwards, Rao & Thard, were approached by a media house. They again made a video in one of the flats. “That article and the video embedded in it went hugely viral, got translated and reposted in all Indian languages, and shocked people beyond their wits. That video had me punching a hold in the wall, and went viral with the heading, ‘Rs 3.5 Cr. flat destroyed with a single punch’. ”
Soon afterwards, one of the top TV channels approached us for another video in Shilpi Thard’s flat, This time around, I tore down roughly 10 square feet of a wall and made a hole going into the adjoining room. This video went even more viral, and has garnered over three million views till date,” says Rao, adding that he started getting calls from other projects of Lodha requesting him to make videos on their plights.
Gag orders gagged
Rao refused to engage a counsel, preferring instead to represent himself in the hearing. “The Lodha group sought a comprehensive gag order on me until the final disposal of the case. I resisted such efforts to gag me. Several contempt petitions were then filed against me, both by Lodha and the High Court itself. These contempt petitions are likely to be heard July onwards, and may well result in me being sentenced to civil imprisonment,” says Rao, who is unrepentant.
At the final stage of the interim-relief hearings on April 24 and 25, Justice Gautam Patel said a blanket injunction gagging Rao from writing about Lodha and all their projects would be ‘unrealistic’. The scope of the suit was then narrowed down to five specific points.
Of the five points, the first ground on which the Lodha Group sought an injunction was pertaining to Rao’s blog post of January 9 where he alleged that MMRDA had wrongly granted the group an occupational certificate, despite the building not being fit for occupation. The court ruled that this statement was not defamatory and rejected the injunction sought.
The second statement was where Rao alleged fraud in acquisition of plot from MMRDA which was originally intended for infrastructure. Here Rao accepted that he would not repeat this statement until he had the necessary documents in hand to support such a contention.
Court refused to entertain Lodha Group’s request for an injunction in the third statement where Rao alleged violation of National Building Code and the Development Control Regulation, saying there was nothing defamatory about it.
Calling it an opinion and a comment, Court also refused the fourth injunction referring to the statement alleging collusion by certain banks in Lodha ‘scam’. The developer found the use of the word ‘scam’ objectionable; the judge saw otherwise.
Referring to the fifth statement where Rao alleged that the basement did not have an occupational certificate and neither fire brigade nor MMRDA inspected it. The court said that Rao had justification with ‘contemporaneous documents’ thereby refusing Lodha Groups’ injunction.
“How can you muzzle a consumer? If the customer has been given a bad product, he has the right to say it is a bad product. If something is blatantly wrong and a product being marketed endangers public safety and causes loss to customers, it is not only the right, but also the duty of a journalist to say so without mincing words. By this order, Bombay High Court has essentially upheld the correctness of our position in this matter,” asserts Rao.
Justice Gautam Patel while hearing the case said, “Calling out someone, with fair comment and justification, is not defamation. To put it differently: to say the emperor has no clothes is not defamation. It never has been.”
The Logical Indian has reached out to Lodha Group for their comments on the case. The article will be updated as we receive their comments.