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Has anyone read Priyamvada Birla's will?
July 23, 2004
What is the responsibility of a reporter to his readers or his audience? Is the job over once he has made a precis of whatever it is that X or Y said? Or does he owe it to his readers to do a little independent investigation and tell them if those statements are correct?
I am speaking in the context of the brouhaha between the Birla clan and R S Lodha (the chartered accountant who seems to be the chief beneficiary of Priyamvada Birla's will). I was left gnashing my teeth as one media outlet after another -- print and electronic alike -- seemed content with repeating the 'he-said-she-said' routine. In fact, the whole mess seems destined to make it as a future case study for journalism schools.
To begin with, what exactly is the worth of the disputed estate? News outlets have merrily quoted a range of figures from Rs 5,000 crore up to Rs 20,000 crore. Since all these numbers cannot be correct, a whole pack of editors have obviously got it wrong. (For what it is worth, my own back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests a figure closer to Rs 1,500 crore.) The numbers are so far out of our ken that I suspect that most journalists simply plucked a figure out of thin air and put it in their reports because the average reader simply cannot actually conceive of anything so large.
Next, despite reading as many newspapers and watching as many channels as I possibly could, I still don't know whether the late Priyamvada Birla possessed the right to dispose of her husband's estate. Had he died intestate -- without making a will -- would Priyamvada Birla have been the sole heir according to Indian law? It is an interesting question; one, I suggest, that is of some interest to every Indian even if we don't possess assets on the scale of a Birla scion. But you would look in vain for an authoritative report on the precise provisions of the law. (Or laws, since it is possible that there are different codes for different religious communities on this ticklish issue.)
I believe that the late M P Birla wrote his will in 1981. That document allegedly allows his wife nothing more than a lifetime interest in his estate; it stipulates that his wealth would be used for charitable purposes following her death. If true, Priyamvada Birla was no more than a trustee.
I am forced to use words such as 'allegedly' since, as far as I know, the will made by M P Birla was never offered for probate. This, in turn, raises several questions. Is a man technically intestate if his will is not offered for probate? Can a will be offered in court for probate following a gap of 23 years? And had M P Birla died intestate, what proportion of his fortune would his siblings, and their children in turn, have inherited? Forget about the Birlas and the Lodhas, these questions should have formed the basis of a fascinating article or two! But did you read it anywhere?
Moving on, has anyone seen or read the exact contents of Priyamvada Birla's will? According to one source, R S Lodha does not enjoy absolute control over the M P Birla estate; he is supposedly its guardian only until his 65th birthday, after which control passes into the hands of his second son. Unfortunately, no reporter has been enterprising enough to lay hands on a copy of the will.
I would also love to know the precise procedures that prove the legality of a will. How many witnesses are required? Should they be physically present in the room when the person writing the will signs the document? The question is important; I believe that two of the 'witnesses' to Priyamvada Birla's will have now backed out on this ground. Or is it just one witness? I am not certain at the moment of writing because I cannot find any news report that gives me the answers that I seek.
I couldn't care less about who gets what portion of the M P Birla estate. (One can only hope that the matter is conducted with the same dignity that has hitherto been the mark of the Birla clan; perhaps putting the bulk of the fortune in the hands of an M P Birla Charitable Foundation would save face for everyone.) But the larger issues of inheritance are something that concern us all. Sadly, my brethren of the media have been so dazzled by the fabled Birla riches that they have forgotten their duty to humbler readers.
T V R Shenoy