Madras High Court clears decks for construction of a 14-storey hospital-cum-commercial complex next to Chettinad Vidyashram school in Chennai

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The Madras High Court has cleared the decks for the construction of a 14-storey hospital-cum-commercial complex at a cost of around ₹500 crores on 41.6 grounds of land next to Chettinad Vidyashram school functioning from 81.3 grounds on Greenways Road in Chennai.

Justices Paresh Upadhyay and D. Bharatha Chakravarthy refused to restrain Rajah Muthiah Chettiar Charitable and Educational Trust (RMCCET), Chettinad Logistics Private Limited and M.A.M.R. Muthiah from proceeding with the construction of the high rise building next to the school.

The judges dismissed individual appeals preferred by Kumara Rani Meena Muthiah, Kumara Rajah Muthiah School of Traditional Arts and Crafts (KRMSTAC, a public charitable trust represented by its secretary Meena Muthiah) and Dr. M. A. M. Ramaswamy Chettiar of Chettinad Charitable Trust (MAMRCCCT).

The appeals were preferred against a single judge’s refusal to grant an interim injunction. The Division Bench, however, recorded the submission of senior counsel M. S. Krishnan, representing RMCCET, that it would not claim any equity, based on the superstructure to be constructed, pending adjudication of multiple civil suits.

The Bench observed that grant of interim injunction would cause irreparable injury only to parties who want to develop the property now and not those who seek injunction because the buildings could be demolished any time and the land could be handed over to those who establish their title after a full-fledged trial in the civil suits.

Authoring the judgement, Justice Chakravarthy pointed out that Rajah Sir Muthiah Chettiar, son of Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar, had married Rani Meyammai. The couple gave birth to two sons Kumara Rajah Muthiah Chettiar and M. A. M. Ramaswamy Chettiar. The elder brother married Ms. Meena Muthiah and the younger married Sigappi Aachi.

Neither of them had any issues. Kumara Rajah Muthiah Chettiar predeceased his parents on January 24, 1970 and his mother died on March 1, 1970. After his death, Ms. Meena Muthiah adopted M.A.M.M. Annamalai on January 21, 1983. Similarly, Mr. Ramaswamy Chettiar and his wife adopted M.A.M.R. Muthiah on February 9, 1996.

In the meantime, Rajah Sir Muthiah Chettiar died on May 12, 1984 and his younger son Mr. Ramaswamy Chettiar died on December 2, 2015. The latter’s adopted son Mr. M. A. M. R. Muthiah married one Geetha Muthiah and the couple now had three children named Meyammai, Sigappi and Ramaswamy.

The subject matter of the civil suits before the court was a sprawling property originally spread over 150 grounds next to the palatial residence of the family in the heart of Chennai. Of the total extent, 23 grounds were gifted to the Greater Chennai Corporation in 1995 for laying a road and therefore only 127 grounds were remaining.

On March 14, 1957, Rajah Sir Muthiah Chettiar, Rani Meyyammai Aachi, Kumara Rajah Muthiah Chettiar, Kumara Rani Meena Muthiah, Mr. Ramaswamy Chettiar and Sigappi Aachi founded RMCCET and conveyed the shares held by them in various companies. All three male members in the family became trustees but the women were excluded.

The objects of RMCCET were to establish, run and maintain educational, technical and technological institutions of all kinds in the country for the benefit of people at large; to maintain, support and develop the Annamalai University (now a government institution) at Chidambaram, the Lady Pentland Woman and Children’s Hospital at Chettinad and assist other institutions.

Rajah Sir Muthiah Chettiar was initially the sole owner of the 150 grounds of land in question. On March 24, 1960 he executed a gift deed and settled undivided half share in the property to his elder son Kumara Rajah Muthiah Chettiar. Thereafter, in 1969, father and son agreed to transfer their respective shares on the land to RMCCET.

The two donors also put the trustees of the donee in possession of the properties on March 9, 1969. However, before Mr. Kumara Rajah Muthiah Chettiar could register a document transferring his share, he died in February 1970 but his father Rajah Sir Muthiah Chettiar outlived and transferred the latter’s undivided half share to RMCCET on March 23, 1970.

In 1986, Ms. Kumara Rani Meena Muthiah and Mr. Ramaswamy Chettiar founded KRMSTAC, a society which started running Chettinad Vidyashram on a portion of the 150 ground land. Over the years, the school ended up possessing and enjoying 81.3 grounds. In 1995, RMCCET gifted 27 grounds to Greater Chennai Corporation for laying a road.

On March 23, 2011, RMCCET executed an unregistered deed leasing out the rest of 41.63 grounds to Chettinad Logistics on a monthly rent of ₹2 lakh for constructing a hospital-cum-commercial complex. Thereafter, on August 2, 2012, all trustees of RMCCET authorised Mr. Ramaswamy Chettiar to execute a general power of attorney in favour of his adopted son Mr. M.A.M.R. Muthiah.

Senior counsel G. Masilamani representing Ms. Meena Muthiah and advocate R. Srinivas representing MAMRCCCT said, pursuant to this 2012 decision, the relationship between Mr. Ramaswamy Chettiar and his adopted son turned sour because the latter attempted a hostile take over from the father.

The events led Ramaswamy Chettiar to constitute MAMRCCCT on February 9, 2015 and execute a Will on February 18, 2015 bequeathing all his properties to MAMRCCCT. Further, on October 29, 2015, RMCCET executed a deed leasing out the entire 127 grounds to KRMSTAC which runs Chettinad Vidyashram.

Advocate V. Raghavachari, representing Mr. M.A.M.R. Muthiah, accused the relatives in the family of having driven a wedge between his client and the latter’s father. He also contended that the 2015 lease deed in favour of the school management was obtained when his father was suffering from stage IV cancer and not in a sound disposing state of mind.

He argued that the lease deed had been obtained through fraudulent means and pointed out that it had leased out 127 grounds of land in the heart of Chennai city for a paltry monthly rent of ₹10,000 and that too for a period of 25 years. He contended that the relatives had poisoned the mind of Ramaswamy Chettiar and coerced him to sign the Will and the lease deed.

It was also argued that Ms. Meena Muthiah could not blow hot and cold by claiming lease rights on the basis of the 2015 deed on one hand and also filing a partition suit on the other hand seeking 5/32 share in the 127-acre property on the ground that her deceased husband had not executed any instrument transferring his share of the land to RMCCET.

After hearing all sides, the judges said, a decision on title could be rendered only after the disposal of the civil suits and confined their scope to the issue of grant of interim injunction. They held that the balance of convenience was in favour of the parties who want to develop the property and therefore no injunction could be granted.

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