As Former CJI Ramana Joins Singapore Mediation Centre, Sriram Panchu Quits, Questions Credentials

At the heart of the controversy is the establishment of International Arbitration and Mediation Centre in Hyderabad last year. Panchu has faulted Ramana’s role in the past while others have defended him.

New Delhi: In the latest installment of his ongoing war against Justice N.V. Ramana over the role he played – as chief justice of India – in establishing the International Arbitration and Mediation Centre in Hyderabad, senior advocate and mediator Sriram Panchu has resigned from the Singapore International Mediation Centre’s panel of international mediators to protest its recent appointment of Justice Ramana as a member.

The latter’s appointment coincided with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the SIMC and the IAMC.

“This collaboration between two mediation powerhouses will increase investor confidence and ensure swift, equitable solutions for sustainable commercial growth,” the IAMC registrar said on August 30, 2023.

In his letter to the SIMC secretariat, Panchu has alleged that Justice Ramana has greatly damaged the cause of mediation and judicial propriety by starting, as a virtually private venture, the IAMC when he was heading the country’s judiciary.

Panchu has alleged that the Telangana state government gave the IAMC public funds and immovable assets “in violation of the Prevention of Corruption Act”.

He has also referred to a complaint submitted last year by over 60 mediators, lawyers and others to the Supreme Court, the Government of India and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India against Ramana and others associated with him. “Proceedings have begun in the state as well.  These are pending,” Panchu says in his letter to the SIMS secretariat.

Panchu questioned Ramana’s appointment as an “expert mediator” on the ground that there is no known record of any mediations conducted by him, which he says “intrigued” him.

“I am surprised, shocked and saddened by your decision to associate with him. My favourable impression of your organisation has eroded considerably,” Panchu said in his letter.

He added that he does not wish to be on any panel which has Ramana as a member, nor be a part of any organisation which embraces him.

The Wire sent an email to the SIMS secretariat but has yet to receive its response to Panchu’s letter.

Though Panchu’s letter to the SIMC only refers directly to Justice Ramana and his credentials as a mediator, the 2022 representation he appended raises a number of issues surrounding the former CJI’s association with the IAMC in Hyderabad.

Telangana CM K. Chandrashekar Rao and Chief Justice of India NV Ramana with others at the International Arbitration and Mediation Centre (IAMC) curtain raiser in Hyderabad in December 2021. Photo: Twitter/@TelanganaCMO

The signatories to the representation urged the Union government to constitute a high-level committee to conduct an inquiry into what they alleged was the “illegal” establishment of the IAMC and the transfer of public land to it. They also asked that appropriate guidelines be framed relating to the conduct of judges while in office, restraining them from involving themselves in private ventures which receive government largesse in the form land and funds. They also said that there had been a violation of the Prevention of Corruption Act, which penalises public servants (like judges) for accepting property without consideration or inadequate consideration – in this instance, from the Government of Telangana whose cases were being heard in the Supreme Court.

The IAMC was inaugurated in Hyderabad on December 18, 2021.

According to Panchu, it was virtually a private initiative of Justice Ramana, who first broached the subject with the Telangana chief minister on June 12, 2021, and authored the trust deed dated August 20, 2021 in which Justice Nageswara Rao and former Supreme Court Judge, Justice R.V. Raveendran were named as life trustees, and the then  Telangana Chief Justice, Hima Kohli (who subsequently was appointed to the Supreme Court) and law minister as ex-officio trustees.

Also read: Lawyers Allege ‘Illegal Acts’ in Mediation Centre Founding, Seek Action Against Justice Ramana

Justices Nageswara Rao, Raveendran, Kohli and current Chief Justice of Telangana high court, Justice Alok Aradhe continue to be part of the Board of Trustees of IAMC.  Justices Rao and Raveendran are part of the Governing Council of IAMC as well. While Justices Rao and Raveendran are life trustees, the term of Justice Kohli is for three years.

Panchu’s allegations of a conflict of interest on the part of the judges of the higher judiciary were debated last year in an article by senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan, who defended the role of the judges in the IAMC.

Sankaranarayanan, in his June 2022 article, pointed out the following:

  1. The IAMC is set up as a public trust in accordance with the 2017 Report of the Justice Srikrishna Committee which said that infrastructural support ought to be given by the government without any interference in their actual functioning. A parallel was drawn with Maxwell Chambers in Singapore.
  2. Clause 4 of the trust deed provides that there will be two life trustees (Justice R.V Raveendran and Justice L. Nageswara Rao), two ex-officio trustees and three 3-year term trustees. None of the members of the trust have any role to play with the selection of arbitrators and mediators and none of them can be appointed as arbitrators or mediators by the IAMC.
  3. No trustee receives a sitting fee or remuneration for their work nor receives compensation of any sort from the IAMC.
  4. Mediators are appointed only with the consent of parties, and if this is not possible, only then is a panel proposed by the CEO in consultation with the governing council – the trustees play no part.

However, Sankaranarayanan ignored the fact that two trustees are also part of the governing council and may thus end up playing a role in proposing mediators. Panchu, on his part, reiterated his allegations, in a rejoinder to Sankaranarayanan, and another to Justice K. Kannan, who found nothing wrong in judges setting up a mediation centre.

In light of Panchu’s resignation from the Singapore International Mediation Centre citing the controversy over the IAMC’s origins, The Wire wrote to the SIMC, Justice Ramana, and Justice Raveendran seeking their responses to the questions that had been raised.

Charge ‘factually incorrect’ says Justice Raveendran

In their 22-page representation sent to various constitutional authorities in August 2022, the signatories alleged that Justice Ramana included Justice R.V. Raveendran as a life trustee when the latter was enquiring into a matter connected with allegations of corrupt practice of procuring huge land by Justice Ramana’s daughters.

However, Justice Raveendran has denied the allegation.

“There is no truth in the allegation that Justice Ramana requested me to be a life trustee in the IAMC’s Board at a time when I was entrusted with an inquiry into a phone conversation of Justice V.Eswaraiah”, Justice Raveendran wrote to The Wire, in response to a request for clarification.

He noted that it was on August 13, 2020, that the Andhra Pradesh High Court directed an inquiry into a telephone conversation by a former chief justice of the Andhra Pradesh high court, Justice V Eswaraiah, in which he had admitted that he was “trying to collect more evidence” on the alleged involvement of Justice Ramana’s daughters in the Amaravati land scam. On August 24, Justice Raveendran agreed to head the inquiry. On May 15, 2021, Justice Raveendran terminated and closed the inquiry and informed the high court and Justice Eswaraiah about this. It was only three months later, on August 20, 2021, that Justice Ramana declared the IAMC Trust, appointing Justice Raveendran and Justice L. Nageswara Rao as life trustees.

“It is unfortunate that a factually incorrect statement attributed to Sriram Panchu is now sought to be repeated in a totally unconnected issue of Sriram Panchu’s resignation from the mediation panel of SIMC, following the inclusion of Justice Ramana in the mediation panel”, Justice Raveendran added in his clarification.

Point, counterpoint on Ramana and the IAMC

Though Justice Ramana has not replied to the email The Wire sent him, sources in the IAMC responded to some of the concerns raised, on condition of anonymity. Panchu also agreed to provide his responses to the same.

Was there any impropriety in a sitting chief justice of India establishing the IAMC?

IAMC sources: The foundation for the IAMC is a public charitable trust, which, in turn, has its genesis in the recommendations of Justice Srikrishna Committee for the promotion of institutional dispute resolution in India.

The then Chief Justice of India, N V Ramana, no doubt, actively and publicly supported and mentored the initiative for setting up of IAMC.  However, he is neither a Trustee nor a Member of the Governing Council.

Sriram Panchu’s response: What is so public about the IAMC? It is created by an individual. N.V. Ramana, in his private capacity. Three trustees – Justice (Retd) Nageswara Rao, Justice (Retd) R.V. Raveendran and Justice Hima Kohli serve in their private capacity as appointees of Ramana. Only two trustees are ex-officio. One is the state law minister. The other is the state high court chief justice, and it is high time he reconsidered the involvement of his high office in this controversial venture. What will he do if a case is filed against the IAMC on the multiple grounds that are available?

If Ramana has no leading role, how did he announce at the Supreme Court Bar farewell for Nageswara Rao that Rao is going to take over as the next chairman of IAMC?

How and why did Ramana visit every major Western country at official expense, in each place emphasising, falsely, that the IAMC was an official body set up by the Chief Justice and thus drumming up business for it?

And indeed, if he had no formal connection to the IAMC, what was he doing receiving the Memorandum of Agreement from the SIMC Chairman on September 7 at Singapore?

Is there a conflict of interest in a sitting CJI seeking and accepting the help of the Telangana government in setting up the IAMC?

IAMC source:  The Justice Srikrishna Committee had  recommended that to provide a boost to institutional arbitration and mediation in India, governments could play a useful role by providing the required infrastructural support without interfering in any manner in the actual functioning of the institution. The Srikrishna committee report expressly noted that the support of the respective governments was a significant factor in the success of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre and the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre.

In the light of such recommendations, the state government has offered IAMC dedicated state-of-the-art infrastructure and has provided a suitable, rented premises, annual grant for meeting the expenses and a piece of land for housing the IAMC’s facilities.  The land has not been allotted to any individual and is entrusted to the trust.

If the government of Telangana initiated steps for setting up a world-class arbitration centre so as to provide a credible facility for expeditious and quality dispute resolution, as envisaged by the Justice Srikrishna committee, it can’t be faulted.

Sriram Panchu’s response:  Justice Srikrishna said governments can play a useful role. One should ask him what he thinks of governments handing over Rs 250 crore of land, reportedly Rs 50 crore for construction and giving 25,000 sq ft of constructed space free of rent to a virtually private body created by a sitting judge and staffed with sitting/ex judges who hear cases for and against the government. Undoubtedly, he would point to Section 11 of the Prevention of Corruption Act.

And by the way, please note that there is no rebuttal that such huge public assets have been given to a body set up by sitting judges. If Ramana had not been CJI, does anyone expect the Telangana government to have been so generous? And not a mention of how this is not a fit case for the invocation of the Prevention of Corruption Act. If a politician had done this, he would have been out of office in a jiffy and facing criminal charges on orders of the court.

Have the appointments to the IAMC been above board?

IAMC source:  The trustees of the IAMC are two retired judges of the Supreme Court (life trustees) viz. justice R V Raveendran and Justice L Nageswara Rao, a sitting Judge of the Supreme Court (term trustee) Ms. Justice Hima Kohli, the Chief Justice of High Court of Telangana (ex-officio trustee) Justice Alok Aradhe and the Law Minister of the State of Telangana (ex-officio trustee) Indrakaran Reddy.

The sitting and retired Supreme Court judges who act as the trustees of IAMC offer guidance and ensure that the centre operates independently without any external influence or control by the government or other agencies.  The trustees serve in the position of responsibility and not reward. None of the trustees receive any sitting fee or remuneration for their work, it is learnt.  None of the trustees can be appointed by IAMC as arbitrators/mediators; the trustees cannot appoint anyone as arbitrator or mediator.  The trustees have neither received nor can receive any monetary compensation or benefit whatsoever from the Trust or the centre for performing their respective roles.

The two life trustees who are retired Judges of Supreme Court also serve as members of the governing council. The members of the governing council also do not receive any sitting fee or remuneration from the Centre. Members of the governing council cannot be appointed by IAMC to work as arbitrators or mediators.

All these provisions, and internal checks and balances, ensure that the IAMC operates as an independent and transparent body, free from any governmental or other control. The rules of the IAMC are in line with party autonomy, enabling the parties to choose the arbitrators or mediators.

Sriram Panchu’s response: No one objects to ex-officio appointments and to appointments made by a proper official body, either government or court. But this rather shady underhand business is galling, passing it off as a public venture.

What has been the IAMC’s record so far?

IAMC sources: The IAMC is making giant strides in capacity building for credible institutional mediation and arbitration in active collaboration with individuals and organisations of global repute in the field.

Panchu’s response: The existential evidence for the IAMC’s statement is doubtful; some knowledgeable people have said it doesn’t have much work.

But assuming it to be so, when you have such facilities, when the state government has mandated that all its disputes come to you, when Justice Ramana has handpicked members for the National Company Law Tribunal, which handles the biggest commercial and insolvency disputes, the work you are getting is not because you deserve it, but because litigants are forced your way. At the cost of other institutions set up by mediators across the country who have slogged their guts out for many years to make mediation a reality, but see the fruits being gobbled up by retired judges who have no mediation capacity worth the name but are willing to bend their office to set up and control mediation centres.

What are Justice Ramana’s qualifications to be a mediator and a member of the SIMC?

IAMC source:  Justice Ramana’s suitability as a mediator cannot  not be questioned because he was a judge and chief justice for more than two decades.

Linking his empanelment to the IAMC is nothing but targeting the IAMC by invoking Ramana’s name.

Sriram Panchu’s response: I was targeting Ramana’s appointment, not the IAMC. The latter is no doubt an excellent target on several counts, but that’s for another day.

They can’t possible mean it wasn’t a quid pro quo – that’s blatant. Look at the two side by side announcements.

What has Justice Ramana’s experience in the field of mediation been so far?

IAMC source: Every time a judge withdraws to his chamber to settle a family dispute in-camera, what she/he does essentially is mediation. As it is the judges who advise from the bench to try the mediation route in certain matters, the reference for mediation by a judge is not done without them understanding what mediation is.

Sriram Panchu’s response: So this is the justification for SIMC to appoint Ramana as its “expert mediator” on its international panel – no mediation conducted by him. The other members of the distinguished international panel and the SIMC Board may kindly take note. I haven’t come across a better instance of egg on the face of an institution.