Chennai Theosophical Society’s 500 cr land deal with Shiv Nadar Trust raises concerns

With the 43-year lease, the Theosophical Society cedes control of Damodar Gardens, a 14-acre plot of land in Besant Nagar, on which the Shiv Nadar Trust will build a school.
Headquarters Building of the Theosophical Society, Chennai
Headquarters Building of the Theosophical Society, Chennai

Two globally well-known entities signed a Rs 512 crore land deal in Chennai a fortnight ago. On May 31, the Theosophical Society (TS), an international body dedicated to theosophy headquartered in the city’s Adyar, signed a 43-year lease with the Shiv Nadar Trust (SNT) ceding control of Damodar Gardens, a 14-acre plot of land in Besant Nagar. Documents with TNM show that the trust will build a school on the campus. The trust is part of the eponymous foundation started by billionaire IT industrialist and HCL founder Shiv Nadar.

Founded in 1875 with the primary objective of universal brotherhood, TS controls around 256 acres in the Adyar estate beside the Besant Nagar beach, covered with dense foliage of several hundred trees, a few water bodies and fauna interlocked in a delicate ecological balance.

The deal between TS and SNT allows the latter to use the premises for educational purposes and also establish infrastructure for providing residential accommodation to teachers, staff members and students. Entities linked to SNT will also have the right to use the premises, the deal states. The annual rent that TS will charge SNT for the first and second year would be Rs 1.42 crore and Rs 3.42 crore. From the third year onwards, the rent would be Rs 6.83 crore with an increase of 2.5% per year.

The deal has raised concerns about how construction of the new school could potentially damage the green cover and upset the environment. Acknowledging these worries, the TS management has indicated that the school would be ‘carbon positive’ and that trees that are removed would be planted elsewhere on the grounds. The lease states that SNT can cut trees only after obtaining prior permission from government authorities.

The lease agreement comes around eight years after the J Krishnamurthi foundation-run school – KFI – was asked to vacate the campus as their lease had expired. In 2018, TS had internally passed a resolution to allow the TVS group to establish an international school, but that did not materialise.

The TS management said it had considered a number of possible uses for the land and eventually signed the deal with SNT ‘to achieve the highest benefit to the city of Chennai’.

While observers within TS and some theosophists across the globe have expressed concern over this deal citing the society’s shift from its ‘core objectives’, former students and environmental activists are worried that establishing a big school will commercialise the space, and affect its green cover and sensitive ecological balance.

MK Ramadoss (84),  a US resident and a third-generation theosophist who was with the society for several decades, said that this is a commercial deal. “This signals a shift in TS moving away from its core objectives of creating awareness about universal brotherhood, study of comparative religion, theosophy and nature. When the KFI school was asked to vacate, TS said that it was going to be used for vocational training. But now it is being exploited commercially,” Ramadoss, a practising Chartered Accountant, said. He runs the ‘Theosophy News’ Facebook and Twitter pages.

Two theosophists TNM spoke to expressed worries whether the financial size of the deal would mean that students would be charged high fees.

Responding to a detailed questionnaire from TNM, Tim Boyd, the international president of TS, stressed that the core objectives of TS and the Shiv Nadar Foundation (SNF) found common ground in the area of education and that SNF was not a commercial operation.

Boyd quoted from SNF’s website stating its commitment to create a more equitable, merit-based society by empowering individuals through transformational education to bridge the socio-economic divide.

“TS has not changed its core objectives or pattern of behaviour in any way. For more than 80 years, Damodar Gardens has been used exclusively for high quality educational institutions. For 40 years it was home to the Besant School. Next, The School – KFI operated from there for another 40 years,” Boyd said.

Boyd accepted that developing the space would require extensive construction involving removal of trees. “Because of the TS's values and long-time role as steward of the nature in that area, we emphasised the importance of a construction process that is respectful to nature. SNF shares the same values,” he said.

Environmental activist Nithyanand Jayaram, a long-time resident of Besant Nagar, expressed concern that with such big money at play, the space should not become a hub for construction activity and big buildings like IIT-Madras. “One can only hope that the last green space in the city is treated with respect. There is a naturally good infrastructure for education, which should not be destroyed for buildings,” he said.

Sibi Arasu, an independent journalist and alumnus of KFI, said the Damodar Gardens campus was an experience in itself with holistic education in sync with nature. “The concern is about what the new entity is going to do with the space and whether it will be used in the same way (as KFI school). Or if it would become a corporate campus. If the latter happens, it will be unfortunate,” he said.

Boyd said the school would be constructed to a high sustainability standard and would be ‘carbon positive’ by removing carbon dioxide from the environment. “No old growth trees will be cut down or damaged during the course of construction, and any trees that are encroaching on built spaces will be removed and planted elsewhere on the grounds,” he said.

Responding to questions on environmental concerns due to the school’s construction, Col Gopal Karunakaran, CEO of Shiv Nadar school, said they would aim to utilise the existing infrastructure as much as possible ‘without making any major disruptions to the flora and fauna at the campus’.

“The tranquil campus at Besant Gardens is an ideal place for learning both in terms of its geographical location as well as its rich green campus,” he said. The Foundation says they have employed the services of Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri BV Doshi as architect for the school. “They are known for (building) environment-friendly, sustainable institutions,” he added.

Siddharth Prabhakar is based in Chennai and has covered Greater Chennai Corporation, Railways, DVAC, CBI and other investigative agencies during his 6 years with the Times of India and 1.5 years with The New Indian Express.

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