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M B Shah: SIT chief to probe unaccounted money

If it hadn’t been for two people – the Congress’s Murli Deora, the man who filed the public interest litigation; and former Supreme Court judge Manharlal Bhikhalal Shah, who wrote the order – smoking in public places would not have been banned in 2001. Deora is immensely proud of his contribution to public life but the Shah judgment was no less public spirited.

That Shah, 76, who in his long legal career (he enrolled as an advocate in the Gujarat High Court in 1962, became a judge of the Gujarat High Court in 1983 and Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court in 1995) should have stepped down “on health grounds” from a monitoring authority entrusted with cases related to extrajudicial encounters by the Gujarat Police from 2002 to 2006, is an aberration. He was succeeded by former Bombay High Court Chief Justice K R Vyas. Interestingly, Shah’s successor was notified only a day before a hearing of the Supreme Court, which was addressing the issue.

Shah was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1998 and retired in 2003. Since then, he has been chairman of the inquiry commission set up by the central government to investigate charges of illegal mining of iron ore: A task he took most seriously and was so thorough that hapless governments were stopped in their tracks – he left no loopholes. Possibly impressed by his research on illegal coal mines – the reports went into several thousand pages – he was appointed chairman of the special investigation team set up for the investigation of unaccounted money parked abroad.

In this, Shah arguably has the powers that should be wielded by the finance minister of the country.

In the past, foreign exchange violations were addressed either by the ministry or the Reserve Bank of India. That the finance ministry should have ceded so much authority is in itself surprising. What needs to be seen is what Shah will do with it.

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