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Birlas pit might against outsider
 
 

Calcutta, July 13: After last evening’s dramatic revelation that a Birla bahu has left her properties to an outsider, the Birla family decided to contest the will in court.

Priyamvada, the widow of M.P. Birla, died 10 days ago in Calcutta at the age of 76, leaving a Rs 5,000-crore empire to R.S. Lodha.

Family elder B.K. Birla said: “Our entire family is together to fight out the case in court. And we hope to win the case.”

Yesterday, Priyamvada’s will was read out by Lodha, who is the executor, in the presence of Birla family members. The document, three to four lines long — lawyers said they had never come across such a short will — handed ownership of the M.P. Birla group’s shareholdings in different Birla companies and family-run trusts and institutions, which include several hospitals and schools, to Lodha.

The M.P. Birla group’s annual turnover is estimated at Rs 2,000 crore and the value of assets at Rs 5,000 crore, over which Lodha, a senior partner in one of Calcutta’s leading chartered accountancy firms, will preside if the will passes the test of law.

After the initial shock delivered by the will, the Birlas — almost everyone is in Calcutta, the family’s original home — sat with their solicitors and decided on the legal course.

“In the history of the Birla family, such a situation has never arisen. We have to see that such a development never happens again,” B.K. Birla said.

Never in the history of Indian family-run businesses has anyone named as heir a person who is outside the family while blood relations are around.

MP and Priyamvada did not have children. Their closest blood relation is Yashovardhan, the son of MP’s nephew Ashok Vardhan, who died tragically at a young age in a plane crash. After his father’s death, MP had taken Yashovardhan, then a minor, under his wings.

Asked if the family smelt foul play, B.K. Birla replied: “We cannot comment on this now. We need to have a few days’ time to assess the entire situation before moving court.”

Priyamvada’s brother, Kashinath Taparia who runs the largest MP Birla trust which has two hospitals, may side with the Birlas in the contest.

Lawyers surmise that the Birlas could challenge the will claiming Priyamvada was “unsound of mind”.

At Birla Corporation, the MP Birla group’s flagship company, the executives appeared to take the power shift in their stride.

“Lodha has been associated for more than two decades with the group and he was made the co-chairman (with Priyamvada Birla) about five years ago. We had reported to him earlier also along with Mrs Birla. We will continue to do that,” said K.C. Mittal, the company’s chief.

Mittal said the much-speculated-upon contents of the will are “true”. “I spoke with Lodha and he said that the will was true,” Mittal added.

Lodha, whose accounting firm is the auditor of several Birla companies, was not available for comment. Nor were his sons, A.V. and H.V. Lodha.

Sources at Birla Building, which houses several family-owned companies and was the hub of all activity today, said initially the understanding was that Yashovardhan would move court. But there was a change of mind later and it was decided by BK, KK, CK, SK and Yashovardhan that the family should act together.

B.K. Birla said the country’s best lawyer would be engaged to fight the case. “Our solicitor firm P.K. Khaitan & Co. will be assigned to look for one.”

The sources said Lodha knew the contents of the will when he read it out last evening before a family gathering. “He knew that he was the executor and beneficiary of the will,” they said.

According to them, the will was made in 2001. For Lodha, the next step is to probate — in other words, seek the court’s authentication of — the will. When he approaches the court, other interested parties — the Birlas — will be given the opportunity to present their case.

If, after hearing all parties, the court authenticates the will, the Birlas will have to tolerate an outsider in their midst.

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