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Fir against tennis legend Sharapova is a mockery of gullible Gurugram buyers

In his highly entertaining novel, The Miracle, Irving Wallace regales readers with the exploits of his fictional character who cheats the desperately sick who cling to straws. Lourdes in France is the place, the place where Mary of the Immaculate Conception is believed to make periodic appearances to heal a selection of terminally ill patients. This character asks his wife, believed to have been miraculously healed by the Virgin Mary, to give a talk at a restaurant where the terminally ill cling to his words in hopes of gaining a similar salvation, forking out sums extravagant prices for dinner. embellished with three-hour lessons on faith. The grateful restaurant owner, of course, does not hesitate to share the spoils with this fearless character.

Something eerily similar seems to have happened in Gurugram, which sits side by side with Delhi. Realtech Development and Infrastructure (India) Pvt Ltd is said to have launched a residential project named “Sharapova” in honor of Russian tennis legend Maria Sharapova, who has since hung up her cleats. A block was, for good measure, named after Formula 1 legend Michael Schumacher to fool both tennis and racing fans.

The project’s brochure contained for its USP lavish praise heaped up by these blue-blooded celebrities of foreign pedigree. Sharapova in particular reportedly promised a tennis academy inside the resort to an awestruck audience of budding shoppers eating out of her hands at a promotional dinner.

One Shafali Agarwal, a resident of Chattarpur Mini Farm in New Delhi, has complained that she booked an apartment in the project by paying an advance of Rs 80 lakh in hopes that she would get her luxury home in 2016 as promised by the manufacturer. As expected, the project never saw the light of day. On his complaint, the local court had asked the police to register an FIR. The FIR was registered under Sections 34 (common intent), 120-B (criminal association), 406 (criminal breach of trust) and 420 (deception) of the IPC at Badshahpur police station which also names the sports stars, among others as the perpetrators.

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Granted, the plaintiff could get deterrent compensation from the quack-builder, but one wonders if the vaunted long arm of the law would be able to bring sports stars to justice. The distance lends to disenchantment becomes a cliché. India often faces an impregnable wall of resistance when dealing with criminals and defaulters who have fled or reside abroad. Indian businessmen who have defrauded Indian banks are thumbing their noses from distant but salubrious foreign lands. If they remain incorrigible, one can imagine what the outcome will be with the foreigners. In this sense, the distance also seems to generate sufficient immunity!

The most important point, however, is the enormous power of celebrities to influence gullible and confident consumers, often to their detriment. To be on the safe side again, the 2019 Consumer Protection Act, which is supposed to be stricter (compared to its 1985 version), seeks to break celebrities out of their complacency by also making them liable for false or misleading advertisements. Fines ranging from Rs 10 lakh and one year imprisonment to Rs 50 lakh and five years imprisonment await them if they are deemed lax and fail to exercise due diligence. A one-to-three-year ban on endorsements is a more infuriating penalty in store for them if found guilty.

Going back to Gurugram’s story, this happened long before the new consumer protection law came into effect. Not that it has enough fangs to bring foreigners to justice, but it does at least contain provisions warning local and foreign celebrities against taking things for granted and not repeating what the owner of the brand has often written with dollops of exaggeration and bloat in addition to being riddled with blatant lies.

caveat emptor is a much reviled legal maxim because it places the responsibility on the buyer. But in the glamorous world of advertisements, consumers need to be on their toes and not get carried away by star power. Especially when the product or service does not belong to the impulse buying genre but to the lifetime investment genre, namely real estate. Maria Sharapova, who created a brand of sweets called Sugarpova and therefore aware of the influence of celebrities on consumers, must laugh out loud at the enormous naivety of Gurugram buyers. But she and Schumacher would most certainly suffer from pangs of conscience, should they introspect themselves, for having made a Faustian deal with the despicable Indian estate agent for a plate of soup (considering their millions earned through sport) if the allegations against them are true. Sharapova had previously been in the eye of the storm for promoting a potentially harmful product.

Critics then rightly claimed that it is after all human to have a sweet tooth, but unless excessive sugar consumption is burned off, obesity and diabetes could come to haunt his avid fans. By the way, this is precisely what celebrities in Indian law should do – point out the downsides of the product/service as well.

That said, one would concede that in Wallace’s novel dying patients clung to straws, but Gurugram’s buyers should have accepted the claims of the wily builder and his famous collaborators with a huge pinch of salt by demanding credible guarantees against default. And the CBDT should immediately take action to find out if tax was withheld by the builder on the endorsement fees owed to the two non-resident celebrities. Under section 195, no payment can be made to non-residents by an Indian resident unless the required tax has been withheld at source. This investigation would be revealing insofar as if this obligation has not been respected, one can legitimately assume that once again non-residents have benefited from a secret offshore bank account which also happens to be, for good extent, a tax haven.

Read more plays by S Murlidharan here.


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