Land Bill dead, Modi eyes defence land. Will the forces play ball?CATCH NEWS


The hunt

  • The NDA regime is trying hard to acquire land for the industry
  • Its Land Acquisition Bill was meant to make this easy. It didn’t pass
  • Now, it wants to acquire the huge chunks of defence land lying unused

The bounty

  • 17 lakh acres of ‘defence land’ but only 1.5 lakh acres is under cantonments
  • The defence ministry owns 81,815 acres of ‘excess land holdings’
  • Over 5,000 acres are under golf courses, 15,000 acres occupied illegally

After failing to get its version of the Land Acquisition Bill passed by the parliament, the Narendra Modi regime has set sights on government land.

According to credible sources, the Prime Ministers’ Office is planning to take over unutilised land of the defence ministry.

The ministry has been asked to furnish details of “all plots that have not been used”.

Also read – Land Bill: how farmers and the Opposition made Modi govt back down

Sitting on a treasure

The defence ministry is India’s richest ministry in terms of land ownership. It had informed the parliament last year that it “possesses a land pool of around 17.31 lakh acres”.

But only 1.57 lakh acres of this is situated within the country’s 62 notified cantonments.

Nearly 80% of the defence ministry’s land is in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. Some 17 states and Union Territories have over 10,000 acres of defence land each.

The army controls about 80% of the defence land, the air force about 9% and the navy 2%. The rest is with other departments of the defence ministry. The total cost of the land is estimated to be over Rs 80 lakh crore.

‘Unauthorised use of land for golf courses’, says CAG report PMO is using to get unused defence land

The government acquires land for “defence” only after specifying the purpose. Hence, there is no surplus defence estate as such. Yet, a large amount of this land is lying vacant or unused since the purpose of its acquisition has not been fulfilled yet.

More than 5,000 acres of the “defence land” are under 95 golf courses maintained by the ministry.

According to a December 2013 report of the parliament’s Public Accounts Committee on Defence Estates Management, the defence ministry possesses “excess land holdings of 81,815 acres, an area roughly equivalent to the city of Surat”. The cost of this land is estimated at around Rs 4 lakh crore.

Going to waste

The ministry, however, is loath to part with the unused land, claiming that it might be used for “future security requirements”.

While it finds a use for the land, it’s being slowly encroached. Cantonment areas were originally conceived to be situated on the outskirts of cities. But rapid urbanisation has turned land holdings inside and outside cantonments into prime real estate.

According to the CAG, more than 15,000 acres of defence land across India had been encroached upon until 2009. It’s market value was pegged at close to Rs 65,000 crore.

Also read – How the Modi government had to eat humble pie on the land ordinance

As much as 58% of the defence land in Daman & Diu has been encroached upon, and about 11% in Chhattisgarh. In Bihar and Jammu & Kashmir, this figure stands at 4% and 3%, respectively.

In terms of sheer acreage, Uttar Pradesh has seen the largest grab of defence land, of about 3,142 acres. It’s followed by Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Haryana, in that order.

The defence ministry claims it’s trying to recover this land by “expediting eviction proceedings under the law”. It has also strengthened “defence land management system through measures such as computerisation of records, audits, surveys, and demarcation and verification of lands”.

Fertile ground for graft

Yet, mismanagement and corruption have ensured that excess defence land continues to be misused. Indeed, several scams involving defence land have surfaced in recent years, including in Sukna and the Adarsh Housing scandal. In most cases, defence personnel have allegedly been actively complicit.

The CAG, over the years, has pointed towards several glaring instances of irregularities in the management of defence estate.

In a damning November 2011 report, the CAG had noted:

  • Defence land is commercially exploited to bolster the Regimental Fund, and not the government exchequer.
  • There’s unauthorised use of defence land for golf courses and the revenue generated from them is diverted to Regimental Fund and not the government account.
  • There are large-scale errors in land calculation sheets made available by the local military authorities and in the land records of Defence Estate Officers pertaining.
  • Timely mutation of lands in favour of the defence ministry has been delayed.
  • Computerisation of defence land records under the ‘Raksha Bhoomi’ project is far from satisfactory.
  • There’s gross mismanagement of leases in the absence of a monitoring mechanism for timely renewal of leases.
  • Disregarding strict government instructions, commanders of three stations re-appropriated defence buildings or land for private use.

The report also expressed “disappointment at the ministry’s sidetracking of the CAG’s recommendation for having an independent regulator for defence land”.

Striking a bargain

According to the sources, the PMO has cited this very report to “convince” the defence ministry to “give up unused land holdings for other purposes of public welfare”.

The ministry, however, does not seem willing to give up its claim on the land even though, according to the PMO sources, “land acquisition remains one of the biggest hurdles in implementing the government’s economic agenda”.

The ministry has reportedly argued that the land would be used “to give impetus to the Make in India campaign in the defence sector”. The NDA government has been wooing domestic and foreign firms to manufacture defence equipment in India. And setting up new defence manufacturing industries would obviously require large tracts of land.

Defence ministry owns excess land of 81,815 acres, an area the size of Surat. Value: Rs 4 lakh crore

Still, experts argue that “optimum utilisation of urban defence land can help finance infrastructure needs of our cities”.

A Financial Express report estimates that “utilisation of defence land in just four cities of Chennai, Bengaluru, Pune and Lucknow can provide for 29 lakh housing units”. This would fulfill 15% of this country’s affordable housing requirement.

Clearly, this need not be a choice between defence and development. But it won’t be easy, even for the PMO, to convince the defence ministry to give up its prized possession.