A cheap slice of paradise

The Roshni Act was supposed to benefit lakhs of landless cultivators. But the rich and famous ended up grabbing prime property for peanuts. Riyaz Wani reports

March 21, 2014, Issue 13 Volume 11

Cheap trick The Congress office located at a prime locality in Srinagar cost just peanuts to acquire thanks to a loophole in the Roshni ActCheap trick The Congress office located at a prime locality in Srinagar cost just peanuts to acquire thanks to a loophole in the Roshni Act, Photo: Faisal Khan

In 2001, the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly passed the Roshni Bill in a bid to generate Rs 25,000 crore to fund infrastructure projects by vesting ownership rights to the occupants of 4.5 lakh acres (20.64 lakh kanals) of government land. But 12 years on, the revenue from the scheme has been a measly Rs 76.45 crore from the sale of around 3.48 lakh kanals, causing the J&K Principal Accountant General (PAG) to call it the “biggest-ever land scam” in the state.

At a recent press conference, PAG Subhash Chander Pandey revealed how the state administration had subverted the efforts of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) at every step to unearth the facts about the land scam. “Almost the entire information was concealed and we were told that the CAG could not interfere with the matters of the Cabinet,” said Pandey. He blamed top bureaucrats, including Chief Secretary Muhammad Iqbal Khanday, Principal Secretary (Finance) Bharat Bhushan Vyas and Secretary for Administrative Reforms Ghulam Hassan Tantray, for non-cooperation in the formulation of the CAG report.

Pandey claimed that bureaucrats had changed some provisions of the Roshni Act without getting them ratified by the legislature, which led to a revenue loss of Rs 25,000 crore.

“We wanted to know under what legal authority the officers had changed land use and category, gifted away the agriculture category of the occupied state land free of cost, and granted huge rebates to the commercial category. We were keen to see who waived the stamp duty and under what legal authority,” he said.

As a result, the CAG was able to examine only 447 cases of non-agricultural land covering 666 kanals in six districts, which alone revealed a loss of Rs 225 crore. “Officials were found to have fixed the lowest rates and gave huge rebates to the occupants of government land. That is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Pandey.

For example, in Jammu, the total land approved for vesting ownership to the occupants under the scheme was 42,917 kanals and its rate was fixed at Rs 40,587 per kanal. But against the estimated revenue of Rs 174.19 crore, the government has realised just Rs 15.77 crore.

Similarly, around 492 kanals at the rate of Rs 20.70 crore were approved for the purpose in Srinagar. But against the estimated revenue of Rs 101.87 crore, only Rs 50.62 crore have been realised. Shockingly, a government handout released in February said that only Rs 1.5 lakh was raised against 3,113 kanals allotted in Kupwara district.

Some of the prominent beneficiaries in Srinagar include the ruling coalition partners, the Congress and the National Conference. Popularly known as Khidmat and Nawai Subah Trust, respectively, the state headquarters of the two parties occupy prime real estate in the heart of Srinagar that cost a fortune.

Other beneficiaries include former J&K Assembly Speaker Ghulam Mohi -u- Din Malik, who paid Rs 20.36 lakh for a prime property at Samander Bagh in Srinagar and former MLC KK Amla, who paid Rs 2.4 crore for a property along the posh Residency Road in Srinagar.

The beneficiaries also include retired bureaucrats, judges and doctors. For example, former J&K Chief Secretary Syed Mohammad Aga paid 58 lakh for a property in the Sheikh Bagh area of Srinagar; former PSC chairman Mohammad Shafi Pandit paid Rs 8.4 lakh, his wife Nighat Shafi paid Rs 7.5 lakh; retired J&K High Court judge Hakeem Imtiyaz Hussain paid 30 lakh; and the Valley’s leading nephrologist, Dr Muneer Khan, paid 16.4 lakh — all for properties in Gogji Bagh in Srinagar.

Around 20 IAS and Kashmir Administrative Service officers are under a cloud for the alleged irregularities in the implementation of the scheme. The State Vigilance Commission (SVC) has registered FIRs against a former divisional commissioner and two IAS officers, who now work in the capacity of secretaries to the government, for the alleged misuse of their official position for the illegal transfer of government land in Gulmarg, Kashmir’s famous ski resort, to businessmen by misusing provisions of the Roshni Act. The SVC has also constituted four special investigation teams (SITs) to probe the scam.

When contacted, a senior SVC official said that the SITs were probing 40 cases. “Yes, these could just be the tip of the iceberg,” the official said on the condition of anonymity, while admitting that the state government has lost thousands of crores of rupees due to the violation of the rules by officials who either benefited their kin or used the scheme for their personal monetary benefits.

“There are apprehensions that the number of cases might run into the hundreds. We don’t have the adequate staff and means to investigate the entire scam.”

SVC Director Sheikh Uwais said: “We are probing many cases. We will lodge FIRs once the inquiries are over.”

The provision in the Roshni Act that has become most susceptible to misuse relates to agricultural land. On 9 February 2007, the Ghulam Nabi Azad-led Congress government amended the Act — a nominal fee of 100 per kanal was fixed for vesting the ownership of agricultural land to its occupants. Though the government justified the move by saying that 19 lakh cultivators would benefit, it didn’t realise that the state has less than 16 lakh cultivators and only 16.27 percent of them had encroached upon government land.

This has led to a large portion of non-agricultural land being dubiously shown as agricultural and transferred to its occupants. The CAGreport states that even non-cultivable land was transferred under the scheme by categorising it as agricultural land. The CAG has estimated that a major portion of the land — 3.4 lakh kanals — has been classified as agricultural type and given away for measly sums.

“The biggest beneficiaries are those who got their occupied commercial land dubiously converted into agricultural land and bought it for peanuts,” says Uwais.

According to the Roshni Act, the “authorised occupants” owning residential structures on government land of up to 2 kanals were required to pay only 25 percent of the land value, and those living on plots of up to 10 kanals were required to pay 40 percent. For “authorised overstayed” and unauthorised occupants, the rates were fixed at 35 percent and 50 percent of the land value, respectively. In the commercial category, authorised, authorised overstayed and unauthorised occupants had to pay 30 percent, 45 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

In case of institutions (educational, religious, charitable, social, trusts, societies) and political parties, the rates were fixed at 15 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

The government maintains that 20.25 lakh kanals of state land is under occupation — 16.02 lakh kanals in Jammu region and 4.23 lakh kanals in the Kashmir Valley. A high-level “rate fixing committee” headed by two divisional commissioners was authorised to approve cases for ownership rights in Jammu and Srinagar districts, whereas the committees for other districts, including the areas falling under the Tourism Development Authority, were headed by the deputy commissioners concerned.

It turns out that a scheme that was billed as a revolutionary move on the lines of the 1950 J&K Land Reforms Act, which saw the redistribution of 4.5 lakh acres held by 9,000 landowners among the cultivating peasants, may have been devised to benefit the rich.

With the government withholding the comprehensive list of the beneficiaries under the scheme and the nature of the land given away to them for peanuts, it is difficult to comprehend the egregious nature of the scam under Roshni, a scheme that has become now a metaphor for the endemic corruption in India’s most troubled state.

In fact, the quantum of corruption is estimated to be far higher than 25000 crore. The actual revenue loss could be much higher considering the fact that land rates have steeply risen since the time the scheme was enacted.

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(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 11 Issue 13, Dated March 21, 2014)

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