A ‘Ghost’ Market

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In 2003, the Mufti government took over SKIMS, the Gupkar Nursing Home and Dr Ali Jan Shopping Complex from a Trust that the National Conference would run. While the hospital and the nursing home are being managed by the government, the complex on the Residency Road, worth billions, lacks an ownership. People in possession of the property do not even pay the rent as they do not know who the owner is, reports Saima Bhat

Dr Ali Jan Shopping Complex.

In Srinagar’s Lal Chowk, Kashmir’s emotional, political and economic landmark, every inch costs and costs too much. Otherwise, bustling with activities and immersed in trade, there lies a space, almost deserted. It is Dr Ali Jan Shopping Complex. Sandwiched between the office of IG Traffic and an upcoming shopping mall, this multi-storey complex is named after renowned Kashmir doctor. The interesting story is that it lacks ownership.

With more than 100 shops and 30 office premises, the complex exactly opposite to the SP College, worth crores, yearns for the care as no department has claimed its ownership for the last 15 years. Traders who have rented space, now organised in an association, want to pay their rent. But to whom? There is no owner or a claimant.

15 Years Ago

After working for seven years, Sher-i-Kashmir Institute Trust in 2003 completed the construction of Kashmir Nursing Home at posh Gupkar Road. Joyful of the feat, the Trust led by Dr Ali Muhammad Matto, the then Chairman, was enthusiastic to throw it open formally. Matto was suggested by his colleagues to invite Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, the then chief minister, to preside over the inauguration ceremony.

As Matto extended a formal request, the situation changed.

“As Mufti received the invitation, he contacted his health minister Lal Singh and asked him how the Trust was going to inaugurate a hospital that primarily belonged to somebody else,” said a person privy to the developments of that day on condition of anonymity.

What followed shattered the joy of people working over the project as on July 2003, midnight, the administration led by health minister and Divisional Commissioner Kashmir sealed and took possession of both the Trust properties: the Kashmir Nursing Home and Dr Ali Jan Shopping complex, while reversing the earlier order under which the two pieces of land had been leased to the Trust.

After the order was reversed, all the three properties shifted from the Trust to the government: the SKIMS, Kashmir Nursing Home and the shopping plaza.

Following the order, the management of SKIMS was revamped and the government took over both the Trust properties. The nursing home was sealed and handed over to the health department. As for the shopping complex, it was handed over to the state police Crimes Branch to probe the allegations that the National Conference (NC) controlled Trust had given shops and offices to its workers. Since then, the case is with the police.

Mohammad Afzal, the DySP rank officer in the Crime Branch, said he has recently got the case. “The case is with this department for a long time now but I got this case some four months back,” he said. “I can’t share the details of the case because it is under investigation.”

‘Political Vendetta’

Trust’s last chairman, Dr Matto, sees the transfer as “political vendetta” of Mufti.

“Trust just had two assets, and for two or three years, both were abandoned,” Matto said. “The hospital was first taken by the health department and then shifted to GMC but they don’t use it for the purpose it was created. And I don’t know what happened to the shopping complex. I have never been to that place.”

The president of the Federation of traders in the shopping complex, engineer Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, laments the way it was dealt.

“With Mufti’s new order, the property automatically came back to the health and medical education, but they took the possession of hospital only and not the complex,” Bhat said.

The Trust went against the government order in the court of law. A High Court Division Bench (DB) comprising Justice VK Jhanji and Justice Syed Bashir ud Din heard the case. They gave a split verdict.

Finally, the case landed with Chief Justice who gave the verdict in favour of the state on June 7, 2005, and asked it to take over the possession of the properties. Later, the Trust went to the Supreme Court against the verdict. The apex court upheld the decision of the Chief Justice.

History of the Trust

The judgement passed by the then Chief Justice SN Jha offers the details of the evolution of the Trust.

The idea to set up a Trust was conceived by friends and admirers of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah on November 21, 1972, on his 68th birthday. A few months later, on May 19, 1973, Sher-i-Kashmir National Medical Institute Trust was registered.

Old English building of Kashmir Nursing Home. KL Image:Saima Bhat

On September 4, 1973, sanction was accorded vide government order No 627/G of 1973 to transfer the of government dispensary at Soura along with its building, its kitchen block, chowkidar’s shed with land and appurtenances to the Trust.

Initially, the judgment notes the “Housing Department of Government of Jammu and Kashmir acquired about a 1000 kanals of land at Zoonimar, Srinagar for construction of a housing colony. A plan to build a 500-bed hospital at Soura, Srinagar was also under consideration of the government. Zoonimar and Soura are adjoining localities.”

But on October 14, 1973, vide Government Order No 872-HD of 1973, sanction was accorded for a lease of 292 kanals and 8 marlas of land to the Trust for a period of 40 years on consolidated rent of Rs 100 per annum subject to execution of a lease deed.

On May 23, 1974, vide Government Order No 332/HD/G of 1974, sanction was accorded to the transfer of Drug Research Laboratory, Moulana Azad Road, Kothibagh to the Trust on rent. In the order, it was stated that the terms of transfer would be decided separately.

In February 1975, Sheikh took over as Chief Minister. On May 22, 1975, the Secretary of the Trust requested the government to amend Government Order No 872-HD of 1973 dated 14th October 1973 and convert lease of 292 kanals and 8 marlas land at Zoonimar into an absolute grant in favour of the Trust. “On 27th August 1976, vide Government Order No 214-ME of 1976, the Kashmir Nursing Home at Gupkar Road was also transferred to the Trust along with land, building and other assets. Meanwhile, the request for absolute transfer of 292 kanals and 8 marlas of land was processed at different levels. Finally, pursuant to Cabinet Decision dated 12th April 1978, Government Order No Rev(NDK)90 of 1978 dated 19th April 1978 was issued regarding the transfer of ownership rights as a donation under Clause (c) of Section 140 of the J&K Transfer of Property Act, 1977 Svt. Whereby not only the said 292 kanals and 8 marlas of land at Zoonimar but the government dispensary at Soura, Drug Research Laboratory at Kothibagh and Kashmir Nursing Home at Gupkar Road, along with their land and appurtenances were also transferred to the trust.”

However, according to the judgment, no formal deed of transfer was executed and the Trust got the properties mutated in its name in the revenue records. In the meantime, the government in the Medical Education Department had issued order No 18-ME of 1977, dated 18th January 1977, renaming the proposed hospital at Soura as Institute of Medical Sciences, Soura, Srinagar.

On December 17, 1980, an agreement was signed between the Government of Jammu and Kashmir and the Trust in terms of which the Trust provided land measuring 292 kanals and 8 marlas to Sher-i-Kashmir Hospital and Poly-Clinic along with land at Soura for construction and establishment of the medical institute. The agreement stipulated that the properties made available to the government would continue to be the property of the Trust without any change in the proprietary rights. The Institute of Medical Sciences at Soura finally became functional in 1983. Meanwhile the Drug Research Laboratory at Moulana Azad Road, Kothibagh was dismantled by the Trust and converted into a shopping complex known as Dr Ali Jan Plaza and shops and accommodation therein were leased out to private individuals. The Kashmir Nursing Home at Gupkar Road, Srinagar, was also renovated/reconstructed and converted into a 40-bed nursing home at government expense.

On July 22, 2003, by the impugned order nursing home at Gupkar Road and other properties were taken over allegedly to pre-empt the move to hand over possession of the nursing home to a private party.”

But Dr Matoo, the son-in-law of Sheikh Abdullah, recalls the history differently. “It all started in 1972 when Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah was celebrating his 68th birthday; his followers and well-wishers collected some money and marked around eight to ten kanals of land in Soura, which they wanted to gift to their leader,” Matto said. “But Sheikh Sahib told them to form a Trust instead. In 1973, he became the chairman of the Trust himself.”

The Trust, as per Dr Matoo, had many senior people as its members like Mir Qasim, Afzal Beigh, Justice Wazir, Justice Kilam, Dr Ali Jan and top-notch businessmen like owner of Suffering Mosses, Ama Lal Mattoo, apple kings of Sopore like Shaban Dar, Ali Mattoo, Kant Koul of Prakash Seth, whose family is presently constructing the biggest mall in city centre and many more, remembers Dr Mattoo.

Matto says the Trust entered into an agreement with Mir Qasim led government and decided that Trust will be working on private-public partnership (PPP), first of its kind in Kashmir. And constructions began for a 40-bedded hospital that started in 1976.”

Once the hospital got ready, the Mir Qasim government decided this hospital should be added to the property of SKIMS Soura, and instead, Sheikh Abdullah was given two properties of Kashmir Nursing Home and the Drug and Research laboratory, present-day Dr Ali Jan Shopping complex, recalls Dr Matoo.

“That lab land was in shambles. Till date, I don’t know what drug research they were doing. We hardly know,” Matto insisted.

The Trust was asked to take over the nursing home and laboratory’s land was shifted to Trust which will be like an endowment to the nursing home.

Then, Dr Mattoo was the medical superintendent in GMC associated hospitals. He remembers the GMC constructing both the properties with a plan that Kashmir Nursing Home, which was a very ancient structure with two structures of eight rooms each, will be rebuilt so that it will become a 40 bedded hospital and the lab land of around eight kanals will be constructed as an endowment to the hospital, where a multi-diagnostic laboratory will be set up so that Kashmiris don’t have to move out of state for advanced tests.

“Seeing Kashmiri patients in long queues in Delhi hospitals would haunt Sheikh Sahib,” Matto said. “So he wanted to create a facility where all advanced tests would be done at less cost so that Kashmiris don’t have to move of state for the tests,” claims Dr Matto.

Those days Trust had Kashmir’s best doctors like Dr Girja Dhar, Dr Ara, and all other professors, who used to charge just Rs 500 for a caesarean section. “But running a private hospital on its income was not possible so I guess that was the reason it was decided that lab land should be converted into a shopping complex so that it can generate money for the hospital,” Matto said. “And it was not a problem, because the land was given as an endowment for the hospital.”

Matto joined the Trust after 1996 post-retirement. He joined as a volunteer at the request of Dr Farooq Abdullah, his brother in law.

New building of Kashmir Nursing Home. KL Image:Saima Bhat

“When I joined, the constructions had already started. I have heard when the construction was going to start, Trust decided to go for the sale of shops on the blueprint itself because they had no money,” Matto said. “I remember Trust not fixing high rate for the shops. Most of the shops were sold and the construction started at both the places: shopping complex as well as the nursing home.” The contract was given to an outside contractor and he finished the works on time.

The Trust left the old structure intact, but built an additional block of 40 rooms with two operation theatres, two labour rooms and speared the ground floor for the diagnostics centre.

Dr Matoo still remembers the days when he travelled to England to get all sophisticated and latest equipments for the theatres. “I got top brands that would never get rust,” he said. “They were quite expensive because Sheikh sahib wanted to give best to his people.”

Matto succeeded Dr Allaqband as chairman, a nominated position for a two-year term. As Matto took over, he received a bill of Rs 3.49 crore from the bank, which included Rs 1.20 crore interest.“Later, the government of India gave some relief under income tax but still they collected more than Rs 1 crore from us.” Besides, the state government also provided the Trust with a grant in aid to complete the constructions.

But engineer Bhat while remembering his college days in SP College says the drug and research laboratory was a small single storey structure, build on Jammu pattern. They had a blood testing lab as well.

“I have read that the lab’s land was given to Trust on a condition that it will be converted into a multi-diagnostic lab so that the people of the state don’t have to move out of state for advanced tests,” Bhat said. “Why and how the building was converted into a shopping complex in late 80s is a mystery.”

Chief Justice Jha’s judgment has some clues. “The lab land was transferred to the Trust vide Government order No. Rev (NDK) 90 of 1978 dated 19.4.1978. But now it has been transferred by the Trust to third parties who have constructed shops and offices thereon and are easing the same for commercial purposes in violation of the purpose for which the said property had been so transferred; and whereas the transfer of the land by the Trust in favour of the third parties, being in violation of the Government order and the purpose for which it was transferred, requires to be probed into thoroughly.”

Forgotten Mall

Mufti government took over the nursing home but left the shopping complex untouched. The last rent shopkeepers and entrepreneurs paid was received by the Trust in 2003. “We had collected Rs two lakhs from the rent that year,” Matto said. “Since then, I don’t think anybody has ever collected the rent.”

The complex did not actually take off. Then, it witnessed a gun battle on October 18, 2003, between militants and the government forces. The fight damaged the top floor of the complex, where a billiards station was working. Since then, the gloom took over the complex sending it into oblivion. The footfalls are still quite a few. Most of the shops are locked as if the investors are retaining them as assets and not as a trading place. After the encounter, the contractor also left the place without completing the work.

After a few years, some shops started working again with the majority of footfall managed by the Tanishq Jewellers and a furnishing house.

“Out of all the hundred shops and 30 office premises, I must have hardly seen 10 to 20 offices, including shops working,” Vikar Nazki, a former banker who has his office in the complex said. “Most of them belong to NRKs, and in my career of 15 years, I have never seen the shutters going up for these places.”

Owner of another shop said they don’t even know if all of the shops have been allotted as nobody has the access to the records of Trust. All its records are lying in a room of the Nursing Home that is still sealed.

After Floods

Before the devastating September 2014 floods, engineer Bhat bought the office premises from one of his colleagues and started his Shalimar Engineering Private Limited. “It is routine here,” he said. “Anybody can shift his property ownership to other under set guidelines of partnership.”

Inside view of Dr Ali Jan Shopping Complex.

Floods did not spare this premises. “Nobody from the government came here to take the stock of damages,” Bhat said. “So we jointly formed a federation and got it registered as a civil society with the government.” Since then, Bhat is the chairman and they collect funds from the working shops and offices and make donations for the maintenance of this complex, which had become failure after floods.

Bhat said the complex is an organised construction. “It is four storeys this time but two more storeys can be added to it,” Bhat said. “I have seen the original draft this building foundation has been set for six storeys. But when the government is not claiming it who will build those two storeys?”

After the government took over the property, Bhat said they have repeatedly made representations to the government but nobody seems interested in deciding the fate of this prized property.

“In May 2018, the then Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti assured us that within a week, our issue would be solved but she did not keep her promise,” Bhat said. “Earlier we had a Trust whom we used to pay the rent and who was accountable, now we have none.”

Legally, the property belongs to health secretary of the state, but “in one order he writes to the vigilance department to check who has built makaan and dukaan themselves. We can challenge in court because we have not built it.”

Health secretary, when repeatedly contacted, did not answer the calls. The local ward officer of Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) said: “Yes it is under municipal jurisdiction but we don’t collect shop tax from this shopping complex. It has been built some 30 years and I am not sure if the building belongs to government or somebody else. I don’t know anything about it.”

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