Encroaching Every Inch

In Kashmir, the land is not only the last symbol of identity but also the only of the most paying sectors for investment that nearly doubles every three years. Even the just concluded autumn session of the state legislature indicated in too many words why the land is so important, R S GULL reports.

Photo:Bilal Bahadur
Photo:Bilal Bahadur

Elders insist that the importance of land was felt by the people, dispossessed for decades, for the first time when land was restored to tiller and the big landed estates were done away with. But it seems it has completed a full circle. Land is the most sought after commodity right now. With massive pressures on the land from all sides and a disorganized real estate sector innovating ways and means to make the best of it, J&K will triple its 2123 houseless families within next ten years as the families living on rent will be the new “class” in the social set-up.

The expansion of Srinagar has triggered a crisis across Kashmir, especially on its periphery. As it started expanding into Ganderbal, Budgam, Baramulla and Pulwama, the prices have gone through the window. It is unlike Jammu that can expand for many decades and still stay in the hills on the other side of the Tawi.

And this makes a major difference in the patterns and prices of the possession. Jammu has vast lands available unlike Srinagar. The winter capital has huge land sharks who work in tandem with organized gangs, police, politicians and babus. In Kashmir, it is slightly different where babus, cops and the politically influential make the best of it. Ghulam Nabi Azad’s scandalous Roshni has become a toll, more so in Jammu where influential have encroached upon vast swathes of land and are busy consolidating the grip.

During the just concluded brief autumn session of the state legislature, PDPs Choudhary Zulfikar Ali had sought details of the state land encroached upon by people especially by the politicians, civil and police officers. His query was very specific; he wanted details about the cases related to encroachments that are pending disposal before various courts.

As the question was raised on the very first day of the session, the government gave details about the overall encroachments on the state land – nearly 1.4 million kanals, almost a million in Jammu province. But when the lawmaker sought specifics, the house including Speaker M A Lone were on the same page that the response from the revenue ministry was inadequate. The question was deferred to the end of the session.

Revenue Minister Raman Bhalla had nothing to add when the question cropped up again on the last day of the session. Same question, same response – not a single letter was changed. The lawmaker expressed the same displeasure but Bhalla refused to offer any detail. His response was more confusing than the system that land grabbers employ. The member was very specific – since the state has gone in petition against many cases of encroachment, what is the harm in offering details? But Bhalla stuck to his guns – if we mention their names in the house, they will make it part of their defense in the court! He was unwilling to tell the house, who “they” were?

It triggered a situation that Speaker almost ruled that since the minister is not offering any details, the onus lay on the member to come with details. This would have made opposition offering details that typically treasury benches should reveal as custodian of the state and its land. Barring talking a good time, nothing came out of it. As the debate was going on, everybody knew that house was unwilling to offer any of the names of encroachers in political class, bureaucrats and those in uniform, mostly in Jammu.

This was not the only business that the house transacted on issues related to land. The assembly extended the time for submission of report to two house committees. One is about conversion of agriculture land into the commercial land. Another has been hyper-active on overseeing how the wetlands are being converted into the commercial ventures in Kashmir districts with special emphasis on areas in and around Shalteng. This particular committee that tried to be a cop during this past summer has remained in news for many things including ordering closure of the new showroom that Molvi Iftikhar Hussain Ansari owns. Now both these committees are at liberty to submit their reports to the house till the last date of the budget session 2013.

The legislative council, the house of elders, did its own bit. It also extended the time of one of the house committees that is looking into the conversion of a vast piece of agriculture land into an industrial area. Besides, it constituted another house committee that would take care of the arbitrary conversion of the land use within the twin capital cities of Jammu and Srinagar. Former minister Ajay Sadhotra would head this committee and its recommendations are expected to be file inputs on the fast evolving master plans of the twin cities that host state’s one fourth population.

But the apparent suppression of the details pertaining to the politicians remained in vogue in the house of elders as well. A question related to a minister’s encroachment in forests was deleted. Angry over the action of the council secretariat, the Panthers Party member, Syed Rafiq Shah raised the issue in zero hour and that triggered a fierce debate. Shah said 13 kanal forest land was encroached upon in Sedow, Shopian and minister Taj Mohiuddin said it is 31 kanals but not the forest land and that he was in possession of it since 1971. He later claimed Shah had personal animosity with him!

But the politicians are increasingly being accused of making best of this sector – initially they encroach upon state land and later consolidate the occupation and sell the land. The same minister is facing a case in the high court for grabbing 300 kanals and distributing them equally among his three daughters – Shabnam, Nausheen and Arshi.

Taj is not alone. Ghulam Nabi Azad’s mansion in Bhathandi belt of Jammu was recently disclosed through an RTI to be built on more than 10 kanals of forest land, though in the name of his father, Khazar Joo Bhat. Another serving minister from NC is openly being accused of actually dispossessing a citizen from their rightful possession using all the means available. When the family tries to meet Dr Farooq Abdullah, his main cushion in the party, the minister uses police to keep the family almost hostage. An angry chief minister threatens to act and then stops.

While the real estate sector has become immensely lucrative, the legal framework within which it exists is full with loopholes that even after committing major frauds, they are rarely caught. In Srinagar’s up-market localities, the agents have sold a single piece of land to many people. When everybody came to occupy, the police had to prevent a law and order situation. Investigations led to the agent and the only thing they could do was to register a case under section 420 (cheating) because the law offers no other option!

These cartels work with revenue officials and sometimes with police also. There are a number of instances in which the government started reclaiming its property when its land was occupied, sold and house built. The defence estate scam is the latest one in which around 721.566 acres of its land has been encroached upon. Now CBI is investigating the case and trying to see how the squatters are acquitted. Most realtors allegedly involved in the sale of some temple property in Srinagar also had political connections.

Another major difference in Srinagar and Jammu is that while Kashmir talks in whispers about these issues (because of the might of the realtors who are usually well connected), the Jammu uses established institutions to fight it out. As the media howled over encroachments in Samba, it forced the revenue ministry to act and recover more than 2200 kanals in a single raid. As part of the land was allotted to the central university in Katwalta and Chirak, the influential started fencing its peripheral areas knowing that it would become a prized possession once the university comes up.

These vested interest gangs have strange modus operandi. In Katra, they used revenue officials to change the titles of the land and the owners took 20 years to understand it! Pahalgam, the famous picnic spot in south Kashmir, is a huge instance. As the officials were drawing the master plan for the town, they intervened. It led to an interesting situation. They showed all the existing villages as forests and specific forests patches as habitations. It resulted in a situation that while these people managed to set up multi-million hotels in the forests, it prevented the ‘aborigines’ to even get permission to repair their houses! After fighting it out in the high court for many years, they are expecting some favorable response as the court has understood the tactics.

The case of Gulmarg is notoriously famous now. Officials used the scandalous Roshni to help hoteliers grab as much as 500 kanals of land. It was stopped by immediate media intervention and now the government is prosecuting the officers involved.

Kashmir has limited land and its costs are so huge that commoners are unable to purchase. This has triggered a new trend. People have started purchasing properties in the peripheries of Jammu. They are investing millions to purchase unsecured “occupying rights” from the grabbers living on the other side Tawi – where a parallel Jammu is emerging. Then there is a BJP versus Congress story which is a much longer one.

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