Unsustainable Affair

In five years, the J&K government spent Rs 1204 Crore to acquire land for various infrastructure projects. But is this process sustainable for a place that has the lowest land holding per family in India, asks Tasavur Mushtaq

A boy running over the upcoming national highway near Pampore in August 2015. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Unlike the rest of India, nobody is talking about the new Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR), a central law that fetches land-owners much better prices if the government requires it. But that does not stop the government from taking over vast swathes of land to create public infrastructure. Improved public spending is adding to the pressure of precious land resource on which more than two-thirds of the state population lives.

Data available with the Kashmir Life suggests that the state government acquired approximately 24572.35 kanals of land in the last five years. It spent a whopping Rs 1204.90 Crore for this. It excludes the land that the government acquired for the Central University, coming up in Ganderbal, where occupants of the state land were paid “developmental charges” worth Rs 20.48 crore.

Owners get money, go to Haj pilgrimage, marry off their siblings or invest in the highly volatile stock market. But nobody seems concerned about the quality of land being acquired. Mostly, it is lush green land that goes into the creation of the new infrastructure – schools, roads and buildings. To connect two areas in south Kashmir, the government axed more than 90 mighty Chinars.

“Fertility can’t make you choose or deny a piece of land,” a middle rung revenue officer said. “It has to be done as per the procedures and the requirement.”

Even the inevitability of the situation does not prevent people from reacting to the situation. “This is the core issue in the valley, where green and fertile areas are occupied and put into concrete,” PDPs Naeem Akhter said, terming it an irony. “Kashmir needs roads and other infrastructure but we need land utilization plan too.” Talking to Kashmir Life on the issue well before taking over as a minister, Akhter insisted the “system has been ruined as the dealings are done by brokers and they have emerged as mafias.”

Then representing the ruling NC, Dr Mustafa Kamal said development requires land. “But using the fertile land for development is what I disagree with,” Kamal said. Then Congress was unhappy over the state government’s failure (of which it was a part) in adopting LARR. “Why are you asking it now? The land acquisition and compensation is going from last so many years. This is a catastrophe,” Prof Saif ud Din Soz, then Congress boss in the state said.

Nobody in society is against development but there are reservations. What is the cost of development? J&K is already exhibiting one of the lowest land holdings in India.

“The agricultural census 2000-01 has determined average holding size for the state to be 0.67 hectares which is 0.09 hectares less than average holdings size of 0.76 hectares revealed by agricultural census 1995-96,” reveals Economic Survey 2013-14. The individual holding category has decreased from 9.89 lakhs in 2000-01 to 9.5 lakhs in 2005-06, the joint holding category has decreased from 4.5 lakhs in 2000-01 to 4.25 lakhs in 2005-06 and institutional holding category has decreased from 0.04 lakhs in 2000-01 to 0.03 lakhs in 2005-06.

Experts believe that in near future there would be the scarcity of land to the alarming level. “From all sides when you are going for rampant constructions and other infrastructure developments, wherefrom will land come,” asked an official of Srinagar Development Authority.

The other part of the process besides acquiring of land is the compensation part of it. There are allegations that the whole affair of compensation is a ‘scandal’. Upset over the delay in land compensation, a man from North Kashmir’s Lolab area locked down a government school. For many days Bashir Wani kept Primary School of Lalpora locked forcing students to wander around. Compensation apart, Wani’s son was promised a job and when it did not come, he locked the premises built on his land.

Even lawmaker Engineer Rashid has a woeful tale to tell. He claimed he is yet to get compensation of his land at two places which came under road widening in the Langate area, the belt that he represents in the state assembly for the second term. The process is so excruciating that the owner of land after losing his land has to beg for his own money, Rashid insists.

There is another side to it as well. The government takes many years to implement the project so takes the disbursement of money. According to Rashid, he has yet to get money for the land notified in 2001.

“See the appreciation of land, inflation and other various parameters. How wise it is to pay the same amount after the decade,” Rashid said. “People of his constituency locked horns with the administration and got compensation at the market rate of 2009.”

Machines working to create the new national highway. A photograph of the upcoming project in south Kashmir. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

But a senior revenue official did not buy the argument of delay in payments as a lapse of government. On condition of anonymity, he while talking to Kashmir Life said that if there is a delay that is due to the internal rift between the owners. “It has its own process,” the officer said. “In same Khasra, the land may belong to many people. First, we have to identify the real owner and then if the property belongs to three brothers, they fight for compensation and the piece of land to be sold.”

Officials say talking in terms of the fertility of the land is negative. “Land cannot be picked as per wish. Requirement decides which piece of land has to be acquired,” the officer said. “If at all best fertile land is used to ease people of traffic chaos near Pantha Chowk, it would be still cheap.”

Political activist and columnist Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat has a different story to tell. He says not adopting LARR was a deliberate attempt of the last government. “The government is denying people their rights,” Raja said. “Land measuring thousands of kanals has already been acquired by the government. Had J&K government passed a new Land Acquisition Act in J&K State all such affected families would have been paid four times more than what they have been paid by the respective companies or organisations. In addition to it, many families would have been rehabilitated and resettled as well.”

Under the new Land Acquisition Act, property and land which is acquired in urban areas would be paid compensation double the market value of the said land/property and in rural areas where the property rates are comparatively less the compensation would be paid four times more than the exact market rate of the land/property.

“The new Land Acquisition law does not only guarantee highly monetary compensation but it guarantees for Rehabilitation and Resettlement as well. The compensation under the new Land Acquisition Act is to be paid retrospectively under this act (from 2011). But all is not going to be a reality in our state as we don’t have such a law in operation,” Raja insisted.

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