Kashmir – the general loot of state lands: Roshni Act

By K.N. Pandita

Under “popular” rule pompously introduced on 28th of October 1947, and continues till date, the number one agenda on Naya Kashmir Manifesto borrowed by the Leftist ideologues of National Conference from the Constitution of the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan through the instrumentality of a baptized Indian was of land to the tillers. Thousands of kanals of land owned by the old school landlords of the State (jagirdars) of the days of Maharajas were taken away from them without any compensation and distributed among the tillers. This was called the first Land Reforms Act of a popular regime in Kashmir in direct contrast to the land reform policy of independent India.

Seven decades later, the inheritors of the Naya Kashmir legacy bereft of constitutional, legal and moral propriety bestowed several lakh kanals of state/forest land at throw away price to the uppermost creamy layer of Kashmiri society for the conceived retort of “looting India in Kashmir.” Try to understand what that phrase implies. This is the largesse of the majority “populist government” of J&K to the masses of Kashmiri people from whom they extracted allegiance and political support to overthrow the benign and law-abiding rule of the Dogra rulers. And all was done in the name of democracy – to be precise “Indian secular democracy” – because only the majority community of Kashmir became its maximal beneficiary.

The majoritarian government promulgated during Dr. Farooq’s regime in 2001 the Jammu and Kashmir State Land (Vesting of Ownership to Occupants) Act, 2001 commonly known as Roshni Act.

The law granted ownership of the former J&K State land to illegal encroachers with the hyped claim of raising money for power projects upon payment of a sum to be determined by the State government. Farooq government set 1990 as the cut-off year, which, however, was relaxed in 2005 to 2004 by the then Congress-PDP coalition Government and further relaxed to 2007 by the Government of Nabi Azad (Congress) under coalition government with PDP. The Act got the unofficial name of “Roshni Act” from the J&K Government’s said plan of using the funds raised from this to fund power projects in the state. The three chief ministers, former and incumbent, were in cahoots on the subject.

History:

The Jammu and Kashmir State Lands (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001 (known as the Roshni Act) had been enacted by the J&K Legislature in 2001. Apparently, its objective was vesting of ownership rights to the illegal occupants against a price. The then National Conference government headed by Farooq Abdullah had claimed that the scheme would generate revenue of over Rs 25,000 crore which would be utilized to raise new power projects. However, most of the transfers of the proprietary rights of the occupied lands, with drastic changes in the rules from time to time, took place in 2005-08, when Ghulam Nabi Azad was the Congress Chief Minister and the head of the Congress-PDP coalition.

The Roshni Act had been made for a limited period of operation but extended by successive State governments from time to time. It was finally scrapped by the then Governor Satya Pal Malik prospectively on 28 November 2018, five months months after the breakdown of the PDP-BJP government.

Ordering a CBI probe into the Roshni land scam case, the Jammu & Kashmir High Court on October 9 declared the controversial Roshni Act ‘illegal and unconstitutional’. All land allotments and ownerships under the Act have been deemed to be void right from its inception.

Instances of top politicians and bureaucrats cornering prime, high-value properties in J&K by misusing the law have come to light where land was given away at just 20% of market rate.

The division Bench of Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Rajesh Bindal also asked the CBI to file a status report in the case every eight weeks.

What is the Roshni Act?

The Roshni case has been called the biggest ever land scams in the history of Jammu and Kashmir and has allegedly caused a loss of Rs 25,000 crore to the J&K treasury. Instances of top politicians and bureaucrats cornering prime, high-value properties in J&K by misusing the law have come to light where land was given away at just 20% of market rate.

Ordering a CBI probe into the Roshni land scam case, the Jammu & Kashmir High Court on October 9 declared the controversial Roshni Act ‘illegal and unconstitutional’.

All land allotments and ownerships:

The division Bench of Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Rajesh Bindal also asked the CBI to file a status report in the case every eight weeks.

Irregularities and repeal:

In 2014, Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) noted some serious irregularities in the implementation of the Act and in 2015 the State Vigilance organization charged over 20 government officials for misuse of the Act; no one was prosecuted, writes Suhail, Peer Ghulam Nabi in Pieces of Earth: The Politics of Land-Grabbing in Kashmir (2018). From 2015 onwards, efforts were made to get back some of the illegally acquired land. These efforts proved a failure owing to non-cooperation of revenue functionaries.

Nevertheless, the Act was repealed in 2018 during the tenure of Governor Satya Pal Malik who ordered the case investigation to be taken over by the CBI. In its issue of 14 October 2020 the Indian Express uncovered the scam titled ‘Loot to own’: J&K High Court hands Rs 25,000 crore land scam probe to CBI”.

On 9 October 2020, IkkJutt, a Jammu-based social organization/NGO initiated demand for enquiry into the land scam following which the High Court of J&K deemed the law and all allotments made since the beginning as “null and void” and “unconstitutional”. The court also said that the rules framed in 2007 by the Government of Ghulam Nabi Azad (Congress) did not appear to have any legislative sanction. The Jammu-based Firstpost of Nov. 2, 2020 elucidated the issue under the title “J&K Government declares actions under Roshni Act ‘null and void’; what you need to know”. The State government has said that it will recover land distributed under the scheme in six months. All the identities of those who took advantage of the scheme will be made public.

Actually it was repealed in 2018 after Governor Satya Pal Malik concluded that it had “not served” its purpose and was “no longer relevant in the present context”. This move was made after advocate Ankur Sharma, who had defended the accused in the Kathua rape case of January 2018, sought its repeal to “defeat the jihadi war in the form of demographic invasion of Jammu”, said the Scroll.in. of 1 November 2020.

On November 1, 2020, The Hindu reasserted that the J&K UT administration declared all the actions taken under the Jammu and Kashmir State Land (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001 – also known as the Roshni Act – as “null and void”. The government said it would evict encroachers and retrieve all land distributed under the scheme within six months.

According to the High Court order, a total of 6, 04,602 kanals (75,575 acres) of state land had been regularised and transferred to the occupants. This included 5, 71,210 kanals (71,401 acres) in Jammu and 33,392 kanals (4174 acres) in the Kashmir province. It means that 94 per cent of the total transferred land fell in Jammu province and only 6 per cent fell in Kashmir province.

Taking note of the court order, the government said, “The J&K administration has decided to implement the High Court order in which it declared the Jammu and Kashmir State Land (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001, as amended from time to time as unconstitutional, contrary to law and unsustainable.”

An order issued by the Jammu and Kashmir Department of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, with the approval of the LG, stated, “Now, therefore, it is hereby ordered that the principal secretary to the government, revenue department, shall pass an order declaring all actions taken under the Jammu and Kashmir State Land (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001, as amended from time to time, and rules made there under as void ab-initio.”

What is the Roshni Act?

The land-related law, popularly known as the Roshni Act, brought into force by the Farooq Adbullah government in 2001 aimed to grant ownership rights of public land to the occupants. It is reported that 15.85 percent of the occupied land was approved for transfer of ownership rights.

The Act also sought the conferment of proprietary rights of around 20.55 lakh kanals of land (1, 2, 50 hectares) to the occupants. Additionally, legislators hoped the Act would help generate resources to finance power projects. Farmers who had been occupying State land were also given ownership rights for agricultural use. The law initially set 1990 as the cut-off year for encroachment on State land, based on which ownership would be granted. Subsequent governments under Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Ghulam Nabi Azad relaxed the deadline first to 2004 and then to 2007, of course, obviously with discreet motives. NC, PDP and Congress leadership in the valley were in complete unison for seeing the illegal Act through owing to their vested interests that were converging and not conflicting.

The state government had estimated an earning of Rs 25,000 crore from the 20 lakh kanals of land and had said that the fund would be used to set up hydroelectric electricity-generation projects. Was this to throw dust into the eyes of millions of toilers in the State?

But in 2014, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) found that only Rs 76 crore had been received from the exercise of transferring encroached land in a period of six years between 2007 and 2013. As a result, the Act was found to have fallen short of its purpose and was repealed by former Jammu and Kashmir governor Satya Pal Malik on 28 November, 2018.

The controversy:

The Roshni Act, declared “unconstitutional” by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court on 9 October, fell prey to corruption over the course of the last decade.

The CAG report pointed to irregularities in the implementation of the Act as the cause of its failure to generate the expected revenue. The report listed irregularities such as “arbitrary” reduction in prices of the land and said that the reduction was aimed to benefit politicians and other affluent people. This is how the genuine rights of the common people of the State were subjected to subterfuge. In the past, politicians, businessmen, and bureaucrats have been accused of subverting the Act by transferring public land under their name and that of their family members.

According to Barandbench.com, the J&K High Court said: “Given the nature of the crimes, the status of those who are involved, including the allegations of involvement of ministers, legislators, bureaucrats, government officials as well as the local police officials of Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir, it is essential to do complete justice in the matter and to ensure confidence in the minds of the public that, in order to enable a fair, proper and complete investigation, the CBI should be requested to take up and proceed in the matter in accordance with law.”

The Act was also found to be an attempt to change the demography of the entire region, investigations found.

Court order and subsequent events:

On 18 October the High Court ordered that the investigation of the land scam be transferred to the CBI which will file the status report within eight weeks. CAG chief had also reported obstruction by some senior state administrative sources in providing the desired information in full.

In 2009, the Jammu and Kashmir vigilance organisation had registered an FIR against public officials for “alleged criminal conspiracy to illegally possess and vest ownership of state land to occupants who didn’t satisfy the criteria under the Roshni Act”, Indian Express reported.

While the then state bureaucracy called the Vigilance Organisation’s findings “motivated”, the Vigilance Organisation completed investigations in five cases by March 2015, and indicted nearly two dozen officials, including three former deputy commissioners for allegedly misusing the provisions of the scheme,” the report added.

The Business Insider of October 9, 2020 wrote, “In a landmark judgement, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court on Friday declared the controversial Roshni Act “unconstitutional” and directed that investigation into the Rs 25,000 crore land allotment scheme under it be transferred to the CBI.”
A Division Bench of Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Rajesh Bindal allowed a petition that sought transfer of the Rs 25,000 land allotment scam under the Roshni Act from the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) to the CBI. Didn’t it mean that the Division Bench smelt rat in the handling of the case by the ACB?

The Act, enacted by the State Legislature in November 2001 and enforced in March 2002, envisaged raising of funds for hydropower generation in the State by transferring State land into private ownership to collect Rs 25,000 crore.

A CAG report estimated that against the targeted Rs 25,000 crore, only Rs 76 crore had been realized from the transfer of land into private ownership.

Politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats had come under severe criticism for transferring State land into their ownership and that of their favourites at arbitrarily fixed rates, which ultimately deprived the State of land worth several thousand crores and also defeated the purpose of the Act.

In its judgement, the High Court, declared the law unconstitutional, held all allotments made under the Act void ab-initio. It ordered that the investigation of the land scam be transferred to the CBI which will file the status report within eight weeks.

The court also said that J&K Chief Secretary will ensure uninterrupted investigation which will also be directed against those officers in whose tenures the encroachments had happened. The court said “all Deputy Commissioners and Divisional Commissioners will be held for contempt of court if they do not cooperate with the investigation.” The court verdict speaks more than what meets the eye.

On October 21, 2020 Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, P K Pole chaired a meeting of Deputy Commissioners and other concerned officials and directed them to submit comprehensive details of ministers, legislators, bureaucrats, police officers, government employees, businessmen, other influential persons and their relatives who had derived any benefit under the Act, officials said. Pole directed all the Deputy Commissioners of Kashmir Division to submit the District-wise details of the State’s lands as in 2001 (read more at: https://www.deccanherald.com/national/north-and-central/jk-admin-working-on-details-of-beneficiaries-of-alleged-roshni-act-scam-905390.html).

On 22 October 2020, the administration of Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory ordered the submission of comprehensive details of ministers, legislators, bureaucrats, police officers, government employees, businessmen, other influential persons and their relatives, who have benefitted from the Act reported the Deccan Herald of Oct 22, 2020.

On 24 November 2020, Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Union Law Minister speaking in a press conference said that former J&K Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah was among the beneficiaries in Roshni Act. The others in the list were the former Finance Minister of J&K Haseeb Drabu, (who in a recent article in Greater Kashmir argued that the exiled Kashmiri Pandits had lost all claim to their Kashmir homeland) and Congress leader Majid Wani, former Home Minister and NC leader Sajjad Kitchloo and former JK Bank Chairman MY Khan, wrote India Today of 24 November 2020.

The story:

The first list of beneficiaries of the ‘Roshni Scheme’ which included several top politicians cutting across party lines, bureaucrats, police officials, have been made public by the office of Divisional Commissioner, Jammu and Divisional Commissioner Kashmir in pursuance of the directions of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in the PIL NO 19 Of 2011 Titled S.K.Bhalla Vs State And Other Connected Matters Dated Oct 9, 2020.

Interestingly, earlier, the J&K government had decided to declare all the actions taken under the Jammu and Kashmir State Land (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001, also known as the Roshni Act, under which 20 lakh kanals of land was to be transferred to existing occupants, as “null and void”, and has also initiated steps to retrieve the land within six months.

Acting on the directions of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, the J& K government has already directed the Principal Secretary Revenue Department to ensure that all the mutations done in furtherance of the act are annulled, encroachers are evicted and large tracts of land are retrieved within a period of six months. The orders in this regard were also issued by the Revenue Department and the concerned Tehsildars were directed to start the groundwork in order to retrieve the government land.

To attract media attention and expose the open loot the Principal Accountant General (Audit) Subash Chandra Pandey had even organized a press conference where he described the transfer of 3, 48,160 kanals of land in the State at a cost of Rs 76.24 crores (24 percent) against a demand of Rs 317.54 crores under Roshni Act, as one of the biggest scams of J&K. Originally, the Act was aimed at resource mobilization of Rs 25,448 crores for investment in the power sector.

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The scam surfaces:

While auditing the Roshni scheme in the year 2013-14, the officials stumbled upon this biggest land scam as they noticed gross irregularities were committed by the top bureaucrats in order to facilitate the land deals involving VVIP’s in Jammu and Kashmir.

During the audit, the team of officers faced difficulties in getting full information/records. With this constraint, an audit was conducted through a test check of records of the offices of the Deputy Commissioner in seven out of 20 districts in which the act was implemented. The records were test-checked in Srinagar, Jammu, Udhampur, Anantnag, Pulwama, and Budgam districts and 547 cases involving the transfer of 666 kanals of non-agricultural land were examined in detail.

It was after Pandey’s frequent exchange of communications and scores of visits to the offices of the two Divisional Commissioners, the then Revenue Commissioner, and the then Chief Secretary, that the government provided records of just 500-odd cases.

“We wanted to explore how the executive had made the rules and changes thereto without the same being ratified by the Legislature, leading to a revenue loss of Rs. 25,000 crore. We wanted to know under what legal authority the officers had changed the land use and the category, gifted away the agriculture category lands to the encroachers for free, and granted huge rebates to the commercial category. We were keen to see who waived the stamp duty and under what legal authority. But almost the entire information was concealed, and we were told that the CAG could not interfere with the matters of the Cabinet,” Pandey had said.

“Consequently, we examined just 447 cases of non-agricultural land, covering 666 kanals in only six districts, and detected a loss of Rs. 225 crore. Officials were found to have fixed the lowest rates and given huge rebates to the occupants. That is just the tip of the iceberg”, Pandey had asserted. He confirmed reports that out of the target of Rs 25,448 crore, only Rs.76 crore had been collected from the Roshni land transfers in over a decade.

The CAG report tabled in the state legislature carried exclusive details of the irregularities done from interpretation to implementation, particularly in favour of the occupants enjoying very strong political or bureaucratic clout. Political parties- including Congress and the National Conference exploited the scheme to their advantage by regularising their unauthorized occupation of the prime lands on which they had raised the party offices besides the printing presses and the offices of their official organs Daily Khidmat and Nawa-e-Subah.

Political party beneficiaries:

The Congress got proprietary rights over a prime piece of 7 kanals and 15 marals close to the Residency Road in the Kothibagh area of Srinagar. It is currently valued to be a property of Rs 80 crore. Its price was fixed at Rs 8.54 crore (Rs 1.10 crore/kanal). Congress enjoyed a rebate of Rs 7.58 crore and paid a total of Rs 96 lakh to the government. The Congress-controlled Khidmat Trust operates the head office of daily Khidmat with several modern printing presses on the same premises. A multi-floor commercial complex worth over Rs 50 crore has also come upon the same land.

The NC too has its party headquarters in a multi-floor commercial complex on a piece of the State land, measuring 3 kanals and 16 marlas. Offices and printing presses of the NC’s Urdu and English dailies, Nawa-e-Subah, also operate from the same premises near Zero Bridge in the heart of Civil Lines in Srinagar. The land alone is currently valued at Rs 35 crore. Its price was fixed at Rs 4.56 crore (Rs 1.20 crore/kanal). The party enjoyed a rebate of Rs 4.05 crore and paid a total of Rs 51 lakh only.

Individual beneficiaries:

Writing under the caption ‘Private residence constructed on encroached state land’ Chandra Maurya scripted in the Printers Report of 25 November 2020 as follows:

National Conference President Dr. Farooq Abdullah and a sitting Member of Parliament from Srinagar, who also remained Chief Minister on several occasions between 1982 to 1996 and served as Union Minister in the cabinet of Dr. Manmohan Singh is now facing serious charges of illegally occupying state/forest land in Sunjwan village of Bahu tehsil in Jammu district. The controversial piece of land, measuring 7.7 kanals (roughly one acre) was used by the National Conference leader to construct his private mansion with 20-30 feet high boundary walls. These startling revelations were made by the office of Divisional Commissioner Jammu after it made public a list of encroachers who had illegally occupied state/forest land in and around Jammu. According to the list uploaded on the website of the office of Divisional Commissioner Jammu, the names of Dr. Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah figured on top of the list.

It said, “Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah had illegally occupied state land measuring 7 Kanals and 7 Marlas under Khasra No 4, 5, 6 in village Sunjwan of Bahu Tehsil in Jammu district”.

After the news went viral, the Twitter handle of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference posted a written statement, “The news attributing to sources that Farooq Abdullah is a beneficiary of the Roshni Act is completely false and is being spread with a malicious intent.” In a brief statement while speaking to a news channel Farooq Abdullah said “It is only propaganda against us. I just can’t understand what they want to do? Sunjwan colony was not raised by me…It was raised long back. Don’t we have the right to live?”

Official sources revealed initially Dr. Abdullah had purchased only three kanals of land but at the time of taking the possession of this private land, he encroached upon more than seven kanals of nearby prime state and forest land.