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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

‘Loot to own’: J&K High Court hands Rs 25,000 crore land scam probe to CBI

In 2007, Ghulam Nabi Azad government had framed rules for transfer of state land to its allegedly illegal occupants under the Roshni Act.

Written by Arun Sharma | Jammu | October 14, 2020 2:06:04 am
Ghulam Nabi Azad is currently under home quarantine. (File)

Ordering a CBI probe into the decision of the then J&K government under Ghulam Nabi Azad to transfer agricultural land to “farmers” under provisions of 2001 Roshni Act – an alleged Rs 25,000 crore land scam – the J&K High Court has equated the present case with implementation of a “loot to own” policy.

“Shocking rules stand published and implemented even without the approval of (State) Legislature, pointing towards involvement at the top,’’ a division bench of Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Rajesh Bindal observed.

In its order on Friday, the bench said, “The damage by the illegal acts and omissions in the zcase cannot be termed as mere loss to public interest, but has to be treated as a shameless sacrilege and damage to national interest…. The guilty need to be forthwith identified and proceeded against in accordance with law’’.

The court declared invalid all transfers of land done even before the 2018 repeal of the Act, holding that the J&K State Land (Vesting of Ownership to Occupants) Act, 2001 was “void ab initio from its very inception”. It said the rules framed thereunder in 2007 appear to have no legislative sanction.

In 2007, the Azad government had framed rules for transfer of state land to its allegedly illegal occupants under the Roshni Act.

Only Rs 100 per kanal (1 kanal is equal to 5445 sq feet) was charged from the illegal occupants as documentation fee. Under the scheme, a major portion of more than 3,40,100 kanals out of nearly 3,48,200 kanals under the Roshni Act was transferred as “agricultural land”.

In 2018, then J&K Governor Satya Pal Malik repealed Roshni Act and cancelled all pending applications seeking transfer of ownership rights. But actions already taken under the provisions of the repealed Act were not rendered invalid.

In its order, the bench quoted instances of grabbing by three daughters of senior Congress leader and former state minister Taj Mohi-ud-Din to highlight unauthorised occupation of vast stretches of public land by influential and powerful people, allegedly in connivance with senior Revenue department and Jammu Development Authority (JDA) officials. It referred to names finding mention in court records, including those of senior Congress leader and former minister Raman Bhalla, former Congress MLA Om Chopra, besides influential businessmen and mediapersons such as Bansi Lal Gupta and Subash Choudhary, among others.

The court also referred to attempts to shield senior IAS officers Sudanshu Pandey and Hardesh Kumar Singh, allegedly involved in illegal transfer of JDA land to private individuals. The order stated: “That these looters could motivate a legislation to facilitate their nefarious design by itself speaks about their insidious and deep penetration into the corridors of power and authority; about the level and scale of their influence at all levels and suggests involvement of all those who mattered, including in propounding and implementation of the policy.

“We have not come across any such legislative State action legitimising criminal activity at the cost of national and public interest with incalculable loss and damage to the public exchequer and the environment, without any financial (or other) impact assessment.”

While ordering investigations by CBI, the bench directed the agency to “`specifically inquire into the matter of publication of Roshni Rules, 2007, without the assent of the Legislature. If this is found true, the CBI shall identify the persons responsible who have illegally and dishonestly published the same and proceed in the matter for their criminal liability.”

The Jammu and Kashmir State Land (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001 was enacted by the then National Conference government in 2001 to raise funds for constructing hydel power projects in J&K by transferring proprietary rights of state land to its unauthorised occupants until 1990, subject to payment of market rates prevalent at that time.

However, the Mufti Sayeed and Ghulam Nabi Azad governments amended the Act in 2004 and 2007, respectively, allegedly to the advantage of encroachers of state land. The process for transfer of ownership rights of public land to their unauthorised occupants started in 2007, after the then state government framed rules on implementation of the scheme.

The Roshni scheme subsequently failed to achieve its desired results of raising funds to fund hydel power projects.

In 2011, a public interest litigation was filed by retired professor S K Bhalla, through advocate Sheikh Shakeel, alleging large-scale encroachment of state and forest lands across the then state. In 2014, following revelations by the CAG in its audit report about large-scale irregularities into transfer of state land to private individuals under Roshni Act, Bhalla he filed another PIL, seeking vigilance inquiry and action against the guilty in the matter.

Giving a twist to the matter, IkkJutt chairman Ankur Sharma, then a Law student, filed an intervention application challenging Roshni Act and demanding transfer of investigations into all irregularities to the CBI.

The Vigilance Organisation – now the Anti-Corruption Bureau – had registered at least 17 FIRs against many senior government officials for allegedly misusing their official position in transfer of state land at the renowned tourist resort Gulmarg to some private hoteliers.

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