Srinagar: The official residence of Jammu and Kashmir’s Lieutenant Governor in Srinagar and hundreds of government properties are purportedly built on ‘encroached’ land, which is now being reclaimed by the administration under a controversial drive launched earlier this month.
A listing from a survey, which was shared on social media by J&K’s former education minister Naeem Akhtar among others, shows that the ‘Governor’s House’ (Raj Bhawan), which is located adjacent to the Mughal-era health resort of Cheshma Shahi, sits on more than four kanals of encroached ‘Gair Mumkin’ or agricultural land, involving five land parcels (khasras) in Srinagar district.
A pre-independence-era building rooted in J&K’s Dogra rule, Raj Bhawan is located in the lap of Srinagar’s Zabarwan Hills, offering a panoramic view of the iconic Dal Lake in the front. According to a note on its official website, the president and prime minister of India “usually stay in the Raj Bhawan on their visits to Kashmir”.
The alleged encroachment is listed on Serial No 5854 of the land survey purportedly carried out in Srinagar in 2001 by J&K’s Revenue Department. The survey, which was not published earlier, shows that the office of the United Nations Military Observers Group in Sonawar locality of Srinagar is also built on more than 10 kanal ‘encroached’ land.
Other prominent buildings in Srinagar which, the survey shows, are built on ‘encroached’ land include the Gupkar residence of Farooq Abdullah, Kashmir International Convention Centre flanking Dal Lake which hosts all the top official functions and meetings, Srinagar Golf Club, and the Army’s Tattoo Ground which sits on 1628 kanal ‘encroached’ land in Central Shalteng area of Srinagar’s Batamaloo locality.
Commissioner secretary of J&K’s Revenue Department Vijay Kumar Bidhuri and divisional commissioner Kashmir P.K. Pole told The Wire that they were not aware of the survey and sought a soft copy before making a comment. However, both the senior officers didn’t answer repeated calls and text messages after the survey report was shared with them.
The survey came into focus earlier this week when the UT administration on January 15 ordered a sweeping drive for the removal of encroachments from state land “to the extent of 100% by 31st January 2023”. A similar land survey of Baramulla district also circulated on social media messaging platforms. The Wire couldn’t immediately confirm the authenticity of the surveys.
A senior official in J&K administration said that the major target of the anti-encroachment drive is 3.48 lakh kanals of state land, whose ownership was taken over by private individuals against a premium under the now scrapped J&K State Land (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, or Roshni Act.
In a statement, the Srinagar administration claimed that the list “appears forged” and it doesn’t exist “in official records”. However, the list is still available on the official website of the Divisional Commissioner Kashmir.
The Srinagar administration said that the “government institutions established on government land serve the public purpose and cannot be classified as an instance of encroachment.”
“The government land is exclusively meant for use of government which includes construction of government offices for the people. So, the list is based on misreporting and misinterpretation of rules in vogue,” the administration said in the statement.
However, a senior official in the administration said that the government departments have to take permission from the Revenue department before using the state land, “If the Public Works department wants to build a road on state land, it has to first obtain written permission of the Revenue department,” the official, who didn’t want to be named, said.
The Roshni ‘scam’
In 2020, the J&K high court termed the Roshni Act “illegal, unconstitutional and unsustainable”, upholding the 2018 decision of the J&K administration led by Governor Satya Pal Malik to scrap the law which was introduced by the National Conference government led by Farooq Abdullah in 2000.
Under the Roshni Act, 20.46 lakh kanals of state land were identified for transfer of ownership to private individuals against a premium which was expected to raise Rs 25,000 crore. The J&K government had said that the money would be used for building hydropower projects.
However, only about six lakh kanal with 5.7 lakh kanal in Jammu alone were approved for transfer and the actual land transfer was only 3.48 lakh canals. From Rs 25,000 crore, the earning came down to only Rs 76.46 crore, prompting allegations of financial and political irregularities.
In 2014, a Comptroller and Auditor General report alleged that the premium of Roshni land was arbitrarily reduced by the J&K administration to favour politicians and influential people. According to reports, more than 30 politicians from various political parties, former J&K ministers and lawmakers, top hoteliers and other businessmen are among the beneficiaries of the Roshni Act.
The CAG also revealed that the land had been transferred to people who didn’t meet the eligibility criteria, pointing to the official involvement in the scam. The then head of the administration in Kashmir and IAS officer, Baseer Khan, was named as one of the top accused in Gulmarg land scam involving Roshni Act. Although Khan was indicted by J&K’s Anti-Corruption Bureau for his involvement in the scam, he continued to serve as an advisor to the Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha.
Speaking with reporters in Srinagar earlier this week, Sinha said that the high court has repeatedly passed directions to evict illegal encroachers from the state land. “Let me clarify that influential people who have misused their position, violated rules and grabbed land will be evicted. The common man and poor man will not be touched. We will ensure their rights are secured,” Sinha said in Srinagar earlier this week.
However, pointing to the deeper rot and larger complexities involved in the land retrieval drive, the survey shows that the government itself is one of the major culprits of land encroachment in Jammu and Kashmir. Even the Revenue Department, which was behind the exercise to find out the status of land in J&K, seems to have occupied hundreds of kanals of state land in different parts of the union territory along with the Tourism, Forest, Public Works and other departments.
It was not immediately known if the departments have applied under Roshni Act for taking over the ownership of the land which is shown to be ‘encroached’ by them in different parts of Jammu and Kashmir, and whether the status of land shown in the 2001 survey as ‘encroached’ by different departments has changed over the last more than two decades since the survey was carried out.
Political weapon against opposition
Although a number of petitions against the scrapping of the Roshni Act are pending in J&K high court, the eviction order, issued by commissioner secretary Bidhuri to all the deputy commissioners on January 15, has prompted concerns that the axe might fall on the poor and the political opposition. “If there is any encroachment, we are duty bound to implement the order,” Bidhuri told The Wire, adding that only “influential” and “corrupt” people will be targeted.
While LG Sinha has repeatedly given assurances that only a certain section of “influential” people were going to be targeted, the official eviction order makes no such distinction, asking all the alleged land grabbers to remove the encroachments on their own or foot the bill if the official machinery gets involved in the eviction.
The eviction drive has also triggered concerns that it could be used by the Union government, which is directly administering the UT, as a weapon to settle political scores against the opposition parties in Kashmir Valley. Regional political parties including the National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party and Peoples Conference have demanded that the administration should stop the drive.
Protests broke out in Larnoo area of south Kashmir earlier this week against the drive while the All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference, a grouping of panchayat members, has threatened to launch protests across the union territory if the drive is not stopped.
Former chief minister Omar Abdullah said that the eviction drive is a betrayal of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and it is aimed to “divert people’s attention” from the deteriorating security situation. “Killings of innocents in Rajouri and subsequently providing arms to VDCs are ample proof of the bad situation in J&K. To avoid questions, the government has started the eviction drive,” Omar said.
People Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti tweeted: “Laws are created for the welfare of public, but in J&K they are weaponised to disempower, humiliate & punish. This latest diktat was issued because despite GOI misusing all the agencies at its disposal & unleashing draconian laws, aren’t getting the desired results.”
Peoples Conference chairperson Sajjad Lone urged the administration to roll back its order. “Who stops you from going after the rich powerful elite? The elites till now are getting away with mere threats. The humbler structures of the poor are abodes born out of necessities. These structures house families, aspirations, dreams, ambitions, emotions, memories,” Lone tweeted.
Note: This article was updated with a statement from the Srinagar administration after it was published.