What with defense land scams getting rampant, it seems it is too easy to cheat the Army these days.
In just three years, 1,073 acres of defence land-equal to 412 football fields-has been swallowed up through encroachments by builders and private developers. The Government admitted this blandly in the Lok Sabha in March 2011, noting that encroachments in military areas have increased from 3,510.16 acres to 4,583.588 acres. The Directorate General of Defence Estates (DGDE) reported these encroachments on the 66,000 acres of land it held directly. DGDE is the department in the Ministry of Defence which is responsible for audit, accounting and financial management.
Over 17 lakh acres of defence land worth Rs.20 lakh crore is vulnerable to encroachment. Of this, nearly 11,000 acres have been stolen, and no one cares. Records for land worth thousands of crores of rupees are maintained in tattered paper registers instead of secure electronic databases. The land is not demarcated. Worse, a corrupt nexus of army brass, defence estates officials and builders continue to bite large chunks out of this land bank.
The DGDE has 1,251 officials to administer defence land, but no one has been held accountable for failing to protect it. The defence ministry is yet to table its proposed Defence Land Management Bill in Parliament. If there was a scamster’s manual for looting defence land, it would read something like this:
1. IDENTIFY PLIABLE DEFENCE AND ARMY OFFICIALS
Nexus between the officials has been found in most land scams that have been unearthed.
On January 31, the CBI raided the Pune home of former army vice chief Lt-General (Retd) Nobel Thamburaj for his alleged involvement in a land scam. An army press release said that Lt-General Thamburaj had arrived at an outof-court settlement with a builder that resulted in the government losing 0.96 acres of prime defence land worth Rs.45 crore in the Pune cantonment area.
In most military land scams unearthed over the past few years, defence estates officials have been found to be hand-in-glove with army officials and private developers. The reasons are not far to see. The DGDE is represented by defence estates officers in military stations. These officials are custodians of defence land. The army uses the land. A General Officer Commanding of a military area heads the local administration in all of the 62 cantonment boards across the country. The board issues sanctions for construction of buildings within the cantonment area.
2. TARGET LAND NOT IN MILITARY RECORDS
Land sharks take advantage of loopholes in land documentation.
Roughly 25 per cent of all defence land has not been ‘mutated’ or not transferred to the land records of the defence estates department.
Bureaucratic lethargy is to blame for this. When the land-holding is ambiguous, it becomes ripe for exploitation by land sharks. In the Adarsh scam for instance, the housing society that was formed by retired military officials and defence estates officials homed in on a football fieldsized plot of prime land in Colaba, South Mumbai. The land was held by the army but owned by the state government. No records were available. The combination of defence estates and armed forces officials moved in to build a commercial residential tower.
3. SURREPTITIOUSLY ENCROACH DEFENCE LAND
Builders encircle defence land after buying private plots around it.
Unused defence land is sometimes not even fenced. At times, corrupt land sharks are known to buy private land around vacant defence land and then gradually encircle it. This happened in the case of the Srinagar air force land scam uncovered in 2009.
Nearly 200 acres of prime defence land worth over Rs.1,500 crore was quietly sold over the years. The defence estates officials issued no-objection certificates to show that the land never belonged to the defence ministry despite having bought it in 1966.
Camping grounds, another colonial relic located on the outskirts of military areas, are also considered fair game. The DGDE is meant to conduct land audits to assess the state of its land bank. The last major audit was carried out in 2000. Each year the department presents shrinking estimates of its landholding. The encroachments are termed ‘a complex socio-economic problem’. Surveys of disputed land holdings, ordered to buy time, are carried out with the state government and can take over five years.
Responsibility for the protection of the land is diffused and the landholding opaque. Guilty officials are punished only if a hue and cry is raised in public. The CBI is now investigating three defence land scams- Adarsh, Kandivli and at Lohegaon, Pune. In the Lohegaon land scam unearthed in 2011, three scamsters prepared fake documents claiming ownership of about 69 acres of defence land worth Rs.800 crore.
4. TARGET OLD GRANT BUNGALOWS
Buyers propose tearing down old houses and constructing a new residential building on it. Old grant bungalows are Britishera dwellings on prime government land. These bungalows dot most military stations and cantonments. They are now valuable for their land which is owned by the government. The modus operandi is for the builder to approach the original tenants and buy them out.
The bungalows are ‘dehired’- the process by which the government stops collecting lease. The builder then approaches the cantonment board with a proposal for demolishing the ‘dilapidated’ building and constructing a new residential building on it. An audit done by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2011 mentions 16 such bungalows in military areas of Lucknow, Almora, Kanpur, Ranikhet and Bareilly as being illegally sold for Rs.150 crore. Several other such cases are under the scanner of audit authorities. In the Meerut cantonment, schools, colleges and residential properties have been built on old grant bungalows. A CAG report of 2010 mentions how the Residency Club was built on an old grant bungalow in the Pune cantonment.
5. CHALLENGE THE TITLE OF DEFENCE LAND IN COURT
Court proceedings can drag on for decades because ofweak legal defence.
Among the weakest links in the DGDE is its inability to protect encroached defence land in court. There are an estimated 13,000 pending cases relating to defence land in various courts. The way these cases are handled causes concern. The Government does not file its replies in time and court proceedings drag on for decades. A report prepared by the Controller General of Defence Accounts (CGDA) suggests that the defence estates department get a separate legal department to fight their cases. This suggestion has gone unheeded.
“Defence estates officials pose as victims of the situation. It suits corrupt officials to have a weak legal defence put up by the Government so that they lose in court,” says a defence ministry official. CGDA officials say land worth “thousands of crores” is locked in legal disputes all over the country. A case in point is a six-acre plot of defence land in Secunderabad on which the defence accounts department built houses. A private firm won a favourable verdict from the high court in 2002. The case continues in the Supreme Court after the defence ministry appealed against this verdict.
The options for the ministry are grim in this case. They have to either demolish all the buildings, hand the land back to the private society or cough up an estimated Rs.100 crore, the market value of the land.
Five steps: How to steal Army land
The defenders of our country and its borders are fighting a secret enemy, which has threatened their dignity and integrity - greed. And at the centre of greed is the humongous amount of land that has been given to the Indian Army by the government for the purpose of establishing its cantonments, offices, residential property, etc. In fact, the Ministry of Defence is the biggest landholder in the government with a holding of 17.31 lakh acres of land across the country.
Read more at:
Land Sharks and Senior Officers in the Land Grab Mode
GOOD NEWS ABOUT PENURY GRANT
3 days ago