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The defence ministry has lost over 12,300 acres to land sharks

By Syed Nazakat

Pune was bracing to host the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2008, and, Lohegaon, a village with one of the oldest Indian Air Force stations, suddenly became hot property as the airport was modernised and a new road connected it to Ahmednagar,Maharashtra’s biggest district. Land sharks moved in, and, with the help of defence officials, grabbed 69 acres of defence land worth Rs 800 crore.

Neither the Directorate General of Defence Estates (DGDE) nor the Pune military station took any action until a whistle-blower raised the alarm. The prime accused in the case, Sewak R. Nayyar, is the defence estate officer at the military command in Pune. The CBI found that Nayyar had also given Rs 30 lakh to Khadki Market vegetable vendor Vishal Kedari, who owns a flat in the controversial Adarsh Housing Society in Mumbai. Nayyar’s trail led the CBI to Kandivali, Mumbai, where another defence plot was sold to a private builder. The 31-storey apartment complex there overlooks the Army ordnance depot.

On the request of the defence ministry, the CBI is probing the involvement of top military officials, including former vice-chief of the Indian Army, Lt. Gen (Retd) Noble Thamburaj, in the sale of defence land onLothian Road, Pune. Currently on bail, Thamburaj was general officer commanding-in-chief of the Southern Command. The CBI said that he and Nayyar had given defence land worth Rs 46 crore to Kalpataru Builders.

These are not isolated cases. The defence ministry,India’s biggest landholder with around 18 lakh acres, is finding it increasingly difficult to safeguard its land from its own people. “No land scam can happen without the involvement of the officials of DGDE and the military officers,” said a senior defence ministry official. “All the cases we investigated have eventually led us to our own people.”

Out of the 18 lakh acres, 12,327 acres is already illegally sold or occupied (see graphics). In four military stations—Agra,Lucknow, Secunderabad and Pune—122.58 acres of defence land is illegally used for marriages, parties and exhibitions. The military bungalow in Secunderabad, allotted for the armed forces welfare projects, now houses a hotel, restaurant and petrol pump. “One Adarsh scam shocked us all,” said Vevek Pandit, who has started a campaign against the land mafia in Mumbai. “There are a number of Adarsh scams in our country.”

There are 62 cantonments in 16 states andUnionTerritories, not to mention camping grounds and abandoned airfields. When most of these cantonments were planned, they were on the outskirts of the cities. As the city grew, the land became prime real estate. The DGDE, with its 37 defence estates offices countrywide, holds the records of all defence properties, and is represented by defence estates officers in military stations. Though the Army, Navy and Air Force uses the land, the duty to protect defence land lies with the DGDE. So, defence estates officials have been directly involved in most defence land scams.

“Defence land records are very old and some of the land is with us as per constitutional provisions afterIndependence,” said Ashok Kumar Harnal, director general of defence estates. “There are, at times, discrepancies between what is recorded in the state government revenue records and what is recorded in our records.”

The absence of centralised records has led to confusion even over A1 land, a grade given to land under active occupation by the military and allied services. In most defence land cases, illegal encroachment starts with the issuance of a No Objection Certificate (NOC). Defence estates officials fudge or tamper with revenue records and issue an NOC.

For example, in theSrinagarAirportland grab case, over 100 NOCs were issued to sell 200 acres surrounding the airport. The investigation, which is in the final stage, has confirmed collusion between defence estates officials inSrinagarand officials of the local administration. One defence estates officer and one sub-divisional officer of defence estates have been suspended. And, the loot was not limited to the area surrounding the airport.

At Indira Nagar, a high-security area near the headquarters of the 15 Corps, a defence plot was allegedly sold to the land mafia. On August 20, 2008, a defence estate officer issued an NOC to facilitate the sale. According to File No. DEO/MISC/24/ACQ, the ownership was first changed from defence to civilian and then sold to the builder. In 2009, when the anomaly came to notice of other officials, a DGDE letter (DEO/B.P/I.Nagar/476/09) was issued saying that land records were manipulated.

The whole fraud was committed on the lines of the Sukna scam, where an NOC was issued in favour of constructing an educational institution on a 71-acre plot adjacent to the Army’s headquarters in Siliguri,West Bengal. Four senior officers were implicated in the case; former military secretary Lt. General Avadesh Prakash was found guilty and dismissed from service.

The defence ministry has sought the help of the CBI in investigating all cases mentioned earlier in this article. The ministry is fighting 860 cases of defence land grab in various courts of the country. The Army, which occupies 80 per cent of defence land, is fighting 72  cases. “Our problem is that even when we occupy land or defence property, the documents remain with the DGDE,” said a senior Army officer. “If a fraud is committed, we are probably the last ones to known about it.”

The lack of clarity in records is highlighted as the main reason for most defence cases. For example, the dispute between the Army and Major Maharaja Hari Singh Charitable Trust inJodhpurdates back to 1976, when the Army acquired 296.2 acres from the trust. In 2001, the trust challenged the land acquisition in the Supreme Court and said the Army had illegally occupied more land. Surprisingly, there were no records in the Rajasthan revenue department about the land.

However, a record in the defence estates department confirmed that the Army indeed had taken more land. According to the internal communication records, the DGDE, the Army and defence ministry had discussed the issue many times. On September 21, 2006, a committee was formed to identify the excess land to be vacated.

Rekha Bhargava, special secretary, ministry of defence, had a meeting with Joint Secretary (C&W) Anand Misra, Major General B. Thambiah and Harnal, then additional DG of DGDE, to discuss the land dispute with the trust. All of them agreed on two points. First, that excess land could be returned to the trust without linking it to the withdrawal of court cases as the two were not linked. Second, exact measurement and exact location of the excess land may be determined by the local military authority.

Harnal, who was then in charge of acquisition and hiring of land in the DGDE, argued that the cases of the trust’s court matter and the land exchange were not related and therefore “for return of excess land, no government order is required”. In 2007, a controversial decision was taken to transfer 4.84 acres of defence land worth Rs 16 crore to the trust. However, an additional 1.6 acres was already given to the trust by the Army in 2006 without involving the defence estates office. The defence ministry is now investigating the case. “In this case, it is not about the land but the location of the land which is under the question,” said a defence ministry official.

Following the Adarsh and Sukna scams, Defence Minister A.K. Antony publicly expressed his anguish over the defence land scams. His aides say that he was shocked when Thamburaj’s name figured in the Pune land scam. Last yearAntonydirected the DGDE to conduct an audit to determine the status of defence land all over the country. The ministry has cleared an archival unit and resource centre at Raksha Sampada Bhavan, the HQ of the DGDE.

The ministry has also started survey of defence lands, which will be completed in three years. “In cases where this [survey] may not be possible, sufficient resources would be placed with the defence estates department to look after them,” saidAntony. The ministry is currently working on two projects—to introduce modern surveying technology in defence estates and to digitise defence land records. All the defence land registers have been computerised under a special software project called Raksha Bhoomi. The software provides details on each piece of defence land inside and outside cantonments. But the big hurdle remains—the mismatch between DGDE records and state revenue records.

Interview Of Ashok Kumar Harnal, Director General, Defence Estates

No NOC will be issued to private persons

Ashok Kumar Harnal is known for his expertise in the computerisation of defence land records. His aides say that he even attends office on weekends and Sundays, and personally trains new staffers in land audit and digital record keeping. An alumnus of IIT Delhi, he, along with National Informatics Centre, came up with a special software to index defence lands. Excerpts from an interview:

What steps have you taken to safeguard defence land?

Computerisation of defence land records, surveys and a number of policy steps have been taken to prevent misuse of defence land. As we have very old land title records, it is necessary that they be preserved against sabotage or natural disaster. For this purpose, two archival units—Delhiand Pune—have been sanctioned by the ministry of defence. TheDelhiunit is almost ready and it will store complete digital records of all our land files. It will also hold paper copies of all our title records.

What is the status of the special computer software project?

All defence land registers have been computerised under this project named Raksha Bhoomi. The software was released by the defence minister in July 2011. For each piece of land acquired, we have files as to how the land came into our possession. All these land records are now being scanned, indexed and microfilmed so that whenever there is any title dispute, records are readily available. The project has started in a number of field offices. We are simultaneously overhauling our record rooms.

The land survey is another area where you have been working.

Yes, survey of all defence land has started and will be completed in three years. We have procured equipment and intensive training was held in IIT Roorkee and in our institute, with the help of IIT Delhi.

Most illegal encroachments start with an issuance of the No Objection Certificate (NOC). Who is authorised to issue this?

[Our policy] is now that no NOC will be issued to any private person. In so far as the ceding of defence land is concerned, any piece of land occupied by the defence for a long time will not be ceded except with the permission of the ministry of defence.

How are you dealing with the issue of discrepancies with the state revenue records?

Defence land records are very old and some of the land is with us as per constitutional provisions afterIndependence. Some of this land is of the nature of ex-state forces property, and there is at times discrepancy between state records and our records. We are trying to resolve this.

Who is responsible to safeguard the defence land?

While we hold complete land records, the management and control of lands is with the respective user organisations. They are responsible for developing these lands and preventing encroachments. However, in case there is a title dispute, the department of defence estates comes into the picture for defending it

(THE WEEK, MAY 13, 2012)

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