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How J&K’s Rs 25,000-crore land scam will unsettle aces in politics, bureaucracy

Jammu and Kashmir High Court

Yesterday, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court nine years ago finally reached its logical conclusion when the Division Bench of Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Rajesh Bindal ordered transfer of the investigation into the Rs 25,000-crore Roshni land scam from the Union Territory’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

This order is an endorsement of the petitioners’ complaint that the UT’s investigation agency, known as the Vigilance Organization when Jammu and Kashmir was a State, had remained extremely sluggish in carrying out its job. It had been repeatedly flagged by the petitioners that out of thousands cases of alleged irregularities, the ACB had taken up just a dozen-odd matters and that, out of 17 FIRs, charge sheet had been completed and produced in only two cases in over 10 years.

A case of the disputed allotment of the government land, owned by Forest and Tourism departments but encroached upon by some influential hoteliers at the famous tourist resort of Gulmarg, had been registered in the year 2008. Till date, it is under hearing with an anti-corruption court in Baramulla and almost all the accused officials have retired from service. “We are fully satisfied with the judgment. It is an historic development that will put all investigation agencies under pressure and those found guilty for making fraudulent allotments or procrastination of the investigations could be made accountable now”, said Sheikh Shakeel Ahmad, one of the counsels who pursued this matter assiduously for over 10 years.

“The ACB had a thousand weaknesses. Its officers had friends and relatives under the cloud. It was working under pulls and pressures from different quarters. Contrarily, the CBI would have neither malice nor soft corner towards anybody. It has an institutional credibility. We had prayed for the CBI investigation as the names of many powerful politicians, bureaucrats and government officers had surfaced during the investigation but there was questioning of them.

We are optimistic that the CBI would hold a time-bound, professional investigation,” advocate Ahmad asserted. According to him, some former Chief Ministers, some influential politicians including ministers, besides a number of the police officers and over 20 serving and retired IAS officers, could be grilled for their alleged involvement or carelessness in transferring proprietary rights to the land grabbers.

The DB has directed the ACB to hand over all the pending ‘Roshni’ cases to the CBI. It has asked the Chief Secretary to ensure that there were no hassles or delay in providing records to the CBI. The CBI would have to constitute a Special Investigation Team (SIT), to be headed by an officer of the rank of Superintendent of Police, and start the investigation forthwith. The DB would monitor the investigation and review its progress periodically. The CBI has been directed to submit its first action taken report in the next eight weeks.

During the hearing of the 2011 PIL, the Divisional Commissioners of Kashmir and Jammu had submitted details of around 20 lakh kanals (100,000 hectares) of the state land under illegal occupation of the land grabbers. In 2014, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India had revealed serious irregularities in a special audit of the ‘Roshni Scheme’ and pointed out that huge chunks of the state lands had been given virtually for free to the encroachers, resulting in loss of over Rs 25,000 crore to the state exchequer.

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 Dr Farooq Abdullah had claimed that the scheme would generate revenue of over Rs 25,000 which would be utilised 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 Chief Minister and the head of the Congress-PDP coalition.

The so-called Roshni Act had been made for a limited period of operation but extended by successive governments from time to time. It was finally scrapped by the then Governor Satya Pal Malik prospectively on November 28, 2018, five months after the breakdown of the PDP-BJP government. At a press conference in 2014, then Principal Accountant-General, Dr Subhash Chander Pandey, called the Roshni Scheme as “J&K’s biggest land scam,” while complaining that the Jammu and Kashmir officials made “every possible attempt” to cover up the Rs 25,000-crore scandal during an audit exercise in 2013.

He said that the Deputy Commissioners did not provide the records. It was after Pandey’s 25 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 was tabled in the State Legislature and referred to a House Committee without a discussion.

Thereafter, there was no visible action. Of the 447 transfers audited by the CAG, scores were pertaining to a powerful house of business and politics that functioned as the ‘kitchen cabinet’ of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1960s through 1980s. A number of the political parties were found to have built their offices in Srinagar on the illegally occupied and acquired State lands.

The other beneficiaries included high profile politicians and ex-Ministers. These transfers were found to have been executed and confirmed by senior officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and the Kashmir Administrative Service (KAS) as Deputy Commissioners, Divisional Commissioners or Revenue Secretaries. While some of them have retired from service, some are now in the higher echelons of bureaucracy.

At least one is a Secretary to Government of India and one more has served as a member in the Jammu and Kashmir State Public Service Commission. Interestingly the last two officers, both accused of some supervisory lapses, have retained the image of the bureaucrats of high integrity all through their careers.