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A controversy in Hyderabad

Print edition : Apr 25, 2003 T+T-

The way in which more than 250 acres of evacuee land in and around Hyderabad was allotted to displaced persons from Pakistan and changed hands through the General Power of Attorney route suggests a multi-crore property scam.

in Hyderabad

ONE would have presumed that all the refugees from West Pakistan were resettled in various parts of India long ago by granting them dwelling units and cultivable land. But recent developments in Andhra Pradesh tell a different story, one that has all the makings of a multi-crore property scam.

Between January 15, 2003 and February 26, 2003 the Chief Commissioner for Land Administration (CCLA) allotted 289 acres (about 116 hectares) of evacuee land in and around Hyderabad city to four persons - G.P. Navani, R.P. Malani, D.B. Bhambhani and B.D. Makhija - who fall in the category of Displaced Persons (people who migrated from Pakistan during Partition and are thus entitled to land and other such compensation from the 707 pieces of property across the State, classified as Evacuee Property under the Displaced Persons (Compensation and Rehabilitation) Act, 1954). Of the allotted land, four acres (1.6 ha) are in the up-market Banjara Hills, and have a market price of around Rs.40 crores. The rest of the land is in Ranga Reddy district, but within the city.

These pieces of property were administered by the Settlement Commissioner of the Union Government before they were transferred to the Andhra Pradesh government in 1980 for administration and disposal. According to the records available with the CCLA's office in Hyderabad, only about 20 families migrated to Andhra Pradesh from West Pakistan against the hundreds of families that left for Pakistan leaving behind vast tracts of land in and around Hyderabad. The records show about 2,500 acres (1,000 ha) in Ranga Reddy district alone as evacuee property.

With land prices going through the roof in Hyderabad city, the real estate business and vested interests linked to it set their sights on land in Ranga Reddy district. This sent land prices soaring in the district. Against this background, when CCLA C. Arjun Rao, the competent authority, went about allotting over 200 acres (80 ha) of the evacuee property in the district to displaced persons from Pakistan, it raised a political storm.

Questions were asked about the unseemly hurry with which the allotments were made. Arjun Rao, a 1966-batch Indian Administrative Service officer, took over as the CCLA towards the end of December 2002 and the first allotment was done on January 15, 2003, to D.B. Bhambani. Incidentally, this piece of land (bearing Survey numbers 644 and 645 in Uppal Kalan village) had been allotted to D.B. Bhambani first in May 1954 by the Secretary to the Commissioner, Survey Settlement and Land Revenue (CSS&LR), then operating from Bombay (now Mumbai). But its execution was held up for several years by litigation on the question whether the Secretary, CSS&LR, was the competent authority to make the allotment. The courts, according to the records available with the CCLA's office, had upheld the allotment and all that Arjun Rao did was to implement the court orders.

While it is laudable that justice is done to the displaced persons, what led to doubts was the fact that Bhambani gave up his claim on the land by issuing a General Power of Attorney (GPA) to a person named Sukumar Reddy. B.D. Makhija and G.P. Navani, who were allotted land on February 21 and 27, also followed in Bhambani's footsteps.

Navani had declined the land allotted to him in Nalagonda district as early as in 1968. He opted instead for the 80 acres (32 ha) of evacuee property at Attavelli village in Ranga Reddy district and issued a GPA for it, again in favour of Sukumar Reddy. The real estate business is booming in Atavelli, which is being gobbled up by Hyderabad city.

Another instance of allotment followed by the issue of GPA is that of the 50 acres (20 ha) allotted to B.D. Makhija on February 21, 2003 at Rajendranagar Mandal in Ranga Reddy district. The GPA in this case is held by a person called C.R. Lakshminarayana. Arjun Rao insists that the allottees chose the GPA route to avoid trouble from encroachers who are in physical possession of the land, and maintains that it is not his concern. This, however, flies in the face of his explanation that he issued the orders within days of taking over as the CCLA "in the interest of redressing the grievances of rightful claimants whose requests were pending since 1954". If the interests of the displaced persons were the consideration, the CCLA ought to have ensured that they enjoyed absolute rights over the land allotted to them. The State government has instituted an inquiry by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) against Arjun Rao and he has since sought voluntary retirement.

One of the allotments made by Arjun Rao - 4.08 acres in Banjara Hills to R.P. Malani on February 26, 2003 - had been handed over to the State government's Roads and Buildings Department in April 1994 for the construction of living quarters for its officers, by an order of the then Commissioner of Land Revenue. Arjun Rao's contention that evacuee property shall not be handed over to anyone except displaced persons is not supported by the rules.

A CIRCULAR from the Commissioner, Survey Settlement and Land Records, in August 1982 to all District Collectors vests in Joint Collectors the power to dispose of evacuee property. It lays down the procedure to be adopted by District Collectors for the disposal of evacuee property, through public auction or by outright sale at negotiated prices or through tenders (Circular No. 5, dated 27-8-1982 issued by the Commissioner, Survey Settlement and Land Records, Government of Andhra Pradesh). There is provision in the same set of rules to allot such property to government bodies, and consent was given by the Commissioner, Land Revenue, for allotment of the Banjara Hills property to the Roads and Buildings Department. Arjun Rao, however, allotted the same piece of land to R.P. Malani in addition to about 150 acres (60 ha) in Rajendranagar (a township neighbouring Hyderabad) by a single order on February 26, 2003. This was in addition to the 60 acres (24 ha) allotted to Malani in Boinpally (within Hyderabad city and not very far from the airport) in 1954; of these 57 acres are under encroachment.

Even in the case of the 150 acres in Rajendranagar allotted to Malani, large tracts were found to have been in the possession of "encroachers" by the Collector of Ranga Reddy district in January 2002. In pursuance of the 1982 circular the then Collector proposed to the CCLA that the encroachers be given possession of the portion of evacuee property for a consideration. Those who had encroached on the property had filed appeals in the Andhra Pradesh High Court in 1997 seeking regularisation of ownership on the grounds that they had been occupying the land ever since Fakiryar Jung, the pattadar (who had the title for the property), migrated to Pakistan during Partition. The court ordered that such occupation be regularised under the terms of the 1982 circular of the Commissioner of Survey, Settlements and Land Records.

The then CCLA (Arjun Rao's predecessor) accorded sanction in principle but found that the price quoted by the encroachers was too low (Rs.450 an acre) and instructed the District Collector (in August 2002) to fix the value of the land on the basis of the market price in 1997. This principle of regularisation of ownership at the market price prevailing at the time the application was made had its basis on a ruling in a similar case by the Punjab and Haryana High Court (W.P. No. 2523/99 dated September 9, 1999). The then CCLA had also instructed the Joint Collector to evict the encroachers who refused to pay the price that had been fixed and to auction the land.

Arjun Rao's February 26, 2003 order allotting the same land to R.P. Malani was thus a reversal of the one issued by his predecessor in September 2002, that the land be transferred to its occupants for a consideration. When the office of the Settlement Commissioner was wound up in 1980 (after it was found that most of the displaced persons had been compensated), the remaining land and other immovable property (707 in all in Andhra Pradesh) were transferred to the State government along with the powers to dispose them of. The CCLA ought to have identified the land categorised as evacuee property and disposed it of, either by selling it to those already in possession of the land or by auctioning it. There was also the option to allot such land to the various government departments, as was done in the case of the Roads and Buildings Department.

Instead, to resort to outright allotment of such land, whose market value, even by the estimates of the Revenue Department, adds up to a few hundred crores, leads to doubts of a nexus between the land mafia, the political class and sections of the bureaucracy. While the State government has responded with an ACB inquiry, the controversy brings up the larger question of encroachments in and around Hyderabad.

Putting the controversy in perspective, B.V. Raghavalu, secretary of the Andhra Pradesh unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: "This whole episode has all the elements of a palace coup and reminds one of the ways of the days of the Empire.'' Raghavalu and his party are categorical that the issues involved go far beyond the persona of Arjun Rao and others in the bureaucracy. The issue, instead, he says is about land-grabbing and the amassing of wealth by people in power and those around them.