The Great Land Grab in Jammu and Kashmir
The UT administration attempts to provide land it claims to own to industrialists from other States.
Published : Jan 12, 2023 10:20 IST
Jamroot Singh and his younger brother Simar Singh were thought to have died in the Second World War. To the family’s surprise and joy, they returned home to Barwal village in Kathua district in 1950 after spending seven years in a Japanese prison. The battle-hardened soldiers of the Azad Hind Fauj decided to take up farming. The arid and rocky hills were no less than a battlefield, but the mango trees they planted tell the tale of their hard toil. Jamroot passed away in 1962 at the age of 60 and Simar in 2005, according to the family. The family is now set to lose the land and the trees.
The land is state land in revenue records, but under the laws applicable before August 5, 2019, when the State’s special status was revoked, the family had rights to cultivate it. Now, the Union Territory administration has started to hand over state land in Barwal village to the Jammu & Kashmir State Industrial Development Corporation (SIDCO) under the changed revenue laws. “At least 80 per cent of the villagers are dependent on agriculture and dairy farming. After losing state land, they will be (economically) ruined,” Piar Singh, 74, a retired veterinary surgeon and Jamroot’s son, told Frontline, “Tens of thousands of trees are being cut down. Why don’t they set up industries elsewhere?”
In Jammu region, where the Bharatiya Janata Party won both the Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 election, the revenue department has revoked the rights of local communities to cultivate state land, community land, and evacuee land.
While the UT administration has posted details of the newly created land banks online, it is now facilitating the creation of private land banks under the Central government’s New Central Sector Scheme for Industrial Development of the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir. “To boost industrial development in the UT, the Government of Jammu & Kashmir has also notified the J&K Industrial Policy, Jammu & Kashmir Private Industrial Estate Development Policy (2021-2030), and J&K Industrial Land Allotment Policy,” Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai told the Rajya Sabha in a written reply on April 6, 2022.
Notably, Lt. Governor Manoj Sinha’s administration has scrapped laws that provided safeguards to farming communities. Among them are the Jammu & Kashmir Alienation of Land Act, the Jammu & Kashmir Big Landed Estates Abolition Act, and the Jammu & Kashmir Common Lands (Regulation) Act, 1956. The now-scrapped Article 35A guaranteed exclusive land rights to Jammu & Kashmir residents. In October 2020, the Union Home Ministry notified that any Indian citizen can purchase non-agricultural land in the new Union Territory. Subsequently, the administration notified a new set of rules that allowed the change of title of agricultural land to non-agricultural on fulfilling conditions.
Soon after Article 370 was revoked in 2019, the government began the process of creating land banks and also initiated a campaign against encroachments on properties of Pandits who fled the armed insurgency that erupted in Kashmir. But the work came to a halt in the wake of targeted attacks on members of the minority community and migrant labourers.
In the past two years, local residents have staged protests against the “anti-encroachment” drive, and some of the protests have led to confrontations with revenue officials over the digitisation of revenue records. In Kathua district, revenue officials staged protests demanding security.
At Barwal, wall graffiti reading “SIDCO go back” greet visitors. The prime concerns here are land rights, environment, and health. Villagers cite the examples of nearby villages that face severe industrial pollution. In Govindsar vilage, for instance, most of the children are born with mental and physical disabilities.
Amrish Jasrotia, a local activist, said: “SIDCO is retrieving 723 kanals (90.37 acres) of state land for new industrial clusters in the Buddhi area that includes Barwal and Jandore villages. In adjoining Langate and Govindsar villages, many of the industrial units set up by SIDCO are inoperative. Clearly, the non-local investors are coming here to enjoy government subsidies and incentives.”
The Buddhi area, which is known for medicinal plants and wildlife, has seen a mushrooming of property dealers in recent times, according to residents. While heavy machinery has been pressed into service to flatten the terrain after clearing trees and bushes, new roads are being laid to connect government and private land banks situated on the edge of a patch of degraded forest area where the Social Forestry Department plans to grow trees. The villages often face a shortage of drinking water in summer. With the water table receding fast, many ponds have gone dry in the area in the past one decade.
“The government should set up industry on non-agricultural land far away from villages. We have nowhere else to go. Our forefathers have given blood, sweat, and tears to this land,” Piar Singh said.
Naresh Singh, 47, a resident of Barwal, established a poultry farm three years ago. But revenue officials have asked him to vacate the land. The polio-stricken Singh said, “We had purchased this land from another villager 40 years ago. My elder brother and mother passed away in quick succession soon after the authorities informed us that the land belongs to the government. They were under tremendous stress.” He does not know when the government will take possession of the land or demolish the structure. “Why can’t the government consider my poultry farm as an industrial unit?” he asked. “I too can generate employment if I am allowed to work peacefully.”
Randhir Singh, a resident of Panchayat Buddhi North, said, “We have written to the local authorities requesting demarcation of grazing land in the village.” He claimed that many villagers were selling their land out of compulsion because monkey menace had made agriculture unsustainable in the area.
On the upcoming industrial units in Kathua district, advocate Sushil Gupta, who is also the chairperson of the Kathua-based Citizens Responsibilities and Empowerment Association, said the government ought to promote small-scale and agro-based industries instead of big industries.
Gupta said that a majority of those who were losing land in Kathua, Samba, and Jammu districts were farmers who took possession of state land under the agrarian reforms of decades ago and a “Grow More Food Policy”, under which cultivable waste land was allotted to landless peasants with partial rights. “The government back then had assured them that they would get compensation if it took back the land,” he said. However, the current government was taking back the land without providing any financial compensation, he added.
The so-called Roshni land scam case is another issue that has engaged the attention of the UT government. It has filed a review petition in the High Court to reconsider its decision in the case, but that has not stopped it from retrieving land from marginal farmers who got state land regularised under the Jammu & Kashmir State Land (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001.
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On October 9, 2020, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court declared the Roshni Act unconstitutional, declaring all the land transfers made under the Act null and void. While the court directed the UT administration to compile lists of those who had received state land under the Act along with the “details of State land which was in illegal and unauthorized occupation”, it also asked for these lists to be posted on an official website “with full identity of encroachers.” Following a hue and cry, two months later, the UT administration filed a petition in the High Court on December 7, 2020, seeking a review of the court’s October judgment. On January 25, 2021, the UT administration submitted before the Supreme Court that no coercive action would be taken against persons who have approached the top court against the High Court verdict.
The Roshni Act, which proposed to transfer ownership of state land to its occupants for a fee, was brought in by the Farooq Abdullah government in 2001 with the objective of earning revenue to finance power projects. The list of “encroached state land” published by the administration following a court directive names former Chief Ministers Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar. Besides many BJP leaders, the list also names Nisar Azad and Sajjad Azad, brothers of former Chief Minister and former Union Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. They have denied the allegation.
According to observers, under the ongoing “anti-encroachment” drive, only small farmers have been served notices not to cultivate the land. In 2021, revenue officials retrieved a chunk of state land from Chunna Devi, a Dalit, in Rakh Kharoon village in Jammu’s Marh block. The sole provider for her family, Devi said, “We had got the land allotted under the Roshni scheme. But when I cultivated paddy on this farm, the police destroyed it.” A board erected on her now-barren field described the land as “state land” with a warning, “Trespassers shall be prosecuted under law.”
In January 2022, the administration claimed to have retrieved 46,487.6 acres of state land, 13,814.4 acres of “Kacharai” (grazing land), and 164.2 acres of common land from alleged encroachers across the UT. Such “anti-encroachment” drives continued all through the year.
On December 5, the Samba district administration said teams of revenue officials and police led by Sub Divisional Magistrates retrieved about 27 acres of state land in Palli, Kanda Madana, Rakh Barotia, Gurgaon Salathia, Jatwal, Pangwal, and Nehari villages. Likewise, on December 31, the administration claimed to have retrieved 54 acres in Chowadhi, Khour, Nagrota, Panjgrain, Phagwari, Pindi, Chak Phagwari, and Jourian villages in Jammu district.
In Kathua district’s Maharajpur, a village near the International Border (IB) with Pakistan, a team of revenue officials recently told residents not to cultivate state land after this crop season. Most of the families here are set to lose one third of their land holdings. There are people whose forefathers came here as “refugees” in 1947. They were allotted state land but without ownership rights.
Ravi Kumar, 46, whose father came to the village as a refugee, is going to lose all his land. He is dependent on farming and does not have any other source of income. At his dilapidated house, he said, “My brother has been incapacitated by an accident. His family also doesn’t have any other source of livelihood.”
His neighbour, Joginder Kumar and his four brothers, shares the predicament. Their father, too, had come to Maharajpur village from across the IB which is hardly a kilometre from where they stay now.
Meanwhile, the West Pakistani refugees feel that the Narendra Modi government has proven to be more apathetic than previous governments. In fact, these families had limited citizenship rights owing to Articles 370 and 35A and faced discrimination at the hands of previous governments.
In Kathua’s Jamral village, descendants of such refugee families said that they arranged a community kitchen and hoisted the national flag atop their homes after the “full integration of Jammu and Kashmir with the rest of the country”. They even danced to patriotic songs. Sadly, the celebrations were short lived. “The revenue authorities have told us that our land belongs to the government,” said Balbir Singh, 55, referring to the notice boards planted on their farms. The UT administration has demarcated 323 kanal (40.37 acre) of agricultural land as state land in the village.
“In 1947, our ancestors were allotted state land for agricultural purposes and habitation. Since we were not given ownership rights, we could never mortgage the land for bank loans,” Singh explained. “We were hopeful that after the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A, we will get proprietary rights as well along with the right to vote in the Assembly election. We have got the voting right but the government has decided to abolish whatever limited land and property rights we had.”
In Jamral, even residents who claim to be natives complained that they had been banned from repairing their homes or constructing new ones. One such aggrieved person, Tara Chand, 48, lives in a tin-roofed two-room hut along with his wife, Ranjeeta Devi, 55, and their teenaged daughter and son. “Before the revocation of [Article] 370, there were no such restrictions,” he said. He claimed to have inherited the land from his forefathers who were permanent residents. “Our children are about to reach marriageable age. We need a decent house. But the local administration is not allowing us to construct it,” said Ranjeeta. “How can we invite relatives and guests to this house?” she asked.
On evacuee property
In Rajouri district, aggrieved residents, mostly small farmers, are building a movement against revocation of their land rights. These aboriginal inhabitants have been cultivating state and evacuee land. “The revenue department deleted their names from the record recently. This is complete injustice to our people who resisted the Pakistan-backed Pashtun tribesmen in 1947 when they raided the Rajouri-Poonch region. Our people were killed, women abducted, houses looted and set on fire. We have borne the direct brunt of three wars,” said Sunil Dutt, who is chairperson of the Dogra Lok Kalyan Forum. “Despite the land reforms, our people were allotted land without proprietary rights. On the other hand, the refugees who came here from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir were allotted big and fertile chunks of land with ownership rights.” Referring to Muslims who migrated to Pakistan, Dutt said. “Even after 75 years, their land and property have been kept safe. It needs to be handed over to the natives who bravely fought back Pakistani aggressors in 1947.”
While the clamour for disbanding the Evacuee Property Department is growing, the Evacuee Property Tenants Welfare Society, Jammu, has demanded ownership rights for tenants who have occupied evacuee lands and houses. “The previous governments made excuses that Article 370 came in the way of granting rights to tenants. If the UT administration fails to fulfil our demands, we will be forced to launch an agitation,” said Jyoti Vaid, president of the society.
In November last year, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court suggested fresh auctioning of evacuee properties as the best way to generate revenue for their upkeep.
Tribals not exempt
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, became applicable to Jammu and Kashmir following the enactment of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act, 2019. On November 18, 2020, the then Chief Secretary, B.V.R. Subrahmanyam, set March 31, 2021, as the deadline for completing the “Record of Forest Rights”. The implementation of the law, however, seems to be progressing at a snail’s pace. In Kathua district, for instance, the administration has settled only 18 claims under the Act so far. Scheduled Tribes constitute 8.6 per cent of the population in the district as per Census 2011; many Gujjar families claim to have been left out of the Census exercise.
Under Dogra rule (1845-1947), the nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoral communities were given access to pastures and state land. In recent times, their land rights have eroded owing to a complex web of factors such as border conflict, militancy, discriminatory economic development, climate change, and fencing of forests. The creation of land banks now has made them even more vulnerable. Barwal village in Kathua district, for example, is the winter home for scores of pastoral tribal families. They are clueless where they will go after state land in the village is taken over by industrialists.
The twin pastoral communities of Gujjars and Bakarwals are among those at the receiving end of the “anti-encroachment” drive. Spral Pain village in Marheen tehsil of Kathua, which is inhabited by the members of Muslim Gujjar community who abandoned seasonal migration long back, saw a violent clash between community members and revenue officials in December 2022. Following the incident, the police lodged an FIR against the male members of the community. “The officials misbehaved with us. They asked us to vacate the village. We got our agricultural land regularised under the Roshni scheme when Ghulam Nabi Azad was the Chief Minister,” said Makhan Deen, an accused in the clash. He claimed that the village has been home to the community for the last 70 years. The village has dairy and agricultural farms, concrete houses, a mosque, and a madrasa. In fact, their community meets the milk demand of several districts of Jammu region.
Also known as Dodhi-Gujjars, members of the community at Rajpura Mandi and Rajpura camp near the IB in the Akhnoor sector lamented the continued persecution by revenue and forest officials, and the police. “The officials have lodged multiple FIRs against us. They are not ready to listen to our point of view that we have a claim over the forest land under the Forest Rights Act,” said Fareed Choudhary, 36. “The forest department has denied us access to grazing land and the nearby canal,” he added. Choudhary even sent a letter to the office of the Lt. Governor on August 25, 2021, stating that the community members had video recordings of police and forest officials attacking them on several occasions. There has been no response to the letter so far.
In April last year, Lt. Governor Manoj Sinha allotted 62 acres of the hill village Majeen, which is nestled in the forest area along the Srinagar-Pathankot highway on the periphery of Jammu city, to the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams trust that manages the Venkateswara temple at Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh. The trust has started constructing a Dravidian-style stone temple at the site, besides a pilgrim amenities complex, a Veda Patasala, a spiritual and meditation centre, and residential quarters.
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The temple is coming up at a site where houses of Gujjar families were demolished and their farms wiped out two years ago. The Jammu Development Authority, which came into existence in 1970, claims that it had purchased the land from the Gujjar families. The displaced families, however, contested this. “We are not against the temple. The government should at least give us an alternative piece of land near by,” Fazal Hussain, 45, told Frontline.
His brother Yakeen Ali, 48, is among those who lost their houses and land. “They demolished 10-15 houses and didn’t give compensation to anyone,” he alleged. The two brothers now live with their three other brothers and their families across the highway in the same area.
As per the Jammu and Kashmir Agricultural Land (Conversion for Non-Agriculture Purposes) Regulations, 2022, agricultural land can be repurposed for non-agricultural use either with permission from a District Collector or through payment of a conversion fee. Apparently, the rules do not apply to local residents and pastoral families that have abandoned the tribal way of life. In and around Jammu city, the authorities have bulldozed their businesses on state land allotted by previous governments. For instance, on October 20, 2022, a garage workshop and few shops were demolished near the office of Divisional Commissioner, Jammu. Mohammad Baloch, 50, owner of prime land near Jammu Railway measuring around one acre, said, “Our forefathers were given this land by Dogra Maharajas.” Deploring that the authorities did not entertain the official documents supporting his claims, Baloch added that, “The High Court had ordered the revenue department to give me the ownership rights (under LB-6/S432 rules) of the land. Now I have filed a contempt petition against the department.”
Of late, the Jammu and Kashmir Land Grant Rules, 2022, have created a lot of resentment in local business and political circles. Allegedly, the rules will dispossess local businessmen and entrepreneurs of leased land, which will eventually be made available to non-locals as well. These rules allow leasing land to outsiders, including retired members of the armed forces, war widows, migrant workers, and climate migrants.
“We have invested heavily in our properties but due to militancy there was no business. Now that the security scenario has begun to improve, the government has decided not to extend the lease,” lamented a Gulmarg-based hotelier, who did not wish to be identified.
Incidentally, well before the Jammu & Kashmir Development Authority Act, 1970, led to the creation of development authorities of the tourism department in the erstwhile State, state land in areas such as Gulmarg, Pahalgam, and Patnitop was used by the Gujjars and the Bakarwals.
Farmers living along the IB and Line of Control are also a worried lot. Many of them have lost a part of their land to the growing military infrastructure after the Kargil conflict. In most of the cases, they do not get rent or financial compensation. “Many farmers here have got the ownership rights under the Roshni scheme. They deposited the required fee in the government treasury. A function was held in our village where the then Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad handed over land allotment papers to farmers under the scheme,” said Ajit Kumar, a member of Hiranagar-based Border Welfare Association in Kathua district. “But the revenue department revoked those entries from the record during the pandemic,” he said.
Describing the old laws as “regressive”, the Lt. Governor asserted at a recent press conference that the old laws were not framed keeping in view “the interests of the common masses”. But the victims of the new land laws are not convinced. Sudesh Kumar, a West Pakistani refugee in Jamral village, said, “The government wants to make us landless. But we will not refrain from fighting back if we are forced to part with our land.”
- The Jammu and Kashmir Land Grant Rules, 2022, have created a lot of resentment in local business and political circles.
- Allegedly, the rules will dispossess local businessmen and entrepreneurs of leased land, which will eventually be made available to non-locals as well.
- Lt. Governor Manoj Sinha’s administration has scrapped laws that provided safeguards to farming communities.
- Soon after Article 370 was revoked in 2019, the government began the process of creating land banks and also initiated a campaign against encroachments on properties of Pandits who fled the armed insurgency that erupted in Kashmir.
- In the past two years, local residents have staged protests against the “anti-encroachment” drive, and some of the protests have led to confrontations with revenue officials over the digitisation of revenue records.