Public Properties, Private Profiteering

In state after state, public land is being grabbed for private exploitation. The perpetuation and scale validates that this is not sustainable without the cosy nexus of rent seeking politicos and a corrupt administration.

By Shankkar Aiyar |Published: 6th October 2019 04:00 AM |

Imagine this. Imagine forest lands across an area three times the size of Goa or larger than the state of Tripura illegally encroached upon. Imagine airport land worth thousands of crores occupied by squatters. Imagine an area larger than Bengaluru illegally occupied.

These are not entries from Ripley’s Believe it or not! Last month, the government, in response to an enquiry under the Right to Information Act, revealed that 12,81,397 hectares of forests, that is 12,813 square kilometres, which is public property, was under the clutches of private profiteers.

Topping the gallery of infamy is Madhya Pradesh, where 5.34 lakh hectares of forest land, that is 5,437 sq km, effectively an area larger than Jabalpur, is encroached. Following close is Assam, where 3,712 sq km of forest land, the size of the district of Tinsukia, is encroached.

The spectre of political intent and administrative apathy is surreal — there is the exhortation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to plant trees (Mann Ki Baat, April 2016, June 2019), there is the demand from states for special allocation for forest cover from the 15th Finance Commission, and then there is the fact that an area larger than the geographical area of Qatar is taken over by squatters.

The private exploitation of public property is not limited to forest lands. During the Monsoon Session of Parliament, on July 15, 2019, the government revealed that over 9,622 acres of defence land was under encroachment in 30 states and Union Territories as of December 2018 — Uttar Pradesh tops the list of states with over 2,200 acres of defence land under encroachment.

The Ministry of Railways, which is arguably the largest land owner among ministries, revealed to Parliament that as of March 31, 2019, over 821 hectares or roughly over 2,000 acres of land needed for expansion and essential for addressing issues of safety is under encroachment.

The Civil Aviation Ministry, struggling with loss-making enterprises ranging from Air India to Airports Authority of India, has over 979 acres of land under encroachment. Of this, over 308 acres is encroached in Mumbai alone. To get a sense of the value of property under encroachment, consider the real estate transactions around the Mumbai airport.

Earlier this year, a Japanese company bid Rs 2,400 crore for an acre of land in the Bandra-Kurla Complex, adjacent to the airport. Assume the valuation of the airport land to be one-tenth of the BKC deal and do the math for the 308 acres under encroachment — if monetised, the land could fetch a pretty five-figure sum.

The horror story of encroachments has many facets. Consider this. The government of India, under the aegis of the Archaeological Survey of India, manages a host of monuments of historical and cultural importance. This summer, the government revealed that 321 monuments were illegally occupied — leading the list of states with most encroachments are Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka.

Every department of the central government has the convenient option of parking the issue of illegal occupation of public property/lands/forests on the state governments with a blasé “encroachment is a state subject” response to every complaint and query.

Not that the state governments are doing any better in protecting land under their care. Factoids from the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India are mind-numbing.

In its 2019 report on Rajasthan, the CAG states: “In 10 tehsils 3,101 trespassers had encroached upon 30.77 lakh square metre of government land for housing, commercial, industrial and brick kiln purposes”. Worse, there was “no centralised system of maintaining database of government land”.

It is not just Rajasthan which suffers from systemic sloth. The CAG reported in 2018 that 1.92 lakh acres of government land in Karnataka — that is over 780 sq km, or larger than the area of Bengaluru — was under encroachment and 1,856 out of 2,608 complaints received were pending verification and eviction.

In the 2018 report on Maharashtra, the CAG pointed out that “in Thane, a lake existed 30 to 35 years ago and now a slum comprising 300 to 350 houses had grown up and remaining open land was used for parking vehicles,” and that brick kilns were illegally occupying 1.74 lakh sq m of government land.

These instances symbolise the problem. The scale of the phenomenon of encroachment and its existence for decades clearly validates the existence of political patronage and even sanction — whether the encroachment of forest lands or land for commercial exploitation. In state after state, land is being grabbed for setting up brick kilns and obviously this is not sustainable without the complicity of state government departments.

There is no paucity of laws or legal provisions. The crux is accountability. Ostensibly in every government department someone somewhere is responsible for maintaining possession and thus maintenance of public property ownership. Sadly the observance of the rule of law mostly rests on the law of who is ruling.

The perpetuation of illegal possession of public property for private profiteering represents the cosy systemic nexus which sustains political corruption. The moot question: What is the message the political class is sending to taxpaying citizens?

Shankkar Aiyar, political economy analyst and Visiting Fellow at IDFC Institute, is author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution&Accidental India. You can email him at shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @ShankkarAiyar. His previous columns can be found here. This column was first published here.

Journalist-Analyst. Author of ‘Accidental India’ and Áadhar: A Biometric History. Studying how the market for politics rules the economics of people!