Sunday, January 15, 2012

News Article: Karnataka: In no man's land


FRONTLINE, Volume 28 - Issue 16 : Jul. 30-Aug.12, 2011

Karnataka: The report of the Task Force on encroachment of government land is likely to suffer a silent death.

IT was clear to V. Balasubramanian, the Chairman of the Task Force for Recovery of Public Land and its Protection, when he submitted his report on encroachment of government land that it would ruffle quite a few feathers in the political and bureaucratic echelons of Karnataka. What he was unprepared for was the report's complete rejection by G. Karunakara Reddy, State Revenue Minister, on flimsy grounds.

The Task Force, set up by the State government in September 2009, submitted its report on July 4. Apart from Balasubramanian, a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, the Task Force had 16 members – most of them senior bureaucrats drawn from various departments. Large-scale irregularities by government officials and direct collusion of bureaucrats and politicians with the real estate mafia were detailed in the report, titled “Greed and Connivance”.

Rejecting the report at a press conference on July 6, Karunakara Reddy stated that the report had not been accepted by the other members of the Task Force. He later said that the report had not been received in a sealed cover and had been passed to the media before it was submitted to the government.

Balasubramanian refuted the Minister's claims. “The reasons given by the Minister are invalid and untrue,” he told Frontline. “I sent out a copy of the report – including a Kannada translation – to all members on June 23, and no one had any objection to it except for a minor point raised by the Lake Development Authority [LDA]. The final meeting of the committee was fixed for July 4 and no one had any objection to my presentation of the report.”

He also dismissed Reddy's charge that he had passed on the report to the media before submitting it to the government. “I submitted the report to the Chief Secretary several hours before my press conference,” he averred.

Karunakara Reddy is one of the three Reddy brothers whose names are associated with the large-scale illegal mining activities in Bellary.

Why has the Revenue Minister rejected the report so vehemently? A close look at its contents will give one a clear idea.

The report reveals that 11.07 lakh acres (1 acre = 0.4 hectare) of public land has been encroached upon in Karnataka, which is 10 per cent of all government land in the State. The report also concedes that this a grossly under-reported figure. The Task Force had tabulated the data based on government sources and also complaints filed by the general public.

By government land, the report means lands belonging to the State Revenue Department, Forest Department and statutory bodies such as city corporations and town panchayats. Historically, gomaal (grazing land) has formed the bulk of the ‘commons', meaning resources that are supposed to belong to local communities. Other types of government lands are gunduthopes (fruit orchards and wooded village areas) in southern Karnataka; 38,000 tanks and lakes; smashanas (burial grounds); forests; Muzrai and Wakf land, and so on.

The report takes particular note of encroachments in and around Bangalore. It states: “This scramble for land (in Bangalore) has resulted, especially during the past 20 years, in encroachments on government and public land and land grabbing by powerful builders and land mafia with active involvement of persons in power – in politics, administration and real estate.”

It points out how vast tracts of prime land within the city were sold for a song with the connivance of officials of the Revenue Department. The sale of a valuable property near the Bangalore international airport, which did not go to the highest bidder, shows the involvement of the current Revenue Minister, Balasubramanian added. Lakes and waterbodies in Bangalore have also been filled up by the State government as part of a regularisation drive and large builders have illegally destroyed lakes. Only a handful of the 937 lakes in the records actually exist.

The report exposes the Bangalore Development Authority's (BDA) abysmal record in preventing encroachments. The report points out that many officials of the Revenue Department have been ‘trapped' by the Lokayukta.

Forest lands

Official records show that 1,65,796 acres of forest land has also been lost to encroachment. While it is assumed that mostly small and marginal farmers encroach on forest land, in parts of western Karnataka, which has the largest area under forests, it is the big coffee planters who are at fault. Forest lands are also the prime target of politicians as the case of encroachment by a former Speaker of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly shows.

While there are a number of Central and State-level Acts – such as the Karnataka Land Revenue Act, 1964; the Karnataka Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1986; the Forest Conservation Act, 1980; and the Wakf Act, 1993 – to check encroachment of public land, the glaring non-compliance witnessed in Karnataka shows how ineffective these laws are at times.

Administrative wrangling

There is the Karnataka Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Bill, which was passed by the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council in 2007 but has been waiting for presidential assent for the past four years. The Bill has stringent clauses, including the setting up of a dedicated special court to address issues of encroachment. Unfortunately, the passage of the Bill has been mired in administrative wrangling between the Centre and Karnataka. Balasubramanian feels that the State does not have the will to get the Bill approved.

The Balasubramanian-led Task Force is the first body that was set up to look into encroachment of government land across Karnataka and is one of the first such task forces set up in the country. Earlier, in July 2005, a Joint Legislature Committee (JLC) had been set up under the chairmanship of A.T. Ramaswamy to look into the same issue, but its mandate was restricted to Bangalore. The JLC submitted two reports to the Legislative Assembly in 2007, but as the legislature was dissolved in November 2007, no action was taken.

Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa said that he would look into the Balasubramanian Task Force report. Yeddyurappa had burnt his fingers in the past by trying to take on the powerful Reddy brothers. His noncommittal response could mean that this report will also go the way of the Ramaswamy report. On being asked whether he received all the necessary cooperation from government officials, Balasubramanian said: “Though the Task Force was appointed by the State, the irony was that every time we tried to take remedial action through the designated officials, the officers would be stopped by politicians. It is like the government stepping on the accelerator and the brake at the same time.”

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