Roshni Act scam of Jammu & Kashmir is the classic example of the misuse of now impugned Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution by Kashmiri leaders to loot the state exchequer and empower the influential and powerful by giving them ownership of the illegally encroached government lands at throwaway prices. It all began in 2001 during the last leg of the tenure of Farooq Abdullah who had returned as the state’s Chief Minister in 1996 after a long spell of President’s Rule. As per the Constitution of J&K, any legislation concerning rights of permanent residents of the state could be passed only with 2/3rd majority in both houses of the legislature. Throwing the statute book to wind, a law was passed by ‘voice vote’ to sell encroached government lands to the encroacher themselves. It came to be known as Jammu And Kashmir State Lands (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants), Act 2001. Purportedly, the Act was aimed at raising the resources for augmenting the state’s power generation capacity through the commissioning of new hydroelectric power projects and hence was popularly referred to as the Roshni Act. Ownership could be given only if the unauthorised occupants were permanent residents of J&K—natural persons or companies - fulfilling conditions under governing law. Initially, 1990 was set as the cut-off for encroachment on the state land. The government’s target was to earn Rs 25,000 crore by transferring 20 lakh Kanal of state land to existing occupants against payment at market rates.
The original Act was amended twice subsequently in 2004 & 2007, again without following the laid down procedures. The later amendments were motivated and an open invitation for encroaching government land and get it regularised. These amendments also had a hidden agenda as it unfolded later, and that was to change the demography of Jammu. While the original Act entitled only those under unauthorised occupation for a prolonged period before the passing of the Act, subsequent amendments diluted it and moved to unauthorised occupation on a cut-off date initially of 2004 by Mufti Mohammad Syed and later 2007 by Ghulam Nabi Azad. Amendments made in quick succession by Ghulam Nabi Azad enabled open loot of the government land and allowed many politicians, their relatives, government and police officials to encroach upon the prime property and have it regularised at dirt-cheap rates. A lot of non-agricultural lands were sold at agricultural rates. Azad wanted to become Sheikh Abdullah 2.
Advocate Ankur Sharma addressing media persons at Press Club Jammu
CAG report in fact only touched the financial aspect of the scam highlighting the loss of revenue to the State through arbitrarily amended rates but did not highlight the latent intent of demographic change which the local advocate Ankur Sharma termed as “Land Jihad”
Abdul Rahim Rather who had initially conceived the scheme again became the Finance Minister of the state when Omar Abdullah formed a coalition government with the Congress in 2008. During a discussion in State Assembly at Jammu in 2010, Abdul Rather admitted that free ownership rights were conferred on the vast chunk of land due to which the targeted revenue could not be generated. The coalition dharma prevented rather from revealing much more than this because the entire exercise was a den of corruption and systematic loot of the system by those who had taken the oath to follow the Constitution and were part of the system.
In November 2005, Ghulam Nabi Azad took over as the Chief Minister. Exactly a year after assuming office, Azad issued a circular that marked the beginning of undoing Roshni. Under the new rules, from market price, the rates were brought down to specific percentages of the market price depending upon the category of encroached land, namely residential, commercial and agricultural. For political parties and charitable institutions, the rate was fixed at 25 per cent of the market value. Incidentally, both NC and Congress parties are beneficiaries of the scheme and have built massive complexes in Srinagar on encroached state land, land worth crores were sold to these two parties for few lakhs. Over and above, the scheme was loaded with ‘rewards’ and ‘penalties’: a rebate of two to 25 per cent for people who make the payments within three months to one year and a similar penalty for those not doing the same. The rules were amended twice in quick succession each time easing the terms helping the encroachers.
Roshni’s fate was finally sealed on February 9, 2007, when Azad reintroduced the scheme in the legislature as a“revolutionary step” after Sheikh Abdullah’s historic and path-breaking land-to-tiller settlement. The amended law that earlier sought barely ten per cent of the costs from the encroachers now gave them FREE. They would have to pay a nominal fee of Rs 100 per Kanal for getting mutation in their favour in the revenue records. 1, 77,395 Kanal land in Jammu was almost gifted free or at throwaway prices to change its demography, only 15.47 crore was realised to regularise such a huge chunk of land.
In 2006, the government had estimated resource mobilisation of about Rs 25,500 crore by selling about 2,58,100 acres State land under unauthorised occupation. Only about Rs 76 crore was realised against a demand of about Rs 318 crore raised by the end of March 2013 with actual transfer of about 43,520 acres. Of this, a significant portion (about 42,500 acres) was categorised as ‘agricultural’ and transferred free of cost! In hundreds of cases, the price of land was not recovered despite the lapse of the allowed period of 2 years.
The declared aim of Roshni Act to generate revenue for investment in enhancing state’s power resources was lost in the open loot of state land and became a designed exercise to regularise encroached public lands. Big family estates built on public lands under unauthorised occupation were shown as a split among family members to claim higher rebates in the land price. Rates were arbitrarily applied and rebated even lower than the circle rates fixed for stamp duty purposes fixed by a high-level committee. Cases which had already been disposed of were revived to favour the blue-eyed through pick and choose an approach.
By March 2013, about 2,55,800 acre State land was reportedly under encroachment. Thus, the whole exercise only abetted further encroachments. All this happened because very deficient Rules were approved by the government and implemented in a shoddy manner. It caused immeasurable loss to the public exchequer and abetted encroachment of public lands. All these irregularities were brought out in the public domain through the report of Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) presented to the state legislature in March 2013. CAG in its report, had complained of non-cooperation by the state government officials and its machinery. Point to note is that Audit could check only a limited number of cases as all records were not provided.
The findings of the CAG report were forwarded to the State Vigilance Organisation (SAC) by the Principal Accountant General (Audit) for investigations. A local advocate from Jammu also approached the High Court in 2014 for court-monitored investigations into the transfer of land under the Act. CAG report in fact only touched the financial aspect of the scam highlighting the loss of revenue to the State through arbitrarily amended rates but did not highlight the latent intent of demographic change which the local advocate Ankur Sharma termed as “Land Jihad.” Vigilance did probe the case but selectively. It indicted two dozen officials including three former Deputy Commissioners, but actual land grabbers were not named.
High Court in 2018 ordered an end to sale, purchase or any other transaction in respect of land acquired under the Roshni Scheme. The Act of 2001 was finally repealed a few weeks later by the State Administrative Council in November 2018 without clarifying the status of land which already stood sold and muted. Petitioners once again knocked the doors of the High Court by filing fresh Public Interest Litigations (PIL).
While the original Act entitled only those under unauthorised occupation for a prolonged period before the passing of the Act, subsequent amendments diluted it and moved to unauthorised occupation on a cut-off date initially of 2004 by Mufti Mohammad Syed and later 2007 by Ghulam Nabi Azad. Amendments made in quick succession by Ghulam Nabi Azad enabled open loot of the government land and allowed many politicians, their relatives, government and police officials to encroach upon the prime property
In October 2020, the High Court with the Honourable Chief Justice in the chair gave its historic judgement which can be considered a significant milestone in the entire episode of unbridled loot of the state property by its custodians. The High Court has ordered a court-monitored time-bound CBI inquiry concurring with the petitioners that Roshni scheme worked to facilitate illegal vesting of state lands. The Court also ordered to complete identities of all influential persons (including ministers, legislators, bureaucrats, government officials, police officers, businessmen etc.) their relatives or persons holding Benami for them, who have derived benefit under the Act and/or occupy State lands. A tall order indeed because of the involvement of the system in the sordid episode.
The grand finale is awaited yet. The people are watching to see how CBI handles the case and how many high and mighty of Jammu & Kashmir’s who’s who is finally brought to book. Those opposed to abrogation of 370 and 35A and advocating its reversal must read and understand in detail as to how the said articles were being blatantly misused by the powerful to loot the erstwhile estate? Incidentally, it is the only tip of the iceberg.
(The writer is a Jammu based veteran, political commentator, columnist, strategic and security analyst. The views expressed in the article are personal)