Last Wednesday, the J&K administration unleashed earthmovers on a white-plastered concrete building in Srinagar city. Dozens of onlookers gathered to watch the destruction as the metal arm of the bulldozer smashed the building’s walls, sending chunks of debris raining all over the courtyard.
The structure belonged to Ali Muhammad Sagar, a former Cabinet minister in J&K and senior member of the National Conference party.
The J&K administration has launched unprecedented demolition drives to recover what it insists are various state and kahcharai (pasture) land from the possession of encroachers, pursuant to the notification of 9 January that directs all deputy magistrates in J&K to achieve 100 percent retrieval by the end of this month.
So off went the bulldozers as well as teams from the J&K revenue department and the police, descending as they would upon the sundry urban neighborhoods, city suburbs, farms, villages, and the privately owned orchards to strike the properties deemed as encroachments, clear out the trespassers and enforce fresh demarcations.
But the move– its rationale couched seemingly in the emancipatory language – has led to a political uproar in Kashmir where a slew of land-related changes since October 2020 has already ignited suspicion regarding alleged attempts to make land acquisition easier for the outsiders.
The issue has now reached the Supreme Court which on 20 January, while hearing an urgent petition seeking a stay on the demolitions, refused to pass an order but orally instructed the J&K government not to demolish any property.
The latest measure aimed admittedly at freeing the government land from squatters, feeds directly into the local anxieties about the administration trying to create land banks so that outsiders could buy properties, should the locals show reticence in selling away their land.
The Ghosts of ’Roshni’ Act
The land recovery drives in J&K are also linked to the now-scrapped J&K State Land (Vesting Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001, also called the ‘Roshni Act’.
The law allowed squatters in J&K to secure proprietary titles in return for a fee determined by the government, paving way for the regularisation of encroachments on public land and generating money to fund power projects in the former state.
But following the allegations including an adverse CAG report which states that the law had become a source of corruption for those in power, J&K’s then governor Satya Pal Malik repealed the act in November 2018 on the ground that it had failed to meet its objectives as only a meager amount was recovered against the expected revenue of Rs 25,000 crore.
In October 2020, the J&K High Court held that the Roshni Act was “completely unconstitutional, contrary to law and unsustainable” and ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to probe the alleged irregularities.
The J&K government expected the transfer of 1.02 lakh hectares (bulk of which was in Jammu) at the time of the passing the act which points to the sheer magnitude of encroachment of public land in J&K.
It is the recovery of this land which is at the center of these demolition drives.
Overturning of Historic Land Rules of J&K
The tearing down of former minister Sagar’s property was advertised as a commitment of the government to only go after the region’s former political elite who are alleged to have made fortunes while in power at the expense of the public – a familiar trope that the administration invokes every time it decides to embark on a step that’s likely to face public censure.
“Over the last two years, land owners have been empowered through a series of land reforms,” J&K Lt Governor Manoj Sinha said recently. “Legal action is being taken against influential people who had illegally encroached upon the government.”
The truth, however, is that the overriding changes exercised in the local legal system post scrapping of Article 370, have weakened inherent protections enshrined in the laws that have either been amended or no longer exist.
Rules for Land Acquisition in J&K
As many as 890 Central laws have become enforceable in J&K since August 2019, and around 130 state laws have been reapplied following a series of modifications.
The government insists that the older legal system was “regressive” and that new changes constitute much-needed “reforms” that will usher in a new era of prosperity.
In October 2020, the Union government notified J&K Reorganisation (Adaptation of Central Laws) Third Order, rolling out a host of new changes regarding land ownership and sale.
These changes made it possible for Indian citizens to acquire land in J&K under specified conditions while also giving broad powers to the government to earmark certain areas as “strategic”, thus, granting armed forces sweeping authority over them.
The Ministry of Home Affairs withdrew 12 land-related state laws of J&K and adapted another 26 laws with readjustments.
The laws that were repealed as a whole include:
J&K Alienation of Land Act (whose provisions barred land transfer in favour of a person who wasn’t a cultivator)
J&K Big Land Estates Abolition Act (that put a ceiling on the number of acres that an individual could hold while bestowing the tiller with the excess land without compensation)
J&K Common Lands (Regulation) Act (that made allowances, among other things, for requisition of land to cater to expanding population of villages)
J&K Consolidation of Holdings Act (that rearranged agricultural land holdings to improve agriculture)
J&K Right to Prior Purchase Act (that determined a preferential right to purchase a property)
J&K Utilization of Lands Act (that barred the State from taking over vacant lands unless the owners were given sufficient time and notice asking them to renew cultivation)
These changes invited accusations that the government was trying to broaden the state’s powers pertaining to the transfer and ownership of land in J&K that too in absence of any legislative oversight.
Suspicion Over Loss of Land
Last year, the J&K government brought another radical change. Its Board of Revenue notified the regulations for the conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes, either with permission from a District Collector or through the payment of a conversion fee.
Experts say, this will lead to further attenuation of agricultural land. In 2011, the average size of operational land holdings was 0.62 hectares. This came down to 0.55 hectares in 2015.
As per J&K revenue department figures, out of 24.16 lakh hectares of land available in the erstwhile state, just over nine lakh hectares constituting 37 percent of the total area of J&K, is the sown area.
As a huge number of the population in J&K is dependent on agriculture and allied sectors (both directly and indirectly), experts believe any intervention that adversely affects the land use change could potentially trigger a wave of economic and social discontent.
“The sectors contribute to less than 20 percent of J&K’s GDP. However, in terms of the number of households and people directly dependent on agriculture, the share is staggeringly high at 50 percent,” said Ejaz Ayoub, Economic Researcher at the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar. “So any negative policy concerning land ownership and usage can inflict irreversible damage.”
History of Land Reforms in J&K
The first phase of land reforms in J&K post-Independence was unveiled in 1950 after the then Prime Minister (The title of PM was later downgraded to Chief Minister in the 1960s) of J&K Sheikh Abdullah passed Big Land Estates Abolition Act putting a ceiling of 22 ¾ acres on individual land holdings. All the excess land was granted to the tillers without compensation.
Later in 1972 and 1976, during the rule of Syed Mir Qasim when a second round of reforms was rolled out, the ceiling was further reduced to 12 ½ acres. But this time the peasants had to pay levy to acquire ownership rights.
The 1972 reforms did not specify how the government would disburse the surplus land. If the laws that have been repealed or amended over the last three years offer any indication, it is clear that the legal mechanisms had made it difficult for owners to alienate that land, thus strongly protecting the agrarian nature of the erstwhile state against the forces of decay.
Recently, the J&K administration further amended sections 6, 7, and 12 of the 1976 law to make it easier for landowners to sell off their land.
Dr Sheikh Showkat, a Kashmir-based legal scholar and academic, while reviewing the changes made in the J&K Agrarian Reforms Act 1976, said, “The 1976 reforms, while revising the ceiling on land ownership, granted the excess land to tillers but with the conditions that made it impossible for the tiller to sell it,” said Showkat. “In these new amendments, those legal restrictions have been done away with. By doing that, the Modi government probably wants to encourage Kashmiris to sell away land.”
Change in Land Rules Spark Angry Reactions
During a recent protest against demolition in Roopnagar area of Jammu, the protesters questioned why a Muslim-dominated area was singled out for the drive. “We have been living here since before India got independence in 1947,” a protesting woman asked. “How have we suddenly become illegal occupants?”
Similar protests against the demolition programmes have taken place in the Anantnag and Pulwama districts of Kashmir.
More recent changes have also provoked a sense of alarm. Last year, the government brought the registration of documents for immovable properties under the purview of the Public Service Guarantee Act (PSGA), making it mandatory for the authorities to complete the process within two days.
In another move, the administration empowered sarpanches (village council chiefs) as the competent authorities to issue building permissions for new residential houses in the rural areas of J&K.
It also rolled out a 50 percent remission in stamp duty for first-time buyers of real estate in the housing sector.
These steps have kindled suspicions that the government intends to accelerate the purchase of properties in J&K by outsiders as well as ease the procedures for the construction of residential spaces.
In fact, the Modi government has gone out of its way to encourage outsiders to settle in the Valley. In 2022, for example, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) introduced the ‘Kashmir Valley Special Incentive’ and other concessions to Central government employees who avail transfer to Kashmir.
A Host of Land Issues Plague the UT
The current controversy over evictions is hardly the only occasion that has generated a wave of anxiety over land in the erstwhile state. Last year, the government amended J&K School Education Rules, 2010, obliging schools to produce a range of no-objection certificates that weren’t previously mandated or face de-registration.
Some deputy magistrates in Kashmir even issued orders to identify private schools built on state-owned land. However, the management of the private schools challenged the amendments in the High Court which ordered the preservation of the status quo.
In recent times, the J&K government has notified J&K Land Rules 2022 under which the outgoing leaseholders of state-owned land must hand over possession of the property so it can be re-auctioned, “except in the case of subsisting or expired leases for residential purposes."
Most tourism-related commercial facilities are built on state-owned leased land. The new rules effectively bar previous occupants of the leased land from participating in land auctions if they have defaulted on revenue payments or are being investigated under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA). The owners fear that these properties will go to non-local bidders after being auctioned.
Lack of Consensus
Even if all these measures are beneficial, the government has not been able to convince people of its desirability except for offering vague promises that new laws will lead to progress and wealth creation even as experts continue to raise questions about whether they were needed at all.
But far from fostering a consensus with the local public and members of civil society, the government has chosen to railroad these amendments via pliant bureaucracy that’s hardly accountable to people in the way elected governments are. That's a recipe for more political discord.
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. Faizan Mir is an independent multimedia journalist and tweets at @faizanmirtweets.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)