Land Grabbing


By R. Raj Rao

ONE of the implications of the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35 A in the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir is that outsiders can now buy land in Jammu & Kashmir, and Ladakh. This, surely, can open up a Pandora’s Box. Not just wealthy Indians from mainland India, but more undesirably, commercial hawks, such as builders and hoteliers, can eye land in the region to make a quick buck to fill their coffers. This has already happened in many other hill stations like Simla, Mussoorie, Naini Tal, Ooty and Kodaikanal, and beach places like Goa, leading to air pollution, water shortages, traffic snarls and the strewing of litter. Two summers ago, there was such intense water scarcity in Simla, that the parched town stank and went thirsty, making life hell for local residents who have been living there for generations.

Potentially, the same thing can happen in the Kashmir valley and Ladakh, as wealthy Delhiwallahs, and even tourists from far off Bombay and elsewhere can now drive to the two union territories in their fuel-guzzling SUVs to stay in fancy hotels, or in their own holiday homes, erroneously referred to as “farm houses”. In the bargain, Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh will lose their sanctity. Of course, to the union government’s way of myopic thinking, this will significantly alter the character of what was once a war zone to a popular vacation hangout. Perhaps, film crews will return to shoot in the valley, as they did in the 1960s, when Shammi Kapoor romanced Sharmila Tagore in Kashmir ki Kali, or Shashi Kapoor romanced Nanda in Jab Jab Phool Khile. 

Land-grabbing has a notorious history in India. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when avaricious real estate developers eyed old properties situated on prime land in our towns and cities, and forcibly evicted octogenarian and nonagenarian residents who lived in these houses, often at gun point, only so that they could demolish the houses and build high-rise commercial complexes on the stolen land. The residents, old and decrepit, had no option but to give in to the threats of the builders and their hoodlums. They were paid a pittance for their properties and made to shift from their comfort zones to godforsaken neighbourhoods, regardless of the fact that there were no facilities, including health care, in the vicinity. Many of them could not withstand their ordeal and died of grief. This phenomenon, incidentally, is evocatively represented in Govind Nihalani’s 1999 film Takshak, starring Ajay Devgan, Tabu and Rahul Bose.

A more insidious side to land grabbing, however, now exists in a concept known as redevelopment. Here, a housing society approaches a builder on its own accord and gives him the permission to tear down a perfectly good building, not in danger of collapsing, to construct it anew. This gives unscrupulous builders a veritable carte blanche to do as they please. On paper, the builder may lure residents with more floor space area than their existing flats possess. He may also promise them more amenities, such as elevators, club houses, swimming pools and gymnasiums. At the end of the day, though, the builder is in the business for his own profit, not for charity or social work. Flats on higher floors with better views are reserved for new buyers to whom the builder can sell the flats at market rates. Existing residents become second class citizens who have no option but to accept what is offered. Very often, a residential building is converted into a full-fledged commercial complex; members who own flats in the building are persuaded to sell their flats and leave.

What is more alarming, however, is that a builder may renege on his word and not deliver the reconstructed building on time. To protect residents from thus being duped, some states have introduced a Real Estate Regulation Act (RERA) that makes it mandatory for builders to hand over redeveloped buildings to members within a stipulated time, which may vary from 18 to 24 months. But RERA isn’t a panacea for all ills; developers can easily find loopholes to circumvent the law.

Indians also tend to be aesthetically challenged. The notion of heritage sites and of town planning is virtually non-existent in India. The character of city streets is determined by its houses. If houses of a certain vintage are pulled down to replace them with modern structures, it affects the overall appearance of a street. Can one imagine Bombay’s Marine Drive, picturesquely known as the Queen’s Necklace, to have skyscrapers instead of the five-floor pre-independence buildings that it has always had? In Marine Drive where I grew up, the watchword is restoration, not redevelopment.

Arvind Adiga’s novel Last Man in Tower, portrays a lone resident who opposes a redevelopment proposal in his building, and is murdered as a result. The builder in question obviously has a vested interest in taking over the building, and has no qualms about employing thugs to eliminate anyone who frustrates his plans. We are back to the criminality of the past, in which the man’s neighbours become complicit in his killing.

The union government must ensure that rather than passing laws that facilitate land grabbing, the rights of ordinary citizens are safeguarded.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

  • Dr. R. Raj Rao is an internationally known Indian English novelist, poet and critic. He was Professor and Head of the Department of English at the University of Pune in Maharashtra. He has also been a Visiting Professor at universities in Canada and Germany 

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