Thursday, October 11, 2012

Land Sharks on Prowl

LOA Vol 36 - Issue - 02 - 15 Oct 2012
Land Sharks on Prowl

Although there is nothing illegal about it, land sharks close to top-notch politicians of the country are busy engaged in grabbing revenue land from Islanders for a pittance, and it is unfortunate that the local settlers are in deep slumber where they are losing their land on a regular basis on one pretext or the other. Lack of any Regulations to check alienation of land is going to change the face of the Islands in no time, if the trend continues unabated.

By Zubair Ahmed

Alienation of land from the local population is not just an ethical issue. It needs serious attention from the policymakers in the wake of massive land grab going on from North Andaman to South Andaman.
Highly placed sources reveal that a businessmen-duo from the capital has been on the prowl since 2006 for prime revenue land close to pristine beaches starting from Diglipur to Hutbay in Little Andaman. It is learnt that this land mafia, based in the national Capital has already bought about 300 acres of revenue land belonging to poor and vulnerable Islanders.
The modus-operandi is very simple. Tired with the bidding and tender process on revenue sharing and long-term lease on fixed rental by the ANI Admn, no big hotel chains are interested in investing in the Islands. The whole issue is the cumbersome process of the ANI Admn with bottlenecks at every turn. Speaking to LOA, a senior official in the ANI Admn said that the negative approach of the bureaucrats, inviting them to invest in the Islands on one hand and at the same time washing off their hands from any kind of assistance in getting the necessary clearances have been discouraging the investors to come to the Islands.
However, the land mafia close to top politicians with high connections has been successful in circumventing the whole process and grabbing revenue land from the Islanders. The duo has found an easy way out to help the hotel chains to come to the Islands.  With prime property close to the beaches in their possession, they are today in a position to negotiate with big and famous hotel chains to come and buy land from them.
And, when the strings are attached to the Capital, all processes are eased for them to get commercialization of the land, they have purchased. When poor Islanders run helter-skelter to get their 200 sq mtrs land commercialized, these big fishes need not go through any burdensome process. They get red carpet welcome when a phone call from the Capital reaches the power corridors of the Islands.
The commercial conversion of land has been a big issue for the Islanders for a long time. The Andaman Chamber of Commerce and Industry had been vigorously pursuing the matter since tsunami. But, who cares for the Islands or the Islanders. It is alleged that the restriction on commercialization of land was put in place to put the brakes on this businessman-duo and force them to negotiate at the highest level for allowing the commercialization. The restriction on commercialization of land was lifted as soon as this mafia, who also have close links to the leading dynastic families in Delhi and in Punjab, could manage it for their own advantage. However, the local industry is happy that it has been a windfall for them, not realizing the fact that the remote control of all the affairs of the Islands lie somewhere in Delhi and its vicinity. Perhaps the next time a Chief Minister visits Port Blair the local public will be quicker to spot the hidden agenda.
The ongoing land grab in the Islands by top politicians of the country through different sources have started to raise many eyebrows recently. From Ross and Smith in Diglipur to Bada Balu in Chidiyatapu and Hutbay, more than 300 acres of prime revenue land owned by local population have been purchased by land mafia from the Capital.
In Rutland, another big fish has been engaged in purchasing land from the settlers and when one farmer resisted, he had lured the settler by raising the price to about Rs 50 lakhs for 5 acres of land.
Debnath Biswas and Madhavi Biswas, both in their early sixties could not even imagine a life away from their land.
"They offered us Twenty Lakhs first" says Debnath Biswas, "then they increased it upto fifty lakhs. We have been living in this land and making our living for the last forty years. Why should we leave this place? We gave them a clear NO. Then they tried to threaten us by saying that all the land surrounding us has been purchased by them and that we will not be able even to go out of our house. "
"If they block our way we will cut two more trees and make two more dinghies and will go in our own way" interjects Madhavi.
"What can we do with the fifty lakh that they give us? If you go to a hotel and eat a Biriyani, hundred Rupees is lost. How does it get replenished?" the rustic village logic of Biswas is difficult to be countered with modern economic jargons.
About 60 acres of land has been already grabbed in Rutland. It is learnt from high sources that a DRDO project is also on the anvil in the Island, and the realtor from the Capital is amassing land for resale bonanza. Apart from that it is some reputed hotel chains have also started showing interest in such lands.
Unfortunately, the Islanders are yet to learnt a lesson from Havelock, where the local settlers today have little stake in their own place with many of them selling their land to resorts, but at least for a premium. The situation is worse today with some of them turning landless and the money spent on frivolous things.
States like Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal have Regulations which puts restriction on alienation of land. The West Bengal Alienation of Land (Regulation) Act, 1960 has provisions like restrictions on alienation, if the area proposed exceeds such limits as may be prescribed having regard to the availability of land in the locality for the use of the people of the locality or the proposed alienation is in the opinion of the State Govt prejudicial to the public interest.
"When there is restriction in tribal areas, why can't we have such a regulation for non-tribal areas too?" asks an old inhabitant. "If any project wants to come up, like in tribal area, the Islander can be made a stakeholder in the project," he said.
Protective laws can help the non-tribals too like the Himachal Pradesh Transfer of Land Act prevents alienation from land protection to the tribal population. Under this Act, the Tribals cannot sell, mortgage or lease out their land to non-tribals without prior permission. In the Islands, although we need to seek permission for sale of land, it should not be given to non-Islanders. "Its not going to hamper any project or developmental activities, as project can come up in any land, but the ownership of the land will remain with the Islanders which gives them a stake in the project.
It's high time the politicians, civil society organisations and local associations come together and demand for a Regulation to put restrictions on alienation of local land or land sharks with high connections has already spread their tentacles through the Islands.

Bharatpur Beach - Neil Island Land Deal: Pawarful Connections

LOA Vol 36 - Issue - 02 - 15 Oct 2012

Bharatpur Beach - Neil Island Land Deal:
Pawarful Connections

By Zubair Ahmed 

With new revelations on the whopping Irrigation scam unraveling in Maharashtra, the connections and links of Soma Enterprises with the NCP-Congress combine has a thread ending up in Andaman and Nicobar Islands too.

Soma Enterprises, which surprisingly won the bid for the Bharatpur Beach property in Neil Island too has many interesting linkages which points finger towards the long tenure of the incumbent Lieutenant Governor, Bhopinder Singh.

In Maharashtra according to news reports, all the tenders were in excess of 10 per cent above the estimated costs. Government rules clearly stipulate that any tender quoting 5 per cent above the estimated costs needs the approval of Secretary of Finance, Planning and Water Resources. To circumvent that, the minister revised the original estimates post the bids. The clearances were given simply on the signatures of Ajit Pawar and Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation Executive Director DP Shirkhe.

This is the same modus operandi used by the Lieutenant Governor in the Neil Island case too – of changing the original estimates post the bids. Despite many objections raised by Vivek Rae, then Chief Secretary, he forced the Administration to offer the land on a platter to Soma Enterprises for a meager Rs. 25 Lakhs per annum, by retrospectively reducing the minimum acceptable benchmark price to qualify Soma Enterprises low bid. This is the same Soma Enterprises where the same Avinash Bhosale was the promoter, a builder from Pune known to be close to the Pawar family. It was difficult to substantiate the motive of the whole deal. However, it was alleged that in exchange, the Lieutenant Governor had got an extension of tenure, unprecedented in the history of the Islands. Certainly the fact that the bid process coincided with the end of his initial tenure may have raised such doubts in peole’s minds.

The Light of Andamans had broken the story (Beach Properties: Andaman for Sale, Issue 14, 30 September 2011. To read the complete story, click here:

In the case of Neil Island, right connections with an obliging Administrator had worked in favour of Soma Enterprise to grab the deal dodging all laws in the rulebook.

It is also interesting to note that Soma Enterprise was a novice with no experience at all in the hospitality and tourism sector. No representative of Soma Enterprises’ bid partner, whose experience was shown to meet technical qualification criteria, had ever been seen during or after the bid process.
Why the Administrator, sidelining his own Administration went ahead and aggressively advocated to accept the bid of Soma Enterprises is not a puzzle anymore.