If Pride and Prejudice is a timeless novel turned in two films, a TV serial and more, so is Greed and Connivance. Except, stand back. Greed and Connivance is not a piece of Victorian-era fiction, it's the title of a report published by V Balasubramanian, Chairman of Karnataka's Task Force for Recovery and Protection of Public Lands on land grabbing in the state, particularly Bangalore. Each chapter in this book is a story in its own right, and the entire report is perhaps worth a television series of the length of Ramayana.


According to Balasubramanian's report, the Laughing Waters residential layout in Whitefield stands on around 40 acres of ‘stolen' government land with the original land grant for a chicory plant there dating to 1966. Apollo Hospital on off Bannerghatta Road abutting JP Nagar stands on 5 acres of land given to a third party for an exclusive cancer hospital which never came up there. The Church of Immaculate Conception, Bangalore, illegally and surreptitiously sold an acre and 30 guntas of government land to a local developer who has repeatedly gotten stays on demolition of the building that came up there.

 

V Balasubramanian, Chairman, Task force. Pic: Subramaniam Vincent

The report goes on and on with scores of such stories, with each case documenting connivance by government officials to allow land grabbing. Public land granted originally for one use is usually then sold or repackaged illegally and through several transactions, for some other use, with original grantees, builders, and officials all involved. Balasubramanian has pointed out how successive state governments have allowed sustained encroachment. One whole chapter is devoted to the BDA's contribution to land grabbing. The BDA today holds only around 1000 acres of open space instead of roughly 3000, he notes in the report. 

Balasubramanian is no small person himself, neither is he an outsider. He was formerly Additional Chief Secretary of the Government of Karnataka. He is a retired IAS officer. Even so, in early July, just few weeks before the Bellary mining scam boiled over into a crisis, Revenue Minister Karunakar Reddy refused to 'accept' and print this report. "I spent Rs.220,000 to print copies of the report myself", says Balasubramanian.

The Task Force (TF) was created by the B S Yeddyurappa cabinet in 2009 in response to criticism in the legislature the same year over inaction on the A T Ramaswamy joint legislative committee (JLC) report of 2007 on land encroachments. The Ramasawamy-led JLC had unearthed that of the roughly 150,000 acres of government land in Bangalore urban district, 24,000 acres valued at Rs.40,000 crores were under encroachment.

The government refused to print the task force report. Pic: Navya P K

Balasubramanian says that land grabbing is a part of deteoriation in land administration in Bangalore. "There is absolutely no observance of the law, compared to cities like Delhi or Chennai. The slide down in Bangalore is much worse". He links government-owned land being grabbed illegally to the tremendous pressure on land in Bangalore. "As the title (of the report) says it connivance between officials and politicians. The officials are protected by politicians. It's a symbiotic relationship."

Balasubramanian has also made a number of major recommendations to the state government without which he says going after encroachment removal will be futile. One loud alarm he sounds is this: Unless the lands in the three districts - Bangalore Urban, Rural and Ramanagram covering over 8000 sq.kms of area - are comprehensively surveyed and government lands marked, over 500,000 acres of government lands here are now running the risk of encroachment and plain theft as Bangalore expands. A copy of his report is with Citizen Matters.

For someone who has daringly exposed Bangalore and Karnataka's land grabbing and politics, Balasubramanian has a very calm voice and matter-of-fact demeanour. There is neither outward anger nor frustration at the sheer scale of the grand larceny during the three decades. He was dressed in plain maroon T-shirt and casual shorts when he gave this exclusive interview to Citizen Matters, in his study.

Excerpts.

First there was the A T Ramaswamy-led JLC and then the Task Force under your leadership. Which means there was intent in the government to try to address the land grabbing problem. But in your report you say out of 12,00,000 acres, you have managed to restore only 47000 acres. Why?

There were 7-8 TFs formed at that time. I don't know whether the CM was even aware that this TF will do its job seriously. Even about the intent itself, one need not be absolutely sure that they really wanted to remove encroachments.

Also while the Task Force was formed to remove encroachments, it had no legal powers. It was a coordinating body to prevail over existing officials who had legal powers to do the work.

Your report has been out there for the last two months. Has there been any interaction between you and the state legislators? Can you name some of them?

Yes, many legislators have gotten copies from me. H Viswanath, MP from Mysore, H K Patil MLA from Gadag, and Congess opposition leader Siddaramiah.

Any Bangalore MPs or MLAs? Suresh Kumar or R Ashoka?

Suresh Kumar, yes. Not Mr Ashoka. About 20 legislators in all have taken copies. NGOs and other individuals have also taken copies.

Any feedack from the legislators?

They have said the report is alarming and that it should be taken seriously. They did not say they will discuss in the Assembly. That may happen after the Bellary issue dust settles down.

This is much more serious than Bellary. That was serious because of the entire irregularities in one district. This is serious because it covers land grabbing for the state as a whole, including Bangalore. The real estate value in Bangalore is so high that the value of land being grabbed is on a much large scale than the illegal mining in Bellary.

No land survey in Bengaluru since 1960

In his report, Balasubramanian has pointed out that Bangalore's land records are incomplete. He says the BDA does not have a clear answer to how many sites it has issued since 1975. He urges for a comprehensive city survey for Bangalore and the three districts comprising greater Bangalore, pointing out the last one done was in the 1960s.


Will a city land survey solve this problem of the government not protecting its own lands?

Certainly. Bangalore was surveyed by the state government department for surveying in 1965-70. At that time Bangalore (municipality) was 125 sq kms and now it (BBMP) is 772 sq kms.

Are you saying that the land records with the BDA, BBMP and the panchayats around Bangalore have come from this '60s survey?

Yes, even now you will find only village names being mentioned (to refer to city areas) by the BDA for e.g. These names came from revenue department and the survey department. They have old survey maps showing the extent of survey numbers on which present day buildings are standing. The surveys also have markings for government land.The city survey wing of the Commissioner of Survey and Settlements department is as old as the revenue department itself, which is the oldest. Surveying started during mughal times followed by the British East India Company. Surveying is the oldest activity that has been happening.

So the authorities - BDA / BBMP - have not done any surveys of their own within their own limits of what is government land and what is not.

No. Except, when BDA notifies lands, they use the survey maps at the survey department. Usually this is for compensation. For government lands, there is usually no compensation.

When you say Bangalore city survey has to be done again are you saying the entire 772 sqkms has to be resurveyed?

Yes, and not only that. There is a larger issue involved. Bangalore is growing at 4%. It is expanding into Bangalore rural district, which already is only rural in name. Hoskote, Nelamangla, Doddaballapur, etc., are all urban areas. So are Bidadi and Ramanagaram. Within 10 years time, Bangalore would have expanded into all these areas.

The BMRDA's jurisdiction is in the three districts - Bangalore urban, rural and Ramanagram. There are still about 500,000 acres of government land left in these areas. Before that too goes away to encroachment, it is better the government resurveys the lands, and reserves and protects the lands for various public purposes such as stadiums, educational institutions, housing, etc.

Connect the dots a little more. Will a resurvey actually help? Greed and connivance can happen even after the survey. What will a survey fix?

The survey will fix the identification itself. Now there are no identification marks on government lands except on (outdated) maps. With the latest technologies and equipments it becomes possible to accurately pinpoint where the government lands are and the extend. Which means you can protect it.

Take for instance defence lands in Bangalore. They have about 5000 acres. Not an inch of it is encroached upon. Why? Because they have protected their lands, they have barbed wire fencing, etc.

Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Act (LGP) has not been passed

In his report, Balasubramanian has devoted an entire chapter to the saga by which the Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Act of Karnataka has not been passed. It has been mired in red tape over when specific reference to Wakf lands should included in it or not.

If the LGP Act is passed will it fix the land grabbing issue? Or will each of these encroachment cases be dragged into the special court too for 10 years and so on?

There is a history behind this. Karnataka is not the first state to try to pass this Act. Andhra Pradesh passed it 25 years back. They have a special court in AP and a secretariat for it. It is just like another Lokayukta. Currently, the encroachers drag officials from different departments to different courts - taluk level courts to supreme courts. They immediately go to the courts and get the stay orders, even if officials initiate action.

If after the Act is passed, a special court comes, then all the land encroachment cases will have to be tried only in that court. And those cases will be defended properly. Government agencies are unable to defend cases also now because they don't have proper advocates. Regular government advocates deal with hundreds of cases, they don't have the specialisation for this.

The special court will have special advocates who will have to be much more qualified and will deal with only one subject. The Act also combines civil and criminal juridiction. Three years imprisonment can be given by the special court to land grabbers in addition to confiscation of encroached property. All this becomes a deterrent.
Quick takes on proposed special court to tackle land grabbing cases

Who can file a complaint on encroachment in the special court?

Anyone.

This is like a PIL system?

Yes. The court can also act suo moto on the basis of newsapaper reports.

When a citizen gives a complaint on encroachment, what information should s/he have for a court to say this prima facie enough for a case?

They will need to give a photograph. They will need to have some document that got them to be suspicious in the first place. It may not be 100% proof, but the court will take up if there are grounds.

There is a new cabinet now. The report is out. The LGP Act is there, not passed. What should happen now to really bring it back?

The government left to itself will not touch this report and its reccommendations. It will only affect its own people. The only hope is the legislature. Opposition parties for their own reasons - may not be for altruistic reasons - will put forth their points in the legislature. There can be that kind of pressure. Government may then be forced to act. It can then become an Act.

Also, people have already asked for copies of my report to go on a PIL. This may also happen.

What is already happening now is this: because of the vacuum create by inaction of various government departments, the judiciary has already stepped in.  For e.g. for lakes there is a monitoring committee constituted under Justice N K Patil that meets once a month. This committee was formed as a result of Bangalore-based Environment Support Group filing a PIL. There are already judgments that have asked for lakes and commons to be protected.

Can the High Court of Karnataka take congnisance of your report and say something about the LGP Act not being passed?

That they won't do. They will leave it to the legislature. But like the lakes committee was formed to monitor lakes, they can form a committee for protection of the commons/government lands. in Karnataka. But that will be a much bigger task.

Government won't print the report

What will happen again even if your report goes to legislature? What really needs to be done for the actions you have mentioned in the report be taken?

This report is much worse for the government than the the JLC report itself. When it was submitted on 4th of July, the last date of the committee, the revenue minister Karunakar Reddy called for a meeting and said they were not accepting the report.

On 4th July, I submitted it to the Chief Secretary S V Ranganath. I also gave it to Secretary to (then) Chief Minister, Additional Chief Secretary, Revenue Secretaries, and various other officials. Reddy told me on 6th that he can't accept it. But he could have not spoken for the government as a whole because the report goes into forest department lands, animal husbandry lands, etc. It should have been discussed in the cabinet.

I have done my work. The government refused to print this. I have printed it myself and at my cost and distributed it to people.

So you printed it with money available at the Task Force?

No I printed it with my own money. I spent Rs.2,20,000. The point is that the Task Force report need not be approved by government. There are reccommendations there that are objective. No political parties or politicians are being singled out.

Why did they refuse?  Which department is supposed to print it?

The Principal Secretary of the Revenue Department. They think it is against revenue department. (Bulk of the encroachments are on revenue lands, no doubt.) But having done some work for two years, that should be documented. Since they refused to print it, I said I will.