The Jammu and Kashmir State Lands (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act of 2001, popularly known as the Roshni Act, opened the gates of unscrupulous methods for several influential people including politicians and bureaucrats who abused the law by grabbing lands for free or at throw away prices. The Roshni Act was duly legislated in the J&K legislative assembly with the twin aim of providing ownership to landless people and to fill the coffers of the state exchequer for meeting the demands for financing hydroelectric projects.
The law originally was aimed at conferring 20.55 lakh kanals of land with proprietary rights to the occupants, subject to payment of land cost fixed by the government, with the cut-off date of 1990 for the land occupancy. In 2007, under the Ghulam Nabi Azad Congress-PDP coalition government, the law was further amended to extend the benefits to those who were in occupation of land uptill 2007 and the clause of giving agricultural land for free was also squeezed in, widening the ambit of corrupt dealings and leading to its grossly flawed implementation of the law.
A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in 2014 pointed out that the scheme had failed to meet its objective of raising funds for power projects in the state. Though it had a target of collecting Rs 25,448 crore, the government had generated only Rs 76 crore through the programme between 2007 and 2013.
According to official figures, out of the total 3,48,200 kanals of land regularised under the Roshni Act, 3,40,100 kanals were transferred free of cost as agricultural land. Not all beneficiaries were influential with political and official connections. According to data, the scheme had 30,000 beneficiaries who could get ownership of state land. Most of them were poor homeless and landless people.
Instead of investigating those few cases of wrong-doing and cracking down on the corrupt, the government chose to completely revoke the law after the High Court verdict in October 2020 which held all Roshni allotments as void ab initio, and declared the Roshni Act as unconstitutional and also ordered a CBI probe into the cases of wrong-doing. What the government instead has chosen to do is to “name and shame” as well as criminalise every beneficiary of the Roshni Act as the process of cancellation of the land ownership begins, without modalities in place for due compensation in genuine cases or for distinguishing between a genuine land holder and a land shark.
Even though many legal beneficiaries got the land ownership free of cost, they have since invested in the land under a legal process. Many of the small land holdings have exchanged several hands and the present occupant may have bought it at much higher rates. The law also allowed the lease holders of certain lands, leases of which had been mutated decades and even a century ago to get the land under their possession regularised in lieu of an amount fixed by the government. There cannot be one yardstick to view all the beneficiaries and officials. While many went through the legal process, others circumvented the law to grab huge chunks of land for peanuts or nothing at all. Both these categories of people cannot be branded as ‘land grabbers’ and ‘encroachers’ or be criminalised. Similarly, in cases where the government officials have delayed the process of extending renewals of leases on landholdings in possession of individuals, the tag of ‘encroachments’ is unjustified.
As per the court ruling and the consequent scrapping of the Roshni law by the government, how would the people be compensated, if at all, once the process of retrieval begins? They were beneficiaries as per a duly legislated law in the J&K assembly. Once the law is revoked, it should not result in robbing the law-abiding citizens and taking punitive action against them.
It is generally observed that most laws, howsoever, well-drafted and well-intentioned, are open to a host of ways in which they can be abused and tweaked to suit the vested interests. The success of any laws and the purpose they are purported to fulfill also depends on the effective implementation of the laws. For any law to be considered for being revamped or revoked, it must satisfy the test of proportionality. If the percentage of the beneficiaries that resorted to unlawful means was to meagre, is this harsh method of striking it down with retrospective effect justified?
The logic of wrongdoings as pointed out by the CAG report were valid. The law with its ambiguous amendments in 2007 had indeed widened the scope of corrupt practices rather than put them under tighter check. It allowed people to grab massive chunks of lands for free and also clandestinely get their land-use changed.
An investigation was definitely in order and those who turned the Roshni scheme into a money-spinning machine need to be brought to book. For close to a decade now, the law has faced multiple legal challenges because of such lacunae. This needed to be addressed. If the problem is the implementation of the law, it is unpragmatic to strike down the law itself. Yet, if the latter is imperative, the axe falling on the genuine beneficiaries – mostly poor farmers – is travesty of justice. It also creates a wrong precedent. Could this procedure by applied to other land related laws including the Agrarian Reforms Act and the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act that the government has recently scrapped to deprive and criminalise the beneficiaries of J&K’s landmark land reforms?
It is an even graver injustice that a mythical narrative is being placated to give a religious colour to the Roshni scheme by some vested interests that are peddling the theory of ‘demographic jehad’, which is far from the truth. A scrutiny of the list of beneficiaries would reveal this falsehood that is being promoted to further a divisive agenda with dangerous repercussions.