FE Editorial: The big landlord

Written by The Financial Express | Updated: Nov 1 2009, 01:25am hrs
What distinguishes the latest chapter in Indias volatile land narrative is that it stars the Army. As The Indian Express has been reporting, senior officers appear to be involved in a fraudulent scheme to transfer land in Sukna to a sham educational society. The concerned land is located in the Himalayan foothills in Darjeeling, West Bengal. Here, the Vedic Village riddle still remains to be solved. Remember, on August 24, this country resort near Rajarhat was burned to the ground by villagers shouting land grab. Both CPI (M) and Trinamool members appear to have been in cahoots, as 44 acres was given away to the resort for Rs 97 lakhagainst the official buying rate of Rs 25 crore. While the issue awaits resolution, its industryin an all too familiar takethat has once again taken the brunt of the backlash. Remember also, the Satyam scam that shocked us all at this years opening also had a significant land grab componentwith the Raju family having leveraged their political pull to amass thousands of acres across south India. We could go on listing examples, but the point is plain enough, that government agencies have too much control over too much land that they manage too inefficiently.

Budget 2009-10 states that the Central government owned Rs 1,15,796 crore of land assets at the beginning of 2007-08 and that it acquired a further Rs 100 crores worth during the year. These are historical estimates. Plus, we have to consider the states assets separately. The many scandals that have erupted this year give one face to how these assets are being criminally mismanaged. But the negligence also has an everyday, normalised face. Why, for example, did the Supreme Court recently ban construction of religious structures on public land They encroach with impunity, making things difficult for traffic control and urban management by the day, and the government looks away. How substantive the encroachment is or how much it costs the exchequer is anybodys guess. Numbers are only intermittently available, such as when the Naveen Patnaik government admitted that 81,514 acres of public land was in unauthorised possession across Orissa. Generally, records are sparse and updated assessments sparser. Result: a waste of incalculable proportions while important projects are delayed for want of land. The web of regulationsfrom Chennai to Darjeelingengenders corruption even as it exacerbates Indias land logjam. High stamp duties, rent control, the Urban Land Ceiling Act, elaborate controls over the conversion of land from one use to anotherthe list of regulations that need to be reviewed goes on. Meanwhile, those who argue that the regulatory environment in India incentivises criminalisation of real estate make sense.