Instead of targeting only the political opponents on the issue of “land grabbing”, the government needs to focus its attention also towards evicting encroachments on more than 2.35 lakh acres of valuable government lands that has become a major problem in Jammu and Kashmir. This includes about 30,000 hectares of forest land that is estimated to have been encroached upon.
The issue has warmed up during the ongoing elections for local bodies’ when a former Chief Minister Dr. Farooq Abdullah and certain other National Conference (NC) leaders have been accused of grabbing forest land in the Sunjwan (Bathindi) area in the outskirts of Jammu.
The “encroachments” highlighted by the administration on Tuesday are just the tip of an iceberg as according to official figures more than 2.35 lakh acres of government land is under encroachment in the Union Territory (UT).
The authorities are to be blamed for letting influential people encroach upon government and forest lands and then sleeping over the orders of the government to get these encroachments vacated.
Land hungry people have not even spared water bodies and the Khushalsar Lake near Srinagar has vanished as influential people shamelessly built their palatial bungalows over the lake area. About 300 such encroachments have been identified on the lake. Similarly, incidents of man-animal conflict are increasing day by day as encroachments are being done in the habitat of animals.
Taking serious view of slackness of the concerned authorities on the issue, the then Governor NN Vohra had on 18 July 2018 ordered undertaking of satellite mapping to retrieve more than 2.35 lakh acres of government and forest lands that has been encroached.
Vohra had convened a high level meeting to have first hand assessment of the scale and nature of land encroachments in the State. Consequent to the detailed presentation made by KB Aggarwal, Financial Commissioner, Housing and Urban Development Department, the Governor expressed serious concern over the encroachment of more than 2,23,056 acres of government lands.
Vohra directed all District Collectors in the State to immediately carry out comprehensive mapping of all encroachments relating to State, Forest and Panchayat lands, Dal, Wular, Nageen lakes and other water bodies, Highways and public roads in their respective jurisdictions and forward the same through the Divisional Commissioners of Kashmir and Jammu by 31 July.
However, the issue got pushed under the carpet as Vohra was replaced by Satyapal Malik as the new Governor in August a few days after he had issued strict instructions for mapping each and every encroachment.
According to official figures, Rajouri, Poonch, Ramban and Anantnag districts top the list of forest encroachments.
Political patronage to encroachers came to light when Mehbooba Mufti, who was chief minister with support of the BJP, came under severe criticism when she ordered the top brass not to provide police protection to officers of any department for evicting the nomadic Gujjars from forest and government lands. This generated sharp reaction in Jammu where allegations were made that Mehbooba was trying to alter demography of the Hindu majority Jammu region.
The Roshni Act that was introduced in 1990 during the regime of Farooq Abdullah and amended by successive governments was used as a tool by influential politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen to acquire government lands at throwaway price. Following orders of the High Court, the CBI is investigating the scam in which more than 2.50 lakh acres of land is involved. It was alleged that the Act aimed at changing demography of the Hindu majority Jammu region.
The UT administration last month annulled the Roshni Act to pave way for reclaiming the encroached lands. The Act aimed that the J&K government would earn Rs 25,000 crore by transferring state land to existing occupants at market rates and the money would be utilized for constructing electric projects.
However, what the government earned by doing so was a pittance.