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Land grab

When the Army Loses Ground

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Indian Army property under the Southern Command is being used for commercial purposes in dozens of cases. But investigations are being stonewalled

The Indian Army is entrusted with the task of keeping the country’s territory secure. But it barely seems able to guard its own land. By the look of it, the Adarsh Housing scandal of Mumbai was just an advance warning. What has come tumbling after is a land scam that has left the Southern Command at least Rs 2,000 crore poorer in assets. Acres and acres of Army property has been taken over by private clubs, recreational centres, educational institutions, shopping malls, and, in one striking case, by a housing colony bang in the middle of a shooting range. All this with the armed forces looking the other way.

Confronted by vigilant citizens, these civilian establishments wave no objection certificates (NOCs) in the air that are supposedly issued by the Army. But the Army appears clueless about how and on whose authority these NOCs were issued (if at all), even as the businesses on its land continue to run unhindered. How could this happen?

Technically speaking, NOCs are issued by cantonment boards that operate Army cantts. These boards are under the supervision of the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C: of, say, the Southern Command), but through an inter-service organisation that oversees Army real estate and works directly under the Ministry of Defence (MoD): the Directorate General of Defence Estates (DGDE), an apex body that has under it a network of Defence Estates Offices (DEOs) in various geographical ‘circles’.

The complex structure of authority need not cloud the fact that when official documents go missing from Army records, it raises questions of corruption within the ranks. As many as 97 cases of encroachment have been reported of land under the Southern Command. Most of the glaring cases that have come to light involve the blatant misuse of property classified as A-1: land in active occupation of the forces and allied services. What casts suspicion on the men in uniform is the beneficial offices—membership of management committees, for example—that some Army officers hold in commercial establishments that have cropped up on encroached property.

It’s not just private players who are sitting pretty on Army land. In Maharashtra, even the state government has got hold of some. The loser, again, is the Southern Command, which has not got the compensation promised by the state. The list of cases is long and ugly, some of them exposed by whistleblowers, prompting the Army to order an internal audit of Southern Command properties. Led by the then director of the Audit Defence Services, Vimalendra Patwardhan, the team submitted its report in November 2009; it pointed to 106 instances of anomalies including loss of land and related financial irregularities.

Admittedly, the details of what happened are sketchy, given the way questions have been stonewalled. There is also the added complication of ‘old lease bungalow’ cases, where individuals during the British Raj were given ‘occupancy rights’ to property within cantonment areas that the Army sought to retake control of. Their existence, sadly, has only made it easier to fudge the circumstances under which some of the defence land was misused. The stonewalling speaks for itself; for the most part, enquiry letters sent by the team to the departments in charge did not get replies. The cases are numerous. Here, we look at some of the more shocking ones:

PUNE’S FUN N SHOP MALL

In 2009, Habib R Patel, a resident of Pune, blew the whistle on a mall in operation on land in the city’s Fatima Nagar area under the jurisdiction of the Southern Command. He began with a Right To Information (RTI) query in March that year, and then kept at it. He wrote a letter dated 8 October 2009 addressed to the GOC-in-C of the Southern Command, levelling allegations of an unauthorised construction: a multiplex located in Fun n Shop mall, known locally as ‘Big Bazaar mall’ (after its anchor store). In his letter, Patel alleged that the cinema complex was built not just hastily but in violation of various rules and regulations of the Indian Army Act. The builders, Subhash Shah & Associated Architects Pvt Ltd and Kumar Capital—which later changed its name to Kumar Urban Development Ltd—had in their possession an ‘NOC’ that neither the Pune Cantonment Board (the NOC issuer) nor the Command headquarters had any copy of.

“If the Army maintains that no NOC was given to the builders,” says Patel, “then how is it running? How can a builder construct a multiplex on defence land without the knowledge of the authorities?”

Patel has been knocking at door after door, contacting just about every authority he can, but has not got any answers. “Despite giving so much information to higher authorities in the  

Indian Army, nothing has been done,” he says, “I submitted so much documentary evidence of an NOC having been provided without the knowledge of Army higher-ups and at the whim and fancy of the then CEO of the Pune Cantonment Board SK Sardana, but senior defence officials have not taken any action against him.”

Asked to comment on the matter, Sardana, now posted to Chandigarh as joint director of Defence Estates at the Western Command, simply says: “This is an internal matter of the Army, and all disputes are under the scanner of the concerned departments. If Patel has raised some issue, it will be replied [to] through proper channels. I will not comment on this matter to the media.”

However, the paper trail of letters—partly available with Open—that began with Patel’s initial exposure of the scandal is damning enough. According to letter No 19719/DE from the office of the Principal Director of Defence Estates undersigned by Joint Director Sudhir Chopra, for example, Habib Patel had submitted loads of documents to show that Sardana handed over a completion certificate to Kumar Capital and Subhash Shah & Associated Architects Pvt Ltd on 27 October 2008. Sardana also gave these builders sanitary and health related NOCs dated 16 January 2009.

It was on 31 March 2009 that Patel had filed his RTI query on these NOCs; and on 15 April 2009, the Centre’s Public Information Officer CV Gokhle informed Patel that no licence for the multiplex had been issued, and that it was the state health department that had to place a health NOC before the Cantonment Board for approval, not the other way round, for a health okay to be issued. That’s when Patel took the matter to the DEO of the circle, urging it to examine what looked like a fishy approval granted to a business that was flouting the Army rulebook. The DEO sent the Pune Cantonment Board’s CEO a notice on 20 October 2009 (letter No 19719/LC-L/DE) directing his office to furnish details of and confirm whether an NOC bearing the number 3/1/WAN-FN/H-S, dated 16 January 2009, signed by SK Sardana had indeed been issued. If so, the DEO sought a copy of it.

There was no reply. The DEO and other higher authorities sent seven other letters. Again, they were stonewalled. Confidential documents available with Open show that the DEO’s requests for clarity were brushed aside. There was no record available of any such NOC, nor completion certificate. Nor even of the letters sent. All documents related to the multiplex case, it turns out, went missing from the Board’s records soon after Sardana vacated the post. Perplexed, on 21 January 2011, Chopra instructed the Board to investigate the disappearance of the letters it had sent.

Was any NOC issued, or were the builders flashing a forgery? This is unknown. But the multiplex still bustles with business, with not even a squeak of protest from the Army on whose land it runs. This suggests collusion. “There are definite lapses on the part of the Pune Cantonment Board,” says Patel, “and the Army should punish the guilty if it does not want to have the same loss of face it suffered as it did over the Adarsh Housing Society scam.”

BELGAUM’S FIRING RANGE FLATS

For a worse case of Army land having been misappropriated for civilian use, turn to Belgaum in Karnataka, where the state housing board has built a 1,500-unit housing complex in the midst of an Army shooting range: the Bagdad Asmara firing range in Benakanahalli village, to be precise.

The impropriety of this construction was exposed by Ashish Kulkarni, a resident of Belgaum who raised an RTI storm, reserving a large part of his outrage for the absurdity of the location: ‘This is a case of utter negligence not only [of] human lives, but also [of] the Army’s own land. Despite knowing that this is a danger zone for civilians, how did the Command office give permission for construction of houses on the said land? A huge amount of both money and land has been lost by both parties. When I raised the question through letters addressed to Chief of Army Staff General VK Singh, the matter was taken up. Otherwise, people would have been sold apartments there, risking their lives. Why did the Army sell this property when it knew that this land was not safe for residential purposes and the shooting range could not be used if a housing complex is built on [it]?’

The Army has not been paid for the land. Nor have any of the houses been sold. It was on 13 November 2010 that Kulkarni sent his letter to General VK Singh, asking for an enquiry to reveal how the residential complex arose in the first place. After the land was given away for the project, Kulkarni had observed, firing practice there had come to a halt. So, in utility terms, the Army’s loss was even greater than the tract on which the houses had come up. In his letter, he also alleged that Belgaum MP Suresh Angadi had used his political clout to construct an engineering college on another portion of the firing range. Army personnel, he added, had raised questions during the early stages of its construction, but then turned evasive about the project.

Sources in the Army’s Maratha Rifles posted in Belgaum back Kulkarni’s allegations. The projects violate Army guidelines, they say, and this is a blatant land grab right under the noses of senior officers. Angadi, on his part, contests the Army’s right to the land. “These were my ancestral properties,” he says, “and not me but the MoD took away the land, and despite correspondence through letters, the Ministry has not taken any action, and hence it is disputed land now.”

So, how did the houses come up? The commissioner of the state Housing Board sought the permission of the Karnataka and Goa circle DEO, via a letter dated 29 April 2005, to use the ‘western portion’ of the firing range—Survey 80, 81, 82 and 82 and 83 of Benakanahalli village, Belgaum—for a housing complex.

The DEO issued an NOC stating that Survey 83 and 84 fell outside the shooting range area, and this was thus a no-danger zone for civilians. When the houses finally came up, to the horror of observers, they were bang in the middle of the firing range.

It was only after Kulkarni blew the whistle that the Southern Command took note of the issue. It wrote a letter in February 2006 to the Karnataka Housing Board’s commissioner, putting on record its surprise over how such an NOC could have been issued, given that Survey 83 was in fact a zone of danger for civilians. The letter also mentioned that such an NOC couldn’t be given by the station headquarters in Belgaum, and could only be issued by the DGDE, with the station HQ’s role limited to offering advice.

On its receipt of the letter, the Housing Board was in a fix, having already spent crores on the project on the assumption of an Army go-ahead. The Housing Board’s executive engineer shot off a letter to the circle’s DEO, asking it to resolve the matter. So far, there has been no headway.

OTHER CASES

The Patwardhan audit report of November 2009 had made a mention of 106 cases of Southern Command land irregularities. Each relevant department was asked for an explanation, but most queries went unanswered. According to the report, records of land holdings under the Southern Command are riddled with discrepancies. In Secunderabad, Andhra Pradesh, for example, the Army has 4,655.7 acres by DEO records, but an official 2009 report on ‘Land Under Military Authorities’ puts the count at 5569.3 acres. In Pune, DEO figures give the Army 2,929.3 acres, while the report mentions only 1,190.2 acres.

What muddles the count is the grey territory of old lease bungalows (many of which are being fought over in courts of law). In Secunderabad, for example, 114.2 acres of A-1 cantonment land has been subject to mutation—from lease- to freehold—in favour of civilian claimants who went to court. But still, the discrepancies mean that something is seriously amiss.

Most cases of civilian use of Army land have no legal sanction whatsoever. Here is a sample of cases that evoke suspicion, to say the least:

» In 1994, the Army attached about 25 acres of land given to the Poona Club, reclassifying it as A-1 land. Today, it hosts Rajendra Singhji Institute, a private set-

up that has no mention in Army records. It also has a golf course. The Army charges rent for the land, but Rs 16 lakh was pending as on August 2009.

» In 1907, the Pune Cantonment Board leased out a horse-race track to the Royal Western India Turf Club for Rs 1,200 per year. Today, the club uses the 24.1 acres of land as its own, with no permission taken from Army authorities for any changes made.

» The Royal Western India Turf Club has a bungalow (No 4 on Sholapur Road) on 1.6 acres of defence land under old grant terms that is meant only for residential use. The club pays the Army Rs 5 annually for it, but charges up to Rs 50,000 an evening for private programmes held there.

» In 1994, a 16,500 sq m plot of land in Lohegaon, Maharashtra, was leased out to the Maharashtra State Electricity Board for Rs 1.32 lakh per year and a one-time premium. The Board initially deposited Rs 23.9 lakh towards the lease rent and one-time premium, but after 1995, it stopped paying its rent. The DEO made no effort to recover the dues.

» In 1982, Brij Gopal Fatehpuria asked the DEO for an NOC to run a petrol station on Secunderabad Cantt’s bungalow No 179, since the 7.3-acre plot was under his self-proclaimed power of attorney. The DEO turned down the request, but he set up a petrol station under the banner Kingsway anyway, and obtained an NOC later that was subsequently cancelled—without any disruption, one might add, of his business.

» Of the many clubs once run by the Army and now under civilian occupation, old grant bungalow No 220 in Secunderabad Cantt stands out. On 20 acres, the Secunderabad United Services Club located there was meant to serve the armed forces. Today, it’s a civilian revelry house, and has been overbuilt in clear violation of Army rules (its guest house has 33 AC rooms, for example), on the apparent nod of an Army sub area commander who happens to be on the club’s management committee.

» Bungalow No 3 of Queens Garden, Pune, stands on 7 acres of land held under old grant terms, with occupancy rights of the superstructure purchased by Ram Kumar Agarwal of Citizens Sport and Recreation Club. The sanction for the mutation of the bungalow’s occupancy rights (in his favour) was given by the office of the Army’s DGDE on the condition that he admits that the land’s title is State-held and he uses it only for residential purposes. However, it now hosts Residency Club, for which a swimming pool, billiards room and other buildings have been built without approval. The CEO of the Pune Cantonment Board issued notices for the demolition of the unauthorised buildings, but these were set aside by an appellate authority (on technical grounds). Some of the constructions have since been regularised by the Southern Command’s GOC-in-C on a fee of Rs 3 lakh, but the commercial use of the bungalow has been challenged by the DEO at the Bombay High Court. The matter is sub judice.

Sardana and his ilk may call such irregularities “an internal matter of the Army”, but let us not duck the issue: any sign of rot in the ranks of India’s main defence force is something no citizen can ignore.