Roshni: Between a scheme and a scam

Representational Pic

For about a month now, based on leaked lists, my name has been highlighted, rather prominently, by various news agencies and newspapers in relation to the Roshni Scheme, now better known as “Roshni Scam”. If local and national newspapers are to be believed, I am now supposed to be a part of the illegal land grab deals. It may not be long before the media makes me the sole and only beneficiary of the alleged Rs 25,000 crores scam. Never mind the facts and the figures, this is a privileged price to be paid for having been in public life, even if briefly so.

Now that the J&K Government has, following the orders of the J&K High Court, made the list of beneficiaries under the Roshni Scheme public, it is important to present the facts of my alleged “land grabbing” along with  the sequence of events.

In 1956, much before I was born, my grandfather purchased a house on four kanals of land in Gogji Bagh, Srinagar for his daughter, who, it so happens, is my mother. He chose it because my father’s elder brother had recently bought the house next door. This is not just family trivia; it is relevant information, as you shall find out below.

The property was purchased from Uttam Singh Khorana for Rs 56,000. Lest it appears a bargain, in money value terms, this amount is probably closer to a couple of crores  today. He also paid the stamp duty and fees such as were applicable at that time and got the sale-purchase deed registered.

Like many residential areas in the valley, as also in rest of the country and indeed elsewhere in the world, the land had leasehold rights – for which, every year, a ground rent of Rs 40 was paid to the Government. It was, in the parlance of the revenue administration in North India, Nazool Land.

The lease for the land expired in 1980. Before the expiry of the lease, my mother, the legal owner of the land, applied for an extension of the leasehold rights on the land.  For 10 years, the government did nothing. This, even as the cabinet approved a policy for conversion of leasehold rights to freehold in 1981 and again in 1985.  As part of her application, my mother applies for transfer of one kanal each for me and my two brothers, and keeps one for herself. And that is how I come into the picture.

In 1991, another application was made to the Government enquiring about the status of the earlier application and making a fresh one for extension. Another decade passed, without any response from the government.

In 2000, the customary decadal application is made yet again, asking what happened to the applications of 1980 and 1990 and making a fresh request.  Lo and behold, the government finally acts.

The government sends the case to the Srinagar Development Authority, who go through their stipulated paperwork and process and issue a no objection certificate for converting leasehold rights into freehold. From there it goes to the Financial Commissioner Revenue who approved it. Then, the approval sat within the government as no orders were issued.

By this time, the Roshni Scheme had come into operation. Under the Roshni Act passed by the state legislature and the scheme formulated by the government, it became an obligation for my mother to apply for conversion. Otherwise, under section 13 of the Act, she could have been evicted. So, whether one liked it or not, an application under Roshni Act became inevitable.  Surely, applying under and following legal obligation cannot be a corrupt practice?

Be that as it may, the application was processed under the Roshni Scheme in 2004, letters were issued by the government to all four of us and finally the mutation was done in 2007. Within the framework of the Roshni Act we were treated at par with “Authorised Occupants” since my mother had applied in time for renewal of the lease. So where and how is it “loot to own”?

Importantly, the paid-for leasehold rights on the property have been legally and legitimately converted to a freehold right after paying a premium of Rs 7.5 lakhs per kanal to the state government. Much has been made of the throwaway price at which the land was given. The fact is that it attracted only a premium because the price of the land had been paid in 1956 when it was purchased. The premium was paid well within time of three months to avail of the 25 per cent rebate.

Since the residential area of Gogji Bagh was all Nazool land, my uncle’s property next door too had the similar issues. That land too was inherited by my cousins. Now watch how a family distribution is being hyped as embezzlement of land by the Drabus.  This for a family that lost surplus land of 1,500 kanals under land reforms. This is really and truly bizarre and indeed quite sad.

What wrong have I committed, if I may ask? How am I or for that matter any of our neighbours, who have paid to get their legal rights secure, party to the ‘scam’? I was not in government office during the formulation or implementation of the scheme. Yet, if you were to look at the media interventions, I am its poster boy!

Ironic as it may seem, I distinctly remember thinking when it was announced that the Roshni scheme was an excellent idea. It was one of the few policies of the government that seemed meaningful. I was told it had been conceived by Mohammed Shafi Uri as the then Finance Minister. The appeal of the scheme lay in its simplicity; people have leasehold rights on the most attractive investment and they will be willing to pay a premium to convert it into freehold. The monies thus collected would be used for investing in hydropower generation.  It was a win-win situation for both sides; people and government. But that was not to be.

Instead what do we have today? A scam.

If a legislation fails to meet its objectives, is it the responsibility of those who follow the legislation? This logic is hard to understand. On the contrary, compliance with law is the sine qua non of good citizenship. Or has it become a crime now? Do we as citizens presume that a duly enacted law by the legislature, not the executive, is fraudulent?  Is there a new legal principle of presumption of fraud rather than presumption of constitutionality of a legislation?

The scheme for conversion of leasehold rights into freehold rights is not something unique to the Valley. It is common across India even the national capital, where recently unauthorised colonies were regularised prior to the elections. Applying the same principle as to the Roshni Scheme, should all these people be evicted? Moreover, these conversions are typically executive actions, not state legislations like the Roshni Scheme.

Without trying to understand and unravel for people at large as to how a seemingly well intentioned scheme became an intricate web of a scam, and who manipulated it to profit from it illegally, the media is playing its assigned role of be-smirking and discrediting Kashmiris who have been in public life.

The way in which the government is packaging and playing out the Roshni scheme in the media, it is like saying that if there is an audit observation on the PM Cares fund, the blame is on those who contributed to the fund instead of those who managed it. If five years from now, the government of India discovers that there was a scam in the free ration scheme that it initiated earlier this year, will it hold those who availed of the free rations as responsible for the scam? Or for that matter, if the CAG finds a scam in the MGNREGA tomorrow, will all the “beneficiaries” be prosecuted for availing of a scheme that has been retrospectively struck down by the Courts as illegal?

Can I go to the court and file a defamation suit against the blatant lies peddled by Aaj Tak, India Today, ABP live, Indian Express and others? May be. May be not. For a perusal of the judgement of the High Court, ordains that “ministers, legislators, bureaucrats”, be bought to the book, not so much because of what they have done or not done, but because of who they are or have been. All this in the interest of “complete justice in the matter and to ensure confidence in the minds of the people”. Even if this is at the expense of gross violation of justice to those perceived as having been powerful? All this for satisfying the collective conscience, is it?

Tailpiece:

An old friend, who happens to be a veteran journalist, called to congratulate me on my promotion. A bit perplexed, I enquired what he was referring to. Pat came the reply: You have been promoted from the edit page to the front page! Edit page, he went on to add, is for the record. Front page is for recognition. Kashmiris do find humour in any situation. That, I guess, is the only way to survive.