By Sandeep Sahu
Some time at the beginning of the 1990s, an acquaintance offered this author a piece of land near Bahai Bhavan, close to the already bustling CRPF Square, for Rs 10, 000. Even after making allowance for the fact that the ‘offer’ was made over two and a half decades ago, this was a ridiculously low amount for a piece of land that was large enough to have a 3-4 bedroom house and still leave enough space for a badminton court! More alarmed than excited, I asked the man, “But who owns the land?” Pat came the nonchalant reply; “No one, actually. It belongs to the government. All you need is to construct a house and check in. You can rest assured no one is going to so much as raise a finger.”
If you think it was an empty boast, you are wrong. This man himself had ‘bought’ a piece of land in Nayapalli, not far from the land he was offering me, constructed rows of low-roof single-room structures and had let them out on rent without anyone asking a question! [To the best of my knowledge, he continues to enjoy possession of these premises and collects his ‘rent’ even now though he has moved into a more ‘respectable’ accommodation in IRC Village, just across the national highway.] Law-abiding citizen that he is, this columnist did not take the bait. But someone else did and has perhaps been living on it happily ever after.
If OTV’s ‘Maha Khulaasaa’ (It is no ‘khulaasaa’ actually, just the worst kept secret of our times) aired on Wednesday is anything to go by, things have not changed much in the 27 years since then. If anything, the ‘offers’ have become more lucrative coming as they do with the promise of electricity and water connection. At Rs 40, 000-60, 000 for a piece of land measuring 800 sq ft , the rates have become even cheaper than they were in the 1990s even as actual market rates have gone skywards.
[As if to prove that Bhubaneswar does not have a monopoly on the fine art of land grab, the Puri collector announced an investigation into the encroachment of 16 acres of land earmarked way back in the 1920s for Swargadwar, the holiest cremation ground in the state, the same day that OTV ran the exclusive story on the land grab in Bharatpur on the outskirts of the capital city.]
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The alacrity with which the administration got going after the story on land grab in Bhubaneswar was broadcast on OTV was amusing. Barely hours after the ‘khulaasaa’, a joint team of the General Administration (GA) department, Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) and Bhubaneswar Development Authority (BDA) descended on the site and announcement was made over the public address system about the demolition of the structures constructed illegally on Tthursday. The promptness with which the administration acted on Wednesday only served to highlight its monumental failure to act earlier despite having all the powers, the manpower and infrastructure to identify such illegal construction and carry out the demolition. The response of Debendra Mohapatra, the Director, Estates, of the GA department, to the disclosure by OTV was laughable to say the least. “We never sit idle and take legal action whenever we find such illegal activities. Eviction is on at many places,” said Mohapatra while informing that the Revenue Inspector (RI) had been asked to inquire into the matter.
The administration would like us to believe that it was just a ‘stray’ case that somehow managed to escape its attention. But I am afraid it is much more than that and a case of complicity. How on earth can rows upon rows of houses, complete with boundary walls, roads and even dugwells, come up within the city limits- and not just in Bharatpur - without any of the multiple agencies getting wind of it? What could be more ironical than the fact that the concerned officials, who should have been the first to know when the first encroachment took place, have been asked to ‘inquire into the matter’? Far from being entrusted with any inquiry, they should have actually been suspended for dereliction of duty before any inquiry began!
The Task Force headed by former bureaucrat Tara Dutt gave us an idea about the scale and audacity of land/house grab in the Twin City. And the state government’s response to its recommendation of cancelling all discretionary allotments made after 1995 gave us a glimpse into the government’s extreme reluctance to act in such matters. Though the two cases look outwardly different, they point to the same malaise: the official machinery acting as willing facilitator of land/house grab.
What the acquaintance told this columnist two and a half decades ago – “No one owns this land. It belongs to the government” - holds good even now. Government land, it seems, belongs to everyone but the government.