Laws for the land

If one issue has been grabbing the headlines every day in Tamil Nadu, apart from Samacheer Kalvi (uniform education system), it is the spate of arrests for alleged land-grabbing by members of the DMK. In the past two months, according to the state police, nearly 1,000 cases have been lodged with

the “land-grabbing cells” recently created in each district headquarters. However, the term “land grabbing” remains unclear, especially in legal terms. This only creates confusion in the minds of both the complainants and the accused.
Criminal law should have clarity in definition and action. This is for two reasons — a person should know what he is being accused of. If s/he does not, it will be a Kafkasque trial. The second is more obvious and dangerous — the police should not misuse the power vested in it and bring all complaints under the label of land-grabbing. In a politically charged atmosphere, the use of police power will be dictated by the political wind blowing at the time. It is the duty of the legislature to define the boundaries of the law and that of the judiciary to ensure its enforcement.
The Transfer of Property Act and the Registration Act demand that the transfer of property from one person to another, above the value of `100 can only be by way of a registered document. Registration gives authenticity to the transaction. However, the act of land-grabbing arises when the very registration/transfer of land is done under threats to the owner’s life or to the lives of his loved ones or relatives. This is another form of extortion. However, since our regular criminal courts are already loaded with cases, land-grabbing, if it becomes endemic, would require a special court or tribunal for the sake of a quick trial since the loss of a house or property is the beginning of breakdown of law and order and its retrieval should not be bogged down by slow trials.
Any forcible takeover of real estate, land or building, can be said to be an act of land-grabbing. In constitutional governance, the only entity entitled to take a citizen’s land forcibly, is the state itself by resorting to the Land Acquisition Act. With the Supreme Court coming down heavily on acquisition of land from farmers in Uttar Pradesh for developing real estate on the land so acquired, even that law is being rewritten.
This concept of a non-state player forcibly taking over land is not new in India. In the early 1980s, when the prices of land started rising in urban centres, there was a proportional increase in those attempting to grab others’ lands in prime or developing areas. The provisions of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, were found insufficient. Extortion, attempt to murder, etc have been around for more than a century, so have attempts at land-grabbing. It became such an epidemic that it forced the then Andhra Pradesh government to create an exclusive law to fight it. The Andhra Pradesh government issued an ordinance titled the Andhra Pradesh Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Ordinance, 1982. This was followed up with the Andhra Pradesh Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Act, 1982. The legislation in order to curb the menace gave a wide definition to what is meant by land-grabbing. It also created a special tribunal to deal with all cases of land-grabbing. This law totally excluded the jurisdiction of regular civil courts.
The need for such separate legislation is also imperative for another fundamental reason. The police, as per law, is not entitled to investigate civil disputes. The Tamil Nadu Police Standing Orders direct the police not to investigate matters that are civil in nature.
The negative side of giving vast powers to the police is the danger of reopening old or stale claims.
Let us take a situation in which a deed has been registered on valid consideration and a purchaser believes that he has become the owner of the property. Taking advantage of the new situation, if a complaint is lodged stating that the sale is one procured by extortion or fraud, the police should be in a position to say that it will not investigate the claim because it is bogus or because it is stale. Lodging complaints for extraction of more money is not unknown. Therefore, it requires continuous independent judicial supervision.
The act of land-grabbing by its very nature involves certain civil issues. Therefore, while the police has to be empowered to investigate a case, the investigation should be supervised internally by an officer of impeccable reputation and externally by a dedicated tribunal. Such a measure will go a long way in stopping politicians from using the law for settling political scores.
Another issue that has to be addressed by the government and the high court is how these courts are going to be formed. If regular courts are going to be empowered to deal with these issues, it will add to the explosion of cases. If new courts are created, they will have to function with full infrastructure. Land disputes require immediate settlement. At the same time, justice should not be hurried. This is more so in case of land-grabbing allegations.
A few years ago, there was fierce competition amongst fast-track courts to render judgments, not necessarily justice, within a few days of the crime. What was hailed as a super-fast verdict in a murder case was upset by the high court and the accused were acquitted. The mental turmoil that the accused would have undergone cannot be ignored.
In addition, the tribunals should be given the power to grant interim orders to prevent creation of third-party rights. An accused can create more confusion by selling the property to another. Mere punishment will not be sufficient. The property grabbed should be restored to the complainant if the complaint is found to be genuine.
A balance has to be struck between societal interests to curb violent acquisition of land and the individual’s right to property. Justice, civil and criminal, is too serious to be left in the hands of the police alone.

V. Lakshminarayanan is a lawyer practising in Madras high court and also the deputy editor-in-chief of the Madras Law Journal

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