Rampant encroachment and the misuse and usurpation of wakf assets representing Islamic religious endowments is the reality across India. Development of available properties, often in prime urban locations, has hardly happened either. The opportunity cost is heavy: substantial income that these could generate for the welfare of the community is being foregone or misappropriated. A Select Committee of the Rajya Sabha constituted in 1996 had looked into the working of State-level wakf boards. The Sachar Committee Report (2006) advocated a stringent approach to countering encroachments, and related matters. A Joint Parliamentary Committee that presented its report in October 2008 put forth major suggestions. Four years later, the Union Ministry of Minorities Affairs directed State wakf boards to undertake an assets survey and computerise records. Sadly, there was no progress. With the Wakf (Amendment) Act, 2013 now in place, the prospect of some order evolving in the management of the more than four lakh registered wakf property parcels has emerged.
The new Act recognises the failure to maintain even a basic record of the assets in many States as a principal malady, and seeks to address it within a proper time-frame. Under the amended provisions, encroachment on wakf property has been made a cognisable and non-bailable offence that could attract up to two years’ rigorous imprisonment. The Act puts the onus on State governments to ensure that wakf boards are set up and function effectively. Steps to ensure better accountability on the part of the boards have been incorporated. A statutory obligation to ensure flow of information from State wakf boards and State governments to the Central Wakf Council has been incorporated. Stricter provisions have been provided in the amended law to reclaim property parcels alienated over the years. The new composition of the Central Wakf Council, including four persons with national eminence, to advise Central and State governments and State wakf boards, is a prudent one. So is the creation of a Board of Adjudication. However, the wider interests of the community, in terms of educational facilities and welfare provision for instance, should form the cornerstone of the reform effort, and commercial interest per se should not take precedence over them. The creation of a centralised, web-enabled database for use by stakeholders will improve transparency and efficiencies — and keep vested interests at bay. The principal thrust should be on ensuring transparency in the administration of wakf assets, and the application of the new law should be done with this in mind.