Fencing a vacant plot of land, or even securing it with a compound wall, might keep encroachers at bay. But these measures can hardly prevent land-grabbers, who operate from behind the scenes, from usurping the property or creating litigation to demand a ransom by adopting various strategies.
The menace of land-grabbing, with political backing, is severe in prime and developing areas across Tamil Nadu where the business of land mafia has grown, along with the booming real estate industry, over the years. The problem is acute in regions in and around urban areas, which are witnessing infrastructure development and the consequent increase in real estate prices.
For many, protecting a piece of property has, of late, become more challenging than buying it. The well-oiled network of the land-grabbers, who operate allegedly in collusion with some officials of the Registration, Revenue, Survey and Police Departments, has made life horrendous for a large number of victims, especially members of the middle class, who are battling a prolonged civil dispute in legal forums.
An analysis of such cases reveals that the problem is more prevalent in properties left unattended for long, with the owners staying away or abroad. “It doesn’t matter even if the property has a compound wall with surveillance cameras and a watchman. Land-grabbers know the means of acquiring it or creating litigation through fake documents. In many cases, the accused persons know they will lose the legal battle, but the fact remains that it will take years before a legal conclusion is arrived at... Till then, the property shall be branded as a disputed site, making it impossible for the rightful owner to sell it or even enter it,” says a senior official of the Registration Department. This sometimes forces the legitimate owners to enter into a compromise and sell the property at a cheaper rate to the land-grabbers.
According to him, land-grabbers look out for properties left unattended for long and conspire to take possession of it. The usual modus operandi is to create fake documents. Some of the common methods adopted in the falsification of documents are impersonating the original owner by producing a person with the same name.
Since the Aadhaar card or address details are not entered in ‘patta’, the transaction goes through, with the impersonator furnishing his/her proof of identity. A proposal to include photograph, Aadhaar and address proof in ‘patta’ and other property tax receipts , which would help to avoid impersonation, is under the consideration of the government.
The other means are creating an unregistered will, which is considered a valid document, and a fake legal heir certificate; and reaching out to an extended family member to persuade him/her to stake a claim to the property by forging records.
Sharing his ordeal with the alleged land-grabbers, a senior journalist says he is embroiled in a three-decades-old dispute over a property he bought on Chennai’s outskirts along with four friends. After the land was purchased in 1987 and secured with a compound wall, a group approached him, saying the land belonged to their grandfather. “This happened in 1991. Among the four other purchasers was a Deputy Superintendent of Police, who later got promoted as Superintendent of Police. My four friends are no more... I am fighting a lone battle with the other party, which fabricated documents and claimed rights to our property. The matter is pending in court,” he said.
During the process of the prolonged case, the journalist saw many affluent families losing their ancestral assets to land mafia. “In my case, the opposite party adopted the typical modus operandi by getting a parallel case registered and got a permanent injunction, barring us from entering our own land. They tried approaching me through multiple channels over the years for a settlement, but I refused... For us, it was a simple investment. We never realised this land would one day become one of the priciest in that part of the city, with huge development all around,” he said.
Incidents of violence, including murders, relating to land-mafia deals have also become common in these fast-developing areas. Real estate agents say land-grabbing has taken newer dimensions with the advancement of technology. The State witnessed a lot of gullible people being cheated and relieved of their immovable assets by a small group of individuals who were well connected locally. According to the victims, besides the support of some officials, most of the accused persons have some political backing too, which helps them escape.
The problem became so intense that helpless landowners sometimes resorted to extreme steps. The then Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, had formed the Anti-Land Grabbing Cell soon after the AIADMK returned to power in 2011. Headed by a senior police officer and headquartered in Chennai, the cell had subordinate staff deployed in all cities/districts to handle complaints of land-grabbing. When the cell was launched, people queued up across the State to file complaints of their hard-earned property having been grabbed either through encroachment or through fake documents. Many even got relief. However, the Government Orders creating the special unit and forming special courts to try these cases were set aside by the court later.
While the police do intervene when a cognizable offence punishable under law is made out and assist the complainants in getting legal remedy, nothing much is done when the matters involving claims to the title of a property or falsification of documents are taken to court as civil disputes. Notwithstanding the orders passed after inquiries by the Sub-Registrar or the Revenue Divisional Officer, the accused persons move the court staking a claim to the property, embarking on a long legal journey which affects the legitimate owner the most.
Change in sub-division
The official said that a change in the sub-division of survey numbers sometimes led to false claims; hence, the landowners should closely watch any change in land survey details. Whenever name transfer in ‘patta’ is not made and the purchaser of a land doesn’t pay taxes in his/her name, it paves the way for land-grabbers to create fake documents.
Land-grabbing need not be confined to professional offenders. Sometimes, the owners of land adjacent to a property in prime locations also have a shot at encroaching upon a portion by manipulating records. Having come across many such cases, the official said the first sign of trouble would be seen when a surveyor is brought in to measure the land for fencing the property.
One of the reasons for “double documentation” is when a power agent registers a property to a buyer or enters into a sale agreement, while the original title owner cancels the power without his knowledge. The power agent would have completed the transaction even before getting the notice served by the Registration Department. Many fake documents arise out of cases in which landowners settled abroad issue power of attorney to an agent to proceed with the sale. “We simply go by the power of attorney document and believe that the endorsement claimed to have been made by the Indian Embassy or High Commission is genuine. But, in many cases, these transactions have turned out to be fraudulent,” a Sub-Registrar said.
In March 2022, the State government directed the Registration Department to initiate criminal proceedings against those involved in fraudulent registration of documents. Section 68(2) of the Registration Act, 1908, empowers the District Registrars to conduct an inquiry into complaints of fraudulent registrations. If such an offence is made out, the inquiry officer will have to pass orders directing the registering officer to file a police complaint against the fraudsters.
The government also introduced another provision, Section 77-A, in the Registration Act, which enables officials to cancel the registration of documents if a complaint is received about forgery or impersonation and a subsequent inquiry confirms the allegation.