Bangalore: The Maharashtra government plans to approach the Supreme Court for help to redress a potentially embarrassing situation where it lost around 3,000 acres of land it had acquired.
The 3,000 acres, mainly located in the suburbs of strapped-for-land Mumbai had been acquired under the Urban Land (Ceiling and Regulation) Act of 1999. However, the state hadn’t yet taken possession of this land. In November 2007, this Act was repealed in the state. Subsequently, last year, the Bombay high court asked the government to return the land to the original owners.
The difference between acquisition and possession is technical and reflects some of the bureaucratize that is associated with land dealings in India. Acquisition of land under the Act means when the government identifies a particular piece of land as surplus and sends a notice of possession to its landowner. The actual possession would only happen when the government officially enlists the land as part of its own holding.
“This land is crucial for the city which has severe housing problems,” an official in the state’s urban development department said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “The government is planning to give away this land to different housing authorities to build economic, mass housing. We are awaiting a formal clearance from the chief minister (to petition the Supreme Court).”
Although the land ceiling Act was in existence for eight years, the state managed to take possession of only 250 acres, defeating the original purpose of the law—to acquire surplus land from landowners and build affordable housing in a city where millions live in shanty towns.
“We stopped taking possession of the land after the high court order, and now the government is thinking of ways to get back the land,” said S.R. Jhondale, additional collector, urban land ceiling department, Maharashtra, that was responsible for sending acquisition notices to landowners before taking possession.
The government has already given out some of the land it had acquired but hadn’t taken possession of; for instance, the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority was given some of this land.
Last year’s order by Bombay high court followed a large number of lawsuits by landowners against government’s attempts to take over what they claimed was their land. Some of the biggest landowners in Mumbai, such as the Behramjee Jeejeebhoy Trust and FE Dinshaw Trust, have all been fighting a legal battle. FE Dinshaw, for example, holds about 1,400 acres, nearly half of which the government demanded had to be surrendered.
Urban planner and housing expert V.K. Phatak is sceptical about the government’s current attempts. “The Maharashtra government’s track record in putting land to good use is questionable,” he said.