Land grabbers find holes to breach the fence

Often facilitated not just by bribes and intimidation but political influence as well, land grabbing is a crime that affects the common man. Despite the dip in number of cases since 2011 after the state government cracked the whip on the crime with the formation of a separate wing, there still remain several weak links that are exploited by fraudsters.
Land grabbers find holes to breach the fence
Illustration by Varghese Kallada

Chennai

The number of complaints about land grabbing, once a menace to the common man in the state, has fallen to just about a fifth since a separate wing was formed in the state police in 2011 to keep a check on the crime. However, according to police officers dealing with these cases, loopholes still remain, which continue to be exploited by criminals.
Despite a series of measures undertaken to eliminate land grabbing, impersonation remains the most common trick employed by land sharks, said officers from Central Crime Branch. Not verifying the identity of the buyers, sellers and even witnesses often pave the way for impersonation as an easy option. 
“For example, the electoral photo ID card can be easily forged by replacing the photo while scanning. Using this, they can fix the imposter’s photograph on the fake ID card and pose as the land owner during registration. Only a full-fledged examination of identity proofs will help trap the fraudsters red-handed,” said a senior inspector, who is with the Anti Land Grabbing wing of the CCB since its inception in 2011.
Easy availability of documents: What comes in handy for the fraudsters is the facility to obtain Encumbrance Certificate and copy of the document. According to police officers who have investigated dozens of land grabbing cases in these half a dozen years, the fraudsters always target abandoned land. After identifying the land, they will trace the survey number through people in their network who work at the registrar’s office. Then they will apply for encumbrance details and copy of the document. 
“If there has not been any transaction on the land in the last 25 years, that would be like winning a lottery for them. They will immediately approach the owners of the nearby plots for a copy of the parent document, claiming it is needed for verification. Using that, they then fabricate fake parent documents with dated stamp papers. If the parent document is not available, they will approach the police claiming that the documents are missing. With a complaint copy, they will get power of attorney for the land using forged identity cards. They even go to the extent of creating bank accounts with forged documents for this single transaction to avoid getting caught,” explained the inspector. 
There are two things in all such cases: impersonation and document forgery. While the Anti Land Grabbing wing takes up impersonation cases, forgery cases where buyers are cheated with fake documents are handled by Anti-Endorsement Document Fraud team of the CCB. 
The trouble is, said a sub-inspector on condition of anonymity, while forgery can be established soon, impersonation cases are trickier, taking years together to reach closure. “Fraudsters often choose people who don’t have any identity of their own, thus making it difficult for police to trace them. This drags the case on for too long,” said the officer, adding, “That is one of the reasons why arrests are made in about five to six years after the case is taken up for investigation.” Being a document based white-collar crime, the offence should be established using documents from revenue department, sub-registrar’s office and district collectorate. “Depending on the urgency of the case, the department concerned respond to our queries and furnish the required details,” said Ponram, Assistant Commissioner (Land Grabbing-II), Central Crime Branch. 
Conviction sparse: Retrieving the land for the rightful owners is not the end of the police wing. While laws mandate up to seven years of imprisonment for land grabbers, trials for such cases rarely happen. “The Supreme Court came up with a set of guidelines exclusively created for courts that dealt only with land grabbing cases. But these separate courts have been done away with. Now, the cases are heard by the regular courts, and it takes a longer time for the trial to even begin,” said a senior CCB official. Also, a draft for anti-land grabbing act has also been proposed, but has been waiting for years for approval.
  • 150 crore worth of land retrieved and returned to original owners in the last one year
  • CCB has cracked 20 cases since October, and arrested 53 persons
  • 103 Accused arrested in the last three years - 6 of them detained under the Goondas Act
  • CCB receives 150 complaints a year. It was at least five times higher before 2011
  • No of cases registered by the Anti Land Grabbing wings since 2016 103
Can online registration be solution? 
Like many other government offices, touts are often part of the problem, exploiting even the bona fide buyers and sellers. However, according to senior officials at the registration department, the newly launched online system would put an end to activities of the middlemen. “Now that the government has launched online system, the common people can avoid meeting touts to get their work done during registration,” said a retired subregistrar. Officials also pointed out how buyers and sellers can avoid even going to registrar offices after the advent of Aadhaar-based identification system. This would control impersonation as well, they add.
Precautionary steps for buyers
  • Always get original documents for verification 
  • Even a minor litigation can lead to cancellation of sale deed, so approach a legal consultant before proceeding
  • Visit the land and measure the proportions with the help of a surveyor to prevent accusations of encroachment 
  • Check revenue records of the land and also the details about possible encumbrance
  • Make sure to get the parent documents so that there is no chance of cheating
  • Protect the land by fencing it and notifying whom it belongs to, so that those trying to remove the fencing can be booked for trespassing
 Notorious land grabbers
  • Dhanraj N Kochar of DR Foundations and Estates Pvt Ltd, who was sentenced to six-year prison term last year, was accused of grabbing 33 acres of land worth over ₹200 crore. 
  • Muthukumar, a realtor, who sold unclaimed properties using forged documents and impersonation, was detained under the Goondas Act in 2017
  • However, another land grabber Surya alias Dhanasurya remains at large

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