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Who owns most of India?

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Suman Shekhar Rajhans
Suman Shekhar Rajhans
MA in JMC. Gallivanter. Epicure. History Buff. Mass Media Personnel.

Land is an important source of status symbols and identity and often carries significant emotional attachment. In the Constitution of India, “Land” is included in the “State” list and “Forests” under the concurrent list (both State and Centre lists). Land and land reforms are under the legislative and administrative jurisdiction of the federal States while both the union and the states have jurisdiction over “forests”. Originally, the right to property was a fundamental right under the Constitution of India till the year 1977. After the 44th Constitution amendment in 1978, the right to property no longer remained a fundamental right but instead became a constitutional right protected under the authority of law.

India is the world’s 7th largest county in terms of land area after Russia, Canada, the US, China, Brazil and Australia. India which is home to the world’s 18% population surprisingly has only 2.4% of the total land area estimated at 3,287,263 square kilometres (1,269,219 sq mi).

Government Landholdings

As is widely known, the Government of India is the largest owner of land in India. According to the Government Land Information System (GLIS) website, the Indian Government owns at least 15,531 square km of land as per the information provided by 51 Union Ministries and 116 of over 300 public sector enterprises (February 11, 2021).

The GLIS, a centralised database system created by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) and under direct monitoring of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) facilitates the record of the geo-positioning maps, total area and land ownership rights details.

According to the GLIS portal, among Union ministries, Indian Railways is the biggest landowner (real estates) followed by Coal, Power, Heavy Industries and Public Enterprise, Shipping, Steel, Agriculture and so on (in that order). According to an RTI filed in the year 2018, Indian Railways revealed in reply that it owns approximately 4.77 lakh hectares of land (as of March 3, 2018). The RTI also revealed that 844.38 hectares of land in under illegal/unauthorised possession (as of March 30, 2018). Railway however maintained that there is some discrepancy in the handling of land and state-wise data and the actual land can be more.

The Indian Defence Forces require a large area of Land for its Depots, Camping, Training, Offices, Airfields, Residences etc. So, according to the records published (in February 2022) on the website of Directorate General Defence Estates, the Ministry of Defence owns a large tract of land approx 17.95 lakh acres. Interestingly, out of these only 1.60 lakh acres are situated within the 62 notified Cantonment. The Ministry of Defence has not fully released information owing to the security concern. But despite that, the land currently available to them makes them the biggest land owner of the country among all the government institutions.

Religious Minorities enjoying Fruit of Indian Secularism

Church Properties: When it comes to the non-government entity, the most non-agricultural land after the government of India, is owned by the Catholic Church of India. The Catholic Church works as a conglomerate of various trusts and charitable societies to spread Christianity in India. The church has 126 bishops, 9.3K Diocesan priests, 6.7K religious priests, 2.5K religious brothers, and more than 50K religious sisters working for them which also makes the church’s largest non-governmental employer in India. As per an estimate, the catholic church has 14,429 Colleges and Schools, 1,086 Training Institutes and 1,826 Hospitals and dispensaries throughout India.

©Suman Shekhar Rajhans (St Paul’s Cathedral, Kolkata)

The Catholic church of India managed to amass all these lands through the Indian Churches Act of 1927, passed by Britishers where they transferred the land to the church for spreading Christianity. The total value of land is estimated to be between 50K to 100K crore rupees.

Waqf Properties: Muslims constitute the largest group of religious minorities in the country at roughly 20% of the population. Waqf boards are statutory autonomous bodies formed under Waqf Act, 1954, through gazette notification to manage the Islamic religious places. The “Waqf boards” are completely free from state interference. Waqf board properties include a mosque, madrasa, graveyard or a tomb. These properties were mostly donated or constructed by Muslim rulers.

©Suman Shekhar Rajhans (Taj-ul-Masjid, Bhopal)

Similar to the Catholic church, the Waqf property too has no interference from the state in its management. According to the Waqf Validating Act of 1913, a private Wakf can be created for one’s descendants, provided the ultimate benefits are reserved for charity.

As per a report published in the Times of India, there are more than 610K immovable properties under the Waqf board in various states across India. According to the data by the National Waqf Management System of India (WAMSI) project, the Waqf Board own a total of 6,16,732 properties (as of January 31, 2020) under various State Waqf Boards (SWBs).

Pic: ToI
Data: WAMSI/Ministry of Minority Affairs

Fun fact, neither the government nor the waqf board has an estimate of the monetary value of these properties but it is said to be worth Lakhs of crores of rupees. A P.I.L was filed in the year 2020 in the Supreme Court where the petitioner claimed gross misuse of property by the board, this prompted the court to seek a report on the said matter from the Ministry of Minority Affairs.

As per a joint parliamentary committee report headed by K Rehman Khan in 2009, properties owned by waqf (around 6 lakh acres) are the 3rd largest owner of land in India after the Defence Department and the Indian Railways.

Future and Conclusion

According to the Land governance assessment: national synthesis report published by The World Bank, by the year 2030, India would need 4 to 8 million hectares of land for residential use alone. And experts suggest the burden would be put on the Agricultural Land leading to social dislocation, food insecurity, inequality, environmental problems and ultimately conflict.

P.S: Tried to find data for Hindu Temples as well but due to the Central Government and various State Government’s control over them, the data is unavailable.

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Suman Shekhar Rajhans
Suman Shekhar Rajhans
MA in JMC. Gallivanter. Epicure. History Buff. Mass Media Personnel.
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