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Strong action against squatters: minister

Bhubaneswar, June 1: The state government has decided to initiate strong action against those who have grabbed government land through fraudulent means or forcibly encroached on it.

“Our department will act tough against land-grabbers and squatters,” said Bijayshree Routray, the new revenue minister, told The Telegraph.

However, experts on the revenue law and administration are sceptical whether the government would be able to deal with the land-grabbing menace properly. Giridhari Das, an expert in revenue laws, said: “Our existing law is not tough enough to deal with land-grabbers. It’s high time the government enacted a stringent law to deal with land encroachment.”

Land-grabbing and encroachment have been a major concern for the government. The then revenue minister, Surjya Narayan Patro, had admitted in the Assembly that around 39,031 acres of government land had been encroached upon.

According to revenue law experts, the existing Orissa Prevention of Land Encroachment Act, 1972, lacks teeth to effectively deal with encroachment. The law deals with the government land only, and the revenue and civil courts can only evict an encroacher. Encroachment is a not a cognisable offence punishable under the law. The courts do not have criminal powers, said Das.

On the other hand, the Andhra Pradesh Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Act, enacted in 1982, had been effective in curbing encroachment. Under the act, land-grabbing in any form is an punishable offence with imprisonment for not less than six months, which is extendable up to five years and with a fine up to Rs 5,000, he said.

The Andhra law also provides for establishment of special courts, headed by high court or district judge, for speedy inquiry and trial of cases, whose decisions are final. The competent authority appointed by the government has to implement the orders of the special court.

Official sources said the draft Odisha Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Bill was under the government’s scrutiny.

Apart from the legal deficiency, scarcity of field-level officers has become a hurdle in checking encroachment and restoration of fraudulently grabbed government land, feel those associated with the revenue administration.

At present, there are 900-odd field-level officers in the revenue department for 317 tehsils and 314 blocks across the state. After promotion of officers, the strength of base-level officials will further come down making it difficult to run the administration, said a senior official.

Experts on the revenue administration also express doubt over the government’s sincerity to deal with the land-grabbing problem. “The ruling class is either involved in the land-grabbing or protecting the influential people,” said a former director of land records.

However, an official said steps were being taken to locate and retrieve government land settled in favour of private individuals fraudulently and illegally. In the past two years, around 15,000 acres of encroached government land had been detected. Of this, more than 7,500 acres worth Rs 15,000 crore have been recovered, official sources said.