This is the story of a villager who has been fighting against land sharks in Pune district. He has used the RTI Act in his struggle to get back 74 acres that was fraudulently taken by three businessmen, in connivance with land records officials, and in total disregard of a high court order to restore the title to the rightful owners
The changing of ownership titles of large tracts of land in Mulshi and Maval talukas, in Pune district, without the knowledge of original title holders, most of them farmers, to build resorts and farmhouses for the urban rich, is a scandal that has been going on for over a decade.
A few years back, superstar Amitabh Bachchan made the headlines in one such deal, when he purchased land in Maval taluka on the basis of a certificate given by the district collector of Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh, stating that he owned agricultural land there since 1982, which gave him the status of a farmer. Mr Bachchan subsequently returned the land to the Pune district collectorate, free of cost, requesting the collector to return it to the original farmers.
There are several land swindlers who have been engaged in changing original land titles in connivance with revenue officials at the taluka level and selling these properties to urbanites, who may not be aware of the scam. Hundreds of original title holders, mostly innocent and ignorant farmers have shown utter helplessness at the hands of this land-snatching mafia.
Nathu Sakharam Gaikwad, one such victim, has-without paying even a naya paisa of bribe to any government officer-bravely fought to retrieve 74 acres of land in Sadapur and Dongargav villages of Maval taluka, that was fraudulently transferred in the names of three Pune businessmen Surendra Anand, SN Birdi and SS Gokhale. The original landowners are members of his son-in-law's family-Ram Maruti Ghare, Ganpat Maruti Ghare and Laxman Maruti Ghare. The struggle to reclaim the rightful title to his son-in-law's family began in 1986, and was successful in 2010, thanks to the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Strangely the title of the land still eludes them.
Says Nathu Gaikwad: "In 1986, I came to know that the land title of 74 acres belonging to my son-in-law's family was deleted from the land records office without informing them. Their signatures were forged and the new title owners were Anand, Birdi and Gokhale. I soon found out that our family members were not the only victims, but that these businessmen had allegedly indulged in similar fraudulent practices in the case of several original title owners and grabbed vast tracts of land.''
Mr Gaikwad visited the tehsil office, the Pune District Collectorate, as well as the Pune Divisional Commissioner's office several times, but none of the officers entertained him. Finally, he knocked at the door of the high court, which gave a verdict in 1988 in favour of his son-in-law's family, directing the divisional commissioner to retain the original title of the land.
"However,'' says Mr Gaikwad, "to our utter disbelief, after about three months, the high court order was thrown to the winds by a letter from tehsildar of Maval stating that the land title should be reverted back to Anand, Birdi and Gokhale, as the matter was pending in the district court.''
Mr Gaikwad again went from pillar to post trying to meet officials in the collector's office and the divisional commissioner's office. "We were asked to give bribes if we wanted our original title back. Some land estate agents also approached us, saying that we should ask for adequate compensation as the land title is now a foregone conclusion. We decided to fight it out without bowing down to any threats or paying any bribes.''
Finally, after a long wait, it was the RTI Act that turned out to be Mr Gaikwad's saviour. "I had never used this Act, but when I came to know about its power, I invoked section 6 of the RTI Act and asked for a copy of the official communication from the tehsildar's office which had superseded the high court order and the document showing that the matter was resting with the district court, on the basis of which the land title was transferred back to the three businessmen.''
He filed an application with the Public Information Officer (PIO) of Maval taluka on 8 July 2009, then made his first appeal before the tehsildar (appellate authority) on 30 September 2010. Quite predictably, the PIO in the Pune District Collectorate, as well as the appellate authority, denied information to Mr Gaikwad, saying that the relevant papers were "missing".
Undeterred, Mr Gaikwad filed a second appeal before State Information Commisisoner Vijay Kuvlekar, on 18 May 2010, protesting against the "missing'' papers and the violation of the high court order. Mr Kuvlekar ordered the officer to produce the papers to prove why the land title was changed despite a high court order, and to establish that the matter was pending with the district court. If the papers were not available to show proof, the divisional commissioner should file a criminal complaint against the officers responsible for these vital "missing papers'' and for indulging in change of title without "proof''.
As a result of Mr Kuvlekar's order, the big lie was revealed. The supposed letter written by the tehsildar, overruling the HC order, turned out to be fake and forged. Also, a document which claimed that the matter rested at the court of Joint Civil Judge, senior division, Pune, was also a fake.
The land title has not yet been returned to the Ghare family and Mr Gaikwad is continuing his fight for it. Pune's RTI activists, led by Vijay Kumbhar, are helping him to take the case onward to a logical end. Mr Gaikwad's struggle is an example for all who are victims of land-grabbing and to use the RTI route to get vital information that is critical in battle.
Vijay Kumbhar, the RTI activist, says: "RTI activist Satish Shetty was killed because of the information he procured of massive land scams in Talegaon and Lonavala. The land sharks in Pune district are ripping off original land titles, but if more and more farmers invoke the RTI Act, just like Mr Gaikwad has done, it will go a long way to curb this fraudulent practice that has reached gigantic proportions.''
Mr Gaikwad's almost single-handed fight, is proof (if ever one was required) of how the Right to Information empowers all citizens, including those who may not be literate in the conventional sense of the term.
(Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at [email protected].)
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