The tiny tourist state of Goa might hardly have bargained for a better script in an election year: a scandalous and potentially explosive campaign involving the alleged illegal purchase of agricultural land by Britons, Russians, Germans and Italians -- with the sleaze, sex and drugs angle to it as well.
RBI General Manager (PR) Alpana Killawala told the Hindustan Times that "some complaints" about foreigners having violated provisions of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) while buying land had been received from Goa. She indicated that the Enforcement Directorate (ED) was investigating these cases. Nageshwar Rao, ED Special Director at Mumbai, however, refused to give details, saying that these cases were under investigation
• In Bardez taluka, 351 foreigners bought 11.44 lakh square metres. Of this, 108 foreigners purchased 2.56 lakh square metres in Calangute; 65 bought 1.92 lakh square metres in Candolim; 25 foreigners bought 17,613 square metres in Saligao, while 23 foreigners bought 47,328 square metres in Anjuna.
• Foreigners have also purchased land in other parts of Bardez taluka including 17 in Siolim, 16 in Assagao, 10 in Nerul, 8 in Succor, 6 in Pilerne, 5 in Reis Magos and 4 each in Guirim, Assonora, Neguem, Parra, Sangolda and Verla.
In the last three years, 482 foreigners from 22 countries have bought 12.61 lakh sq metres land in Goa, Chief Minister Pratapsingh Raoji Rane had informed the state assembly last July.
Subsequently, the state government set up a three-member committee to investigate the matter. State chief secretary JP Singh told the Hindustan Times that the committee was looking into 26 cases of land purchases by foreigners. In a telephonic conversation with this reporter, state police chief BS Brar said that the issue of land acquisitions was a revenue matter and the role of the police in the investigation was peripheral
News reports have suggested that the "Russian mafia" has been on an aggressive land acquisition drive through "benami" deals for suspected arms and drugs trade in collusion with Indian insurgent outfits, including Kashmir-based militant groups. However, a senior state government official said that these reports were "highly exaggerated." He said that only four cases of Russians acquiring relatively small portions of land (adding up to 24,000 square metres) were being investigated.
According to the RBI guidelines, foreigners can acquire immovable property in India -- provided the individual has established a branch office or place of business in India in accordance with the FERA/FEMA regulations. The guidelines state that foreigners can buy property "provided it is necessary for or incidental to carrying on such activity and all applicable laws, rules, regulations or directions are duly complied with".
The Goa Desc Resource Centre, a non-government organisation (NGO), quotes data obtained from the state registrar and head of notary services in Panjim to bring out these facts: 303 Britons bought 6.41 lakh square metres land during the past three years, while 21 Italians bought land measuring 69,000 square metres, 20 Germans purchased 68,303 square metres and 16 Portuguese bought land measuring 14,260 square metres. Fifteen other foreigners are known to have purchased land measuring a total of 21,338 square metres.
Dr Oscar Rebello, Convener of Goa Bachao Manch, a NGO, said the matter was "extremely serious." The manch -- after a sustained campaign -- succeeded this January in compelling the state government to scrap the Goa Regional Plan, 2011. The plan had proposed to open 80 per cent of agricultural and forest land for commercial exploitation.
Former Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar described the government's move to set up a probe panel to go into the controversial land deals as a "whitewash job". He alleged that several ruling party politicians were involved in the land grab controversy -- a charge that Chief Minister Rane dismissed as "wild, false and nonsensical." He told the Hindustan Times that a majority of the controversial land purchases had been formalized during the previous BJP regime. "Parrikar is the one who needs to come clean in the matter", Rane added.
Last September, a National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) report had warned that the "flow of unverifiable investments from tax havens such as Mauritius, Cyprus, Cayman Islands and also from criminal groups operating in other countries posed a security threat to our economy". It said that the "Russian mafia" had invested large sums in real estate projects in Goa". The issue has also figured in the state assembly in the past.