A 128,000-hectare field firing range at India’s nuclear testing site is set to become the subject of a legal squabble after it was secretly sold off. The sale was legally sound – an inquiry has found that the Defence Ministry had not legally taken its possession for five decades.
The sale of the firing range is part of the suspicious deals of tens of thousands of acres of land worth hundreds of crores of rupees along and near the Pakistan border in Barmer and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. The Rajasthan government is investigating the deals but its very brief report sent to the Union Home Ministry this week was “neither here not there”, a senior official said in New Delhi.
“We got the preliminary report, but have asked the state government to expedite its investigation and send us a detailed report immediately,” the official said.
Apart from the Pokharan firing range, someone secretly bought land on which the Border Security Force has a conference hall near the Pakistan frontier, where Indian and Pakistani commanders meet. Stretches across the border fencing, in No Man’s Land, were sold as well. Many of the owners were found not to exist, or had dubious addresses listed against their names.
In Rajasthan, an inquiry ordered by Dinesh Pandya, collector of the Jaisalmer district where it is located, found that the land, spanning across about 1,280 square kilometres, was acquired by the Ministry of Defence in 1961 to build a firing range. Compensation was made to a farmer for the land. The government began using the land, but did not formally take possession.
The land is part of the sprawling site where India conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998.
“The land has continued in the name of the farmer. The title remained with him, though he got compensation in 1961,” Pandya told HT. The farmer’s name was not immediately identified.
“We will adopt the legal procedure. We are asking the Defence Ministry people to gain ownership of the land, and we will take legal action against the person,” Pandya said.
A New Delhi-based company, Pearls Agrotech Corporation Limited (PACL), claimed it owned large parts of the land – but alleged that it had itself been duped into buying it along the border. Three of the company’s directors have listed their addresses in villages in Ropar, Punjab. PACL – apparently only one of the buyers -- has told investigators they bought 48,000 acres of land worth Rs 250 crore, extending right up to the Zero Line.
The state government has been accused of doing little after local newspapers in Rajasthan reported the story. After a report in HT on January 25, the state’s inspector-general for registration and stamps said the land registries would be cancelled if the real owners did not turn up to give their thumb impressions and, in many cases, photographs.