Untangling Waqf properties from legal snares

The committee managing the dargah of Khaja Bandanawaz at Gulbarga runs around 20 educational institutions including a medical college, a 500-bed hospital, an engineering college, a couple of polytechnics and more than a dozen schools and colleges.

Nearly 10,000 students benefit from its services. The committee managing the Khaja Moinuddin Chishti’s dargah at Ajmer has no institutions to its credit, although pilgrims and charities it draws are almost tenfold of what the dargah at Gulbarga receives. Curiously, the Sufi saint buried at Gulbarga was only a disciple of the successors of the saint of Ajmer.

The analogy here is merely to indicate what difference efficiently managed waqfs (properties dedicated for pious purposes) can make to public life and community development. Major chunk of revenue at Ajmer falls into the private kitty of nearly 2,000 khadims (service providers) of the dargah who live off income thus accruing. Ajmer’s saint has among its devotees several heads of state, filmstars and politicians of all hues. Yet, even the services such as drinking water, transport, and loos are pathetic to say the least, let alone rendering any community services as it obtains at Gulbarga.

India has as many as 490,000 waqf properties. These were mainly dedicated by people in the medieval ages for mosques, theological schools and dargahs. The Sachar Committee appointed by prime minister Manmohan Singh had estimated their real estate worth to be of the order of $345 billion in current value. But these estates yield a measly Rs 163 crore in revenue annually. Instead of generating their own income, the State Waqf Boards have to be sustained by the budgetary support of the state governments.

This none-too happy state of affairs is expected to change following the passage of the Waqf Properties (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Act 2013 by the Parliament and the Union Government setting up the National Waqf Development Corporation (NAWADCO). While the Act strengthens the arms of law, the latter provides institutional mechanism to infuse financial dynamism into a sector that has remained bereft of new age vision despite a quarter century of economic liberalisation.

Illegal occupation has been the bane of waqf properties, sapping the energies of the waqf establishments. Nearly one lakh cases are pending in courts seeking evictions of illegal occupants or removal of encroachments. The litigations have rendered these properties more a liability than asset for the Waqf Boards.

Illegal occupation

The Waqf Properties (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Act 2013 shifts the illegal occupation of the waqf properties from civil to criminal domain. It empowers the police to arrest the encroachers and illegal occupants and vests the chief executive officers (CEOs) of the Waqf boards with magisterial powers to physically evict the illegal occupants, sealing of structures raised illegally over such properties and even extract damages, if caused by the occupants.

It also authorises the CEOs to demolish illegal structures and auction off the debris and claim expenses on them from the illegal builders. The CEOs can even summon the offenders and ask any person to furnish any evidence or documents. Any appeal against the CEO of the board can be entertained only by the Waqf Tribunals and no case against the CEOs or Tribunal can be launched with the civil courts or magistrates.  The Waqf Tribunals can sentence the offenders with a jail term extending upto six months or fined, or both.

The Act in one fell stroke removes the scope for tardiness and laxity in the law which had led to a lot of procrastination in reclaiming the waqf properties from illegal occupants across the country. Some of the cases had lingered on for three to four decades causing a drain on the Boards by way of huge legal expenses. (For instance the case of the Windsor Manor Hotel in Bangalore has been in the court for nearly three decades.) The Act also renders void sale, gift, mortgage and exchange of waqf properties as these instruments were being misused to alienate these properties. In sync with the dominant mood of the liberalisation era, the Act enhances the lease period for waqf estates from three years to 30 years for commercial activities, or for running schools, colleges or hospitals.

At another level, the Union Government has taken a visionary step by setting up the National Waqf Development Corporation with an authorised share capital of Rs 500 crore. While the National Minorities Development and Finance Corporation (NMDFC) will have 49 per cent share of the new corporation, 42 per cent of the share capital will be raised by the individual waqf institutions and the
public and another 9 per cent will come from the Central Waqf Council, the monitoring body of Waqf institution at the Central level.

The NAWADCO will extend loans for all such activities that could make the waqf estates generate their own revenue. Some of such successful projects at Ullal (in DK district), Hameedsha Dargah in Bangalore (on OTC Road) and Takia Chand Shah Complex in Jodhpur are a few shining examples of Dargah committees funding community education by raising revenue through commercial complexes on prime urban properties.

The twin measures are all likely to prove a boon in safeguarding the waqf assets as well as making them a constant source of income generation for funding the welfare measures.

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