[Church land scam] Inaction by State enabling land encroachment by mafia, religious institutions: Kerala High Court

The Court ordered the State government to constitute a high-power body to conduct a survey to facilitate government takeover of all ownerless properties and removal of all illegal encroachments over government land.
Justice P Somarajan and Kerala High Court
Justice P Somarajan and Kerala High Court

The Kerala High Court on Thursday came down upon the State government and political leaders for their inaction and silence resulting in large scale encroachment of land by religious institutions and land mafia [Cardinal Mar George Alencherry v State of Kerala].

Justice P Somarajan took a dim view of the fact that in spite of directions issued by the Court in this regard, the government had not yet investigated the "blatant manipulation of government land by the land mafia and facilitation made to make it easy to divest the property given to the landless persons by dubious promises and paltry payment."

"The fact that nobody has taken up the issue so far and I would say nobody would have the effrontery to take up the issue against such organized encroachers, would show the existence of an invisible conducive atmosphere favourable to the organized encroachers/land mafia and the upper hand they enjoyed without challenge from any corner. This reprehensible inaction on the part of Government, political leaders and the society at large has given leverage to such massive assaults over the large tracts of properties all over Kerala by some religious/charitable institution/organization added by the fact that it is quite easy for them to obtain pattayam under the bargain of vote bank they possessed," the Court said in its order.

It, therefore, ordered the State government to constitute a high-power body to conduct a survey to facilitate government takeover of all ownerless properties and removal of all illegal encroachments over government land.

The Court opined that a congenial environment is still in existence in the State, promoting encroachment over government land and apparent acquisition of such properties by religious and charitable institutions. The same is injurious to democratic society and the principles of equality and liberty, the Court said.

"This has given immense wealth and authority to religious institution to dominate the will of Government machineries and it is injurious to our democratic system and the principle of equality and liberty guaranteed under the Constitution. This would speak volumes of the manner in which the person or the group of persons have trampled over the will of general public and the officials under the Government," the order said.

The Court passed the verdict in a batch of seven cases challenging criminal action against the Major Archbishop of Syro Malabar Church who was implicated in the 2018 church land scam which involved some illegal property transfers.

In August 2021, the Court had dismissed the pleas with a direction to the State Government to conduct an enquiry into whether the settlement deeds under question involved any government/puramboke land. It had also directed the State to investigate any inaction on the part of the concerned authorities.

Complying with this order, the Court noted that the State government submitted "a half-baked report" that did not touch upon the nature of the property, its ownership, and the manipulation of documents under the facade of power of attorney.

The Court further observed that public property, puramboke land and government property still remain vulnerable to organized rapacious encroachment and that there is no provision for accounting for the utilisation of such assets by unincorporated religious or charitable organisations.

"All these would prima facie show that by giving a religious name or under the guise of charity, any person or group of persons can acquire the property without the liability to account for it or its utilization. As it has become the usual practice in the State of Kerala, it warrants that these large scale malpractices which are rampant in our State has to fall under judicial scrutiny more rigorously hereafter," the Court said.

It reminded both the State and Central governments of their duty to follow the constitutional mandate and to preserve bona vacantia (vacant goods) properties and to take action against institutions that illegally encroach upon the same.

"Necessarily, the State Government is duty bound to take over all property of bona vacantia and to preserve it, remove all sorts of encroachment over the Government land, to scrutinize the validity of pattayam, if any obtained under the garb of Land Assignment Act by misusing its provisions and to conduct a survey in order to find out such incident all over Kerala, for which, the State Government shall constitute a State wise high power body for its implementation and to supervise the survey besides formation of District level body headed by the respective District Collector and revenue head of each district and the Tahsildar. The assistance of forest officials can also be obtained whenever it is found necessary," the order stated.

In this regard, the Court ordered the formation of a body to conduct a survey which should completed within a period of six months.

It also suggested that the State government enact a state law by incorporating provisions for periodical/quinquennial surveys to detect and take action against such encroachments.

[Read Order]

Cardinal Mar George Alencherry v State of Kerala.pdf
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