In protest against the amendments to the Land Acquisition Bill brought in by the government, there has been a “zameen wapsi” campaign. Perhaps it is now time for another such movement – Waqf wapsi. For decades, Waqfs which are inalienable religious endowments made under Islamic Law, have been marred, by corruption and misappropriation.

In India, it is estimated that there are about five lakh Waqf properties pegged at a value of about Rs 1.20 lakh crore and after Railways and Defence, Waqfs are considered to be the third largest land holding entity in the country. But here is the shocker. The total annual income derived from Waqfs however is just a paltry Rs 160 crore. The rate of earning is a mere 0.13 per cent.

Illegal and unauthorised occupation of Waqf land, promoted by a corrupt, inefficient and incompetent system, is at the root of the problem.We all remember the CAG report on the 2G scam where the presumptive loss was put at Rs 1.76 lakh crore. Around the same time, a 7,000-page report in Karnataka exposed a two lakh crore scam involving Waqf properties in just that one state.

The Joint Parliamentary Committee report on Waqfs says, that about 70-80 per cent of Waqf land has been illegally encroached upon. In many cases, encroachment is not just by private entities but by government agencies.

For example in Delhi, of the 685 properties encroached upon – 312 have DDA, ASI and government agencies sitting on them. In 1976, PM Indira Gandhi had advised all chief ministers to ensure all such Waqf properties under the control of central and state government agencies should be returned to respective state Waqf boards. If implemented today, it would go a long way in freeing up Waqf land for its efficient use.

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In addition, if Waqfs were to be declared as “public premises” under the Public Premises (eviction of unauthorised occupants) Act 1971, it would be easier for Waqf authorities including the Mutawalli (Manager) to remove private encroachments on their land.

In most cases, powerful builder lobbies and businessmen identify a coveted Waqf land, usually in some prime commercial area and fix a deal with the Mutawalli and the State Waqf board members to get that land at a 99-year long lease, well below market rates. Sometimes, acting in collusion, they destroy records to identify a property as a Waqf land and it is then sold off illegally. The involvement of so-called Muslim leaders to facilitate such deals is well documented.

For instance, in Hyderabad many Waqf properties have been disposed off in collusion with the ruling political elite of the city, who pride themselves as being “leaders of Muslims”.

These leaders have a stake in keeping the community backward and unaware, to ensure that they can line their pockets by selling and leasing off Waqf properties, which are meant to be used for those who really need it.

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To ensure such 99-year leases at throwaway prices are not entered into, a uniform leasing policy – issued by the Central Waqf Council – and legislative provisions of ensuring fair market rates, as had been done for land of farmers in the 2013 Land Acquisition Bill, must be introduced statutorily in Waqf law. State Waqf boards across the country are in dire condition. Without records, trained staff, infrastructure and committed human resources, they are hardly in a position to fight encroachments legally.

There is a strong case for state governments to empower state Waqf boards with greater budgets and a good cadre of administrative and legal officers to professionalise them. As many have argued, there could also be a Indian Waqf Services on the lines of the IAS or the IPS to select the best officers to serve in Waqf boards. Computerisation of Waqf records has begun and the Centre must provide resources to ensure this is done at the earliest.

If corrupt and unfair practices, illegal sale and grabbing away of land parcels held in Waqfs below market rates, were replaced by efficient systems of transparency, and stronger legislative frameworks implemented by talented and committed officers at various state Waqf boards – the annual earning of these could be at least 10 per cent that is Rs 12,000 crore.

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Huge tracts of land can be freed up for the Indian Muslim community that lags behind in several socio-economic parameters as indicated by the Sachar Committee report. For instance, 40 per cent of Muslim areas lack hospitals. Instead of shopping complexes and hotels that come up on Waqf lands, if hospitals were built up, either through the PPP model or by the government itself, it would fulfil the stated charitable objective and could also cater to the needs of all poor people in the area, not just Muslims. This would help in strengthening communal amity too.

Today, only four per cent of Indian Muslims complete graduation. That is dismally low for a community that has one of the youngest demographics in India. Waqf lands could be used to start colleges and universities like Aligarh Muslim University, skill development centres including ITIs which could boost employment.

Poverty, discrimination and joblessness, rampant amongst Indian Muslims, can lead to many law and order issues, by festering a sense of alienation, dejection and helplessness. Resolving the issue of Waqfs can usher in a new sense of hope. It seems then to be an opportune time, not just for a “zameen wapsi” campaign but also a Waqf wapsi movement. #KhabarLive