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A Man Much Converted

The Big B withdraws his offer to surrender his Pune property, claiming land use was changed

A Man Much Converted
A Man Much Converted
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

Big B's Flip Flop

From farmer to hotelier, this is how the star changed colours over 24 acres of land in Pavna, Maharashtra...

  • 2000-2001: Bachchan buys agricultural land in Pavna, Lonavala, Maharashtra, claiming he is a farmer.

  • Dec '04: Activist Baba Adhav launches agitation against the land acquisition.

  • Apr '05: Outlook exposes the land deal. The Pune district collector orders Maval sub-divisional magistrate to inquire into Bachchan's farmer claim.

  • Oct '05: Bachchan submits affidavit claiming he is a farmer since he owns farmland in Barabanki, UP.

  • Mar '06: Bachchan asked by Maval SDM to prove ownership of Barabanki land through original documents.

  • Mar '06: Barabanki DM receives application from Amitabh to update land records and certify the allotment of land to him in Daulatpur village. An inquiry by district authorities reveals land records were tampered in March 2006. 'Allotment' of land stayed by Barabanki DM. Later a new DM, Rama Shankar Sahu, lifts the stay and "returns" the land to Amitabh.

  • Jun 1, '07: Case reopened. Faizabad revenue court upholds the order, cancelling the land allotment. The court rules that the land records were also tampered with.

  • Jul 19, '07: Bachchan writes to Pune divisional commissioner Nitin Kareer declaring that he is relinquishing the land in Pavna and asks him to return it to the original owners-the farmers.

  • Dec 11, '07: While ruling out framing of criminal charges against Bachchan, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court observes he has no claim to the 2.5 bighas of land in Barabanki. The judge also orders correction of forgeries in the land records. The UP government has challenged the order restraining it from pressing criminal charges against Bachchan.

  • Mar 24, '08: Bachchan writes to Karir, this time seeking possession of the land he had earlier donated. The Bachchans suddenly recall they were given permission to use the land for non-agricultural purposes in 2004! This fact never surfaced in the inquiries of the Pune district collectorate. The Bachchans now plan to build a tourist resort at Pavna.

***

Everyone thought they had heard the last of at least the Pune end of the Amitabh Bachchan land case back in mid-2007. The actor had then put in writing his decision to surrender the 24 acres of land he'd acquired in 2001 near Pavna dam in Maval taluka, Pune. He had said he wanted the land to be returned to its original owners--the farmers. On March 24, however, the actor reneged on this intent. In response to procedural requests to "present all relevant documents" so that the surrender formalities could be completed, Bachchan submitted a letter to Pune divisional commissioner Nitin Kareer saying he was withdrawing his earlier letter, dated July 19, 2007.

Between July 2007 and March 2008, Bachchan has done a series of flip-flops, first to save his skin and now to save his land. "We realised that our action and intention to surrender the lands in favour of the erstwhile farmers were based on utterly wrong premises," says his letter to Kareer. "We therefore unconditionally withdraw the said letter (of July 19, 2007)." The letter came attached with a 10-page legal opinion, which forms the basis of Bachchan's decision to withdraw his offer to surrender the land.

As per land acquisition laws in Maharashtra, agricultural land can be bought only by farmers. A buyer qualifies as an agriculturist if he owns farmland prior to the purchase. However, discretionary powers are vested in the collector whose permission is required for a non-agriculturist to buy agricultural land.

It now transpires that the land use in Bachchan's case was converted from agricultural to non-agricultural in July 2004. Bachchan claims he applied for this conversion in 2002. Strangely, though, this point never surfaced in the inquiry ordered by the Pune collectorate into Bachchan's acquisition. When Outlook spoke to former Maval sub-divisional officer Bhanudas Gaikwad, who conducted the inquiry into the validity of the sale of agricultural land to Bachchan, he said, "My brief was to examine the validity of the mutation entry about a non-agriculturist buying agricultural land. This conversion part didn't come up at all."

So, in the time that the probe was being conducted (it started in 2005 and stretched into 2006), did Amitabh and his lawyers forget that such a clearance was applied for or was granted? Says Gaikwad, "Either land use was not converted then or they didn't put it before me." Not just that, land use conversion, Gaikwad elaborates, "can happen only once the mutation entries are clear." Mutation entry in revenue records refers to details of the land, buyer, seller and in whose/what title the lands stands after a transfer/mutation. According to Gaikwad, the Bachchans could not have had the land use converted unless the mutation entries were completely in the clear. And to the best of his knowledge, this was not so in 2005-'06.

But the legal note, drafted by Pune-based management consultant Sudhakar V. Joshi -- a copy of which is with Outlook -- traces the legality of the land as well as the conversion, and quoting from earlier Bombay High Court judgements, concludes that "the acquisition is legally a valid transaction". Joshi has held power of attorney for Bachchan since March 2006. Incidentally, he was an IAS officer and had served as the Pune divisional commissioner in the '90s. Writes Bachchan in his recent letter: "The dust raised by the media will be set at rest in view of the opinion of Shri Sudhakar V. Joshi, former divisional commissioner Pune in respect of validity of the acquisition of these lands by us."

Despite Bachchan's hopes, however, the dust is yet to settle down on the case. His belated conferment of legality on his acquisition, owing to its conversion, smacks of a slick manoeuvre with the timeline of events.
  • Joshi's legal note points out that the then Maval sub-divisional officer's query on Bachchan's status as a farmer was "absolutely irrelevant and incompetent" because only the tehsildar can raise such a query under the rules. If, as implied, the query about his farmer status was illegal, why did Bachchan bother to present backdated and forged land records to prove his "farmer" status in Barabanki, UP? It took six notices from the Pune/Maval authorities asking him to present evidence of his farmer status before he chose to respond to the seventh one, that too without original documents from UP.

  • The Bachchans now recall that they had applied for land conversion way back in July 2002. The permission, they claim, was granted in July 2004. This is quite contrary to what former Maval SDO Bhanudas Gaikwad told Outlook. The conversion, he says, could not have happened since the mutation entry was not complete when he was inquiring into the land acquisition in 2005. He maintains that minus this crucial entry no conversion is possible.

  • Even if the conversion did take place in 2004, that in no way puts the 2001 purchase in the clear. Did Bachchan, a non-agriculturist, declare himself a "farmer" then to purchase the land, then had the land use converted and become an "industrialist"? But then if the Big B was already an "industrialist" in the Maval taluka records, why did he take all the trouble to forge documents in Barabanki and prove his farmer status after the Pune collectorate ordered an inquiry into the acquisition in 2005?

  • While the Bombay Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act states that only a farmer can purchase agricultural land, the collector can grant permission to a non-agriculturist if such a buyer can satisfactorily produce bona fides that he requires the land for non-agricultural uses. In Bachchan's case, the then collector's permission was not sought when he bought the land in 2000-2001. Independent legal experts wonder how a post-dated legality of the sale can be valid.
The crux now lies in the land use conversion. If this is proved valid, Bachchan does not have to worry about his "farmer" status and the legality of the land deal. The then Pune collector Madhukar Kokate did not wish to comment on the issue. Former divisional commissioner (Pune) Umesh Chandra Sarangi, under whose tenure the Bachchans' applications for conversion were made, told Outlook: "I don't recall this coming up in my time." His successor P.D. Karandikar was not available for comment.

As long as the legality of his land was in question, Bachchan was ready to play the supreme altruistsurrendering land to the landless. But having spun a web of legality around the deal, Bachchan is back to playing businessman.
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