Cleaning Up the (Waqf) Act in Maharashtra

0
Maharashtra State Board of Waqf office.

Maharashtra’s Minority Affairs Minister Nawab Malik has taken certain bold steps to accord more transparency, credibility and accountability to the processes and property dealings of the Maharashtra State Board of Waqf (MSBW).

Syed Khalid Husain | Clarion India

THE coalition government of Maharashtra is setting an example for other states in India by working to root out corruption from the state’s Waqf Board and property trusts affiliated to it, streamline the Board’s operations and boost its income to help poor and needy Muslims.

The western state’s Minority Affairs Minister Nawab Malik has taken certain bold steps to accord more transparency, credibility and accountability to the processes and property dealings of the Maharashtra State Board of Waqf (MSBW).

His moves follow a litany of land grab, embezzlement, cheating and fraud cases related to Waqf properties in the state over the past several years, which involved a former chief executive officer (CEO) and certain members of the MSBW, trustees and outsiders.

A key decision taken by the state government in March this year was the appointment of a new “permanent” CEO after a gap of six years. Former state deputy secretary Anees Shaikh took the charge four years after his predecessor, Naseem Banu Patel, was suspended after she was found guilty of declaring a 55-acre Waqf property as non-Waqf for sale to a developer. Naseem Banu had declared the Rs25 billion (US$333 million) Waqf property at a prime location of Nashik city, which was endowed for religious or charitable purposes, as non-Waqf despite all the evidences supporting the claim.

Boosting income

In another major development, the state government last November implemented the Waqf Properties Lease (Amendment) Rules 2020 approved by the central government in 2014. Under the amended rules, Waqf properties can now be leased out at 2.5 per cent of their market value instead of minimal rates, with a piece of land in south Mumbai becoming the first such property to be leased out at the enhanced rental rate.

The 292-square-metre plot in the Bhuleshwar area, which belongs to Roghe Charity Trust (RCT), was leased out to Burma Petroleum Company (now Indian Oil Corporation) in 1934. Under the amended rules, the same property’s monthly rent has multiplied more than 100 times, from a meagre Rs2,500 to Rs255,000. As per the norm, this rent will increase by 5 per cent annually. Besides the revised high rent, RCT will also get around Rs10 million in arrears.

For decades, Waqf properties have been generally leased out by trusts on nominal rates and thousands of shops and acres of lands have been given on lease for commercial purposes. With the implementation of the new rent rules, these properties are expected to yield a huge income.

“The income generated from the Bhuleshwar plot could be used by the trust for the betterment of the backward section of the (Muslim) community,” Malik said. “This will increase the income of the trust concerned, which will then use the funds for education, health and other social welfare activities.”

“Following the Waqf Act, the trusts will have to submit their annual audit reports to the state Waqf Board through which we can monitor that the money is being used for the purpose intended,” Malik said. “Any trust found involved in irregularities can also be dissolved by the state Waqf Board.”

It is estimated that Waqf boards in India hold nearly 570,000 registered properties and tracts of land, making them among the top landowners in the country. Yet several state boards have been accused in recent years of selling Waqf land to developers and private buyers for low rates in return for illegal kickbacks as demand for land soars.

Maharashtra has some 23,566 such registered properties spread over 94,000 acres of Waqf land. Most of these land parcels are in and around Aurangabad, followed by Pune, Nagpur, Nashik, Konkan and Amravati.

Regularising rents

Just days after the implementation of the new rent rules, the MSBW started recruiting district officers to regularise the rents of all the Waqf properties in the state. In a move to supplement the MSBW’s efforts to generate higher incomes from rents, prominent Pune-based philanthropist Fareed Tungekar, in association with a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), has set up India’s first liaison office in the city.

The office will serve as a platform for Waqf research and development in the country. It would guide the Muslim community regarding Waqf protection and development. Legal experts, serving and retired Waqf board officials well as officials from the central and state governments will guide trustees on various aspects of the Waqf’s standard operating procedures.

In an effort to enhance the MSBW’s image and credibility, the Maharashtra government early this year appointed Imtiaz Jaleel, All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen’s Member of Parliament (MP) from Aurangabad, and Dr Fauzia Khan, Nationalist Congress Party’s Rajya Sabha MP, as members of the MSBW.

As per the Waqf Act, a Waqf board should be comprised of Muslim MPs, members of legislative assemblies or constituencies, Waqf mutawallis (administrators), bar council members, a state government nominee of the rank of deputy secretary or above, Islamic scholars and a Shia member.

Shifting headquarters

In a significant but controversial move, Malik announced in October last year to shift the MSBW’s headquarters from Aurangabad to Mumbai and locate it at the premises of district collectorate. But the move outraged Muslims in Aurangabad, who vehemently opposed it. Consequently, the MSBW’s governing body unanimously decided in June this year that the MSBW’s  headquarters would remain in Aurangabad and a regional office would be set up in Mumbai.

This, despite assertions by an MSBW member, Advocate Khalid Babu Qureshi, some years ago that the Aurangabad office is in a shambles, with the files and records related to Waqf properties not being maintained properly. They are not sorted and kept safely in shelves but stored in bundles, with the building’s leaking roofs damaging them, he pointed out.

Soon after becoming the MSBW’s member, Qureshi had asked the state government to upgrade the Waqf board’s head office in Aurangabad and digitise its records which are the only proof of the Waqf properties. “If these records are lost, it would be impossible to ascertain which properties have been usurped,” said Qureshi, a BJP leader, lawyer and builder.

The MSBW has twice expelled Qureshi, a member since 2017, for unknown reasons. Some people have, however, alleged he had passed forged documents seeking the transfer of the trusteeship of some Waqf properties in Mumbai to a group of builders. The Bombay High Court has stayed his expulsion until October 27 when it would hear his petition challenging his removal. Qureshi was first expelled last year but his removal was rescinded. He was again removed last month.

In November last year, Qureshi had said the process of digitisation of Waqf land in Maharashtra would help free encroached land in Pune, Solapur and Nashik. He had said a lack of safety measures to protect Waqf properties is the reason why politicians and big industrialists encroach upon Waqf land.

The state has now decided to digitise all Waqf property records to establish the exact number of such properties, their value, locations, disputes and court cases, if any. The decision was taken after Jaleel stressed the need to digitise the records to determine how much waqf land has been usurped by politicians and private bodies.

Under the Islamic law, a Waqf property is a charitable endowment used for religious or charitable purposes for the benefit of the Muslim community. All mosques, shrines and Muslim religious places are registered with Waqf boards. Once a property is registered with a Waqf board, it comes under the Waqf Act 1995, and that means it cannot be sold or purchased.

A 2006 report by the Sachar Committee had called for an overhaul of Waqf boards and stricter monitoring of properties. Waqf properties make up a land bank worth about 1.2 trillion rupees, and can generate an annual return of 120 billion rupees. Yet it only yields about 1.6 billion rupees now because of encroachments and poor management, the report said.

_________

The writer is a Singapore-based senior journalist. He can be contacted at skhusain@yahoo.com or on WhatsApp at +65 91195711.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here