How bureaucrats cheated tribals, turning Sonebhadra into a den of corruption

Sonbhadra: Ubhbha village of Ghoraval tehsil in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh on July 18, 2019. Police have arrested 24 people in connection with the mass murder took place in the village. A case has been registered against 78 people in this connection including 50 unidentified. (Photo: IANS)

Several thousand acres of land belonging to poor tribal farmers in Sonebhadra were usurped by land mafia in an unholy nexus with bureaucrats. Wednesday's carnage in Sonebhadra's Ghorawal tehsil, in which 10 tribal farmers were killed, was the outcome of one such case where revenue records were fudged by an IAS officer at the behest of the local land mafia to claim more than 600 bighas of land worth over Rs 48 crore.

An insight into the frauds committed by revenue officers in Uttar Pradesh's tribal land reveals that Sonebhadra has of late become the most sought-after place for corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and mafia dons to buy land at throwaway prices. 

Just a few hundred yards from the spot of Wednesday's killings in Village Umbha, another big chunk of land measuring 600 bighas in village Vishambri, was usurped by senior officials of the Chakbandi department of the UP government.

"The tribals had approached me to file a case to unravel the racket. On the instructions of the court, a subsequent enquiry revealed that Chakbandi officials had fudged revenue records in which the owner of the land was shown as a dead person. When the real owner (a tribal) was produced in court, the conspiracy was unmasked resulting in an FIR registered against 27 Chakbandi officials," said Vikas Shakya, a prominent lawyer practising in the District Court, Sonebhadra.

According to Shakya, in yet another case of fraud, records relating to 14 bighas of land on the highway (near Ultratech Cement factory) were fudged by a Kanoongo (lower rung officer of the revenue department). "The kanoongo tampered revenue records and registered the land in the name of his two sons (in back date), who were not even born on the date of registry," Shakya told IANS over phone from Sonebhadra.

In fact, officials who were supposed to enforce Forest Rights Acts(FRA) and Survey Settlement in favour of tribals, blatantly cheated the poor farmers for years. Former BJP MP, Chote Lal Kharwar, said that behind Wednesday's killings over land dispute, a corrupt lobby of bureaucrats played a key role.

Kharwar identified the IAS officer (name withheld), who allegedly bribed the revenue officers and got the land in the name of his family members. The IAS officer later sold the land to Gram Pradhan Yagdutt, the prime accused in the killing of 10 tribal farmers.

The former MP said that a few months back in February 2019, Yagdutt had attempted to take forcible possession of the land from tribal farmers. However, the local administration and police slept over the complaint of the tribal farmers.

Over hundred civil suits relating to fudged revenue records are pending in different courts of Sonebhadra. Social activist and Hindi writer Vijay Shankar Chaturvedi told IANS that one of the reasons why Maoists got a foothold in the hills of Sonebhadra was land disputes where tribals felt cheated by local officials.

"During Settlement Survey initiated by the Supreme Court in the mid 80s, fraudulent entries were made into revenue records in favour of local mafia and government officials. Instead of giving possession to tribals, as per the survey, the land was sold at throwaway prices...somewhere around Rs 1000 per bigha to bureaucrats, politicians, corporate houses and mafia dons. At present the price per bigha ranges from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 7 lakh per bigha, depending on the location of the plot," said Chaturvedi, who has penned two books on Naxal activities in the region.

According to him, tribals have been cheated repeatedly by civil and forests officials. Successive governments had done nothing substantial in breaking the nexus of bureaucrats and land mafia.

"Let me tell you, when Pandit Nehru came here in 1954 he was spellbound by the natural beauty of Sonebhadra and had said that this place should be called the Switzerland of India. However, as years passed by, this place has now turned into a den of corruption," said Vijay Shankar Chaturvedi.

Meanwhile UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath assured the State Assembly that a high level committee had been formed to probe into the revenue records and ascertain forged entries made to usurp land of the tribals. The Chief Minister said that any bureaucrat or politician found involved in the racket would be brought to book.

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