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CURRENT ISSUE JANUARY 20, 2003   
STATES: PUNJAB

http://www.indiatoday.com/itoday/20030120/states-punjab.shtml

The Home Coming_or conning.

As more and more NRIs are duped of their property, the state Government moves to ease their legal woes
By Ramesh Vinayak  
 
It was a homecoming Gian Singh is unlikely to forget in a hurry. Settled in Canada since 1970, the affluent transporter flew to India in August last year with a one-point agenda: to claim his share of ancestral land at Raipur Rasulpur village in Punjab's Jalandhar district. The 16 acres, he hoped, would help bring his children closer to their roots. It was a futile hope. Not only did his brother refuse to part with the land, but instead registered a case of theft and trespassing against Gian on what is, as per revenue records, a joint holding. The hapless NRI had to surrender his passport and has since been shuttling between the police station and the court. Though exonerated of the theft charges, a dejected Gian says, "There's no justice for NRIs here."

HARCHET S. BAINS, a London-based NRI, has spent two years getting one of his five shops in Garh Shankar vacated. "Lower courts don't follow the letter of the law," he says.

It's a fact more and more expatriates from Punjab are finding hard to reconcile with. With real estate prices in the state registering a 100 per cent hike in the past five years, NRIs are flocking back home to stake claim to their assets. But they find themselves embroiled in tedious litigation after being duped of their ancestral property or one purchased by remitting money back home. According to a recent survey conducted by the state Government, at least 3,000 cases involving NRIs in property-related disputes are pending in courts-a bulk in the dollar-rich Doaba region comprising Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Nawanshahr and Kapurthala districts, home to 1.4 million expatriates.

BALJIT SINGH BAINS has been shuttling between London and Garh Shankar for the past six years. "How can I return to the UK with the legalities going on for years?" he asks.
The Government's concern is not misplaced. The insecurity among expatriates over their properties is recognised as a major hurdle in attracting NRI investment. "The NRIs now see property investments as a risky gamble," admits Jalandhar MP Balbir Singh. Investment in real estate, which had spiralled in the post-terrorism Punjab, has tapered off considerably. Another damper is the Foreign Exchange Management Act 2000 which has taken away the NRIs' right of acquisition of agricultural land. "We cannot have big investments unless the NRIs feel secure about their real estate assets," says Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.

PARKASH KAUR returned from the UK after 10 years to claim her property at Mahilpur in Hoshiarpur. "But I'm scared of the protracted court proceedings," says the 66-year-old.
The realism notwithstanding, NRI properties continue to be prime targets for the thriving land mafia that works in cahoots with police and revenue officials and exploits the expats' compulsions: short visits to the country and inability to pursue the slow judicial proceedings. "The NRIs are at a clear disadvantage in protecting their property rights," says K.K. Sharma, managing director of the NRI Sabha, a Jalandhar-based NGO.

Take Baljit Singh Bains, a British citizen for 42 years. For the past six years he has been shuttling between London and Garh Shankar in Hoshiarpur, pursuing 35 civil and criminal cases. Taking advantage of his absence, his sister-in-law fraudulently sold off Rs 70 lakh worth of prime ancestral land and filed a criminal complaint against him. Not fluent in Punjabi and unable to tackle corruption, Baljit is desperate: "How can I return to Britain with the legalities going on for years?" Says D.S. Bains, commissioner of the newly set up Department of NRI Affairs: "We can only lend them a shoulder to cry on. The executive cannot do anything once it is a legal dispute."

Two years ago, in the face of intense lobbying by influential expatriates who are known to fund the state polls liberally, the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP Government amended the land laws. While Section 9 of the Punjab Security of Land Tenures Act was changed to enable NRIs have their agricultural land vacated by a tenant (only once), the East Punjab Urban Rent Restrictions Act 1949 helped them get one residential and one commercial property vacated through a summary trial provided they have been owners for the past five years. Though hailed as a pathbreaking shortcut to legal wrangles, the amendments haven't proved very effective because their ambit is limited to properties where NRIs have a clear ownership title and are in dispute only with their tenants.