Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 23 January 2023

Indian Railways owns so much land

Source: By Avishek G Dastidar: The Indian Express

The land ‘encroachment’ case in Haldwani, where the Supreme Court recently stayed the eviction of thousands of families from what the Railways claims is its land, has been at the centre of a row recently.

For the national transporter, the largest land-owning civilian agency in the country, encroachment and controversies over eviction are not new. All the 17 zonal railways, including the 68 railway divisions of India, face this problem. Land is under encroachment even in Railways production units.

When the British built India’s Railway system, they envisaged a sprawling network. As a result, they earmarked huge areas of land for future expansion, even if the land would be needed only years later. However, often, when the Railways does need that land, it is found encroached upon.

How the numbers stack up

Currently, Indian Railways has 4.86 lakh hectares of land, out of which 782.81 hectares are under encroachment, official data show. This is the equivalent of around 31 stadiums, of the size of the Narendra Modi stadium in Motera, India’s largest. But there’s a fine print.

Most of the Railway land is along its racks, meant for linear projects of new lines, and doubling, tripling or even quadrupling of existing lines to enhance network capacity of the transporter.

Vulnerable areas

Knowing that its vast expanse of land may be susceptible to encroachment, each railway division is supposed to carry out regular survey exercises and identify vulnerable locations. Indeed, wherever it can, it also erects boundary walls to protect its land.

Sometimes, it frees existing encroachments if they are newly identified, temporary, light structures, like jhuggis, shelters, etc., with the help of Railway Protection Force and state governments.

Delhi-based Northern Railway has 158 hectare of its land under encroachment, the highest in India, followed by Kolkata-based South Eastern Railway, whose 140 hectares of land is officially encroached.

Over the past three years or so, Railways has carried out more than 1,352 demolition drives against squatters and retried over 65 hectares of land. The most number of demolition drives happened in the Kolkata-based Eastern Railway, while Gorakhpur-based North Eastern Railway, which Haldwani is part of, retrieved the most area of land, at 14.45 hectares. No demolition or removal drive takes places without local government collaboration. Removing encroachment of a more permanent nature can get tricky.

How the process works

Removing old or permanent encroachment often snowballs into litigation. Since law and order is a state subject and a government body cannot carry out wanton demolition of human settlements even if they are on its land, Indian Railways carries out a set process.

For old encroachments, where settlers are not amenable to persuasion, Railways initiates action under Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorized Occupants) Act, 1971 (PPE Act, 1971).

When persuasionnegotiation and all other ways of an amicable solution fail, the state authorities and Railways issue eviction notices to the settlers. It is this eviction notice that is challenged in court. In almost all of the cases, settlers first receive a stay on the demolition/eviction drive for sometime as the courts hear both sides. Actual eviction of unauthorised occupants is carried out with the assistance of the state government and the police.

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