Lambasts govt. officials of abusing authority 

Report: While investigating the Thimphu land case involving the former Chang gup, the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) has discovered the modus operandi of fraudulent land grabbing, in collusion with surveyors and land record officials.

This is the highlight of the ACC annual report (April 2014-March 2015), which will be discussed in the forthcoming parliamentary session.

The report states that, since land has gained significant monetary value over the years, complaints of corruption on land have increased in recent times.  The recently launched Thimphu land case illustrates the extent and the complexity of corruption in land administration.

The commission found that officials, who were appointed to a position of public trust, abused their authority and position for private gains.  Abuse of authority, together with abuse of privileged information, resulted in fraudulent transfer of state land to individuals.

The report, which was released this week, stated that local leaders, who were involved in detailed survey, held privileged information on land status within their jurisdiction, and when the new sathram compilation (NSC) survey was conducted from 1997 to 2003, they colluded with surveyors and land record officers to fraudulently grab state land to make quick commercial gains.

Local leaders usually targeted thrams that remained astray during ‘thay-thim’ segregation in 1980s, abandoned land with tax arrears, land of absconders, deceased people or non-Bhutanese without heirs.  Land officials had written “thay” against a parcel of land that was not under Thimphu dzongkhag and “thim” against a parcel of land that fell under the dzongkhag.

Then, in connivance with their kids, kin and cronies, misrepresented them as relatives of such thram owners and processed transfers in their names. “Such fraudulent state land grabbing required the blessings of surveyors and land record officials, as they had to authenticate and affect the final transfer of ownerships,” the report stated.

Not surprisingly, these public officials’ spouses, kids and relatives often acted as buyers and as ‘fronts’. “Once fraudulent grabbing and transfers were completed, these plots or their proceeds were redistributed amongst the parties,” it stated.

As per the past procedure, any citizen, who wished to get a thram, had to first draw up an internal sale deed between two parties, which would be filed to local courts. The courts, in turn, as a mechanism of check and balance, would seek formal verification from the dzongkhag and the gewog offices on the authenticity of those transactions.

The court, after withholding for 30 days to rule out any controversies, would then pass its verdict, and send the documents to the department of survey and land record.

After the verdict, survey would be conducted and registration done and updated in the Chazhag Thram.  Such changes were effected in records with the respective dzongkhags and gewogs.  However, ACC investigations increasingly revealed that the documents processed with the courts were fraught with deception and falsified information.

For example, thram transfers were done through courts on “gift” or “inheritance” as basis, when there were glaringly no familial relationships between the buyer and the seller. “In fact, such falsified transactions were accepted as “norms”, knowingly done to evade transfer tax. However, it also served as a very good avenue to transfer illegally registered state land,” the report stated.

The report stated that corruption in land administration was spearheaded by motivated offenders, such as local leaders – gup, mangmi, land tshogpa – and survey and land record officials. Institutions of check and balance had largely remained for perfunctory procedural sake, quite often failing to fulfil minimum due diligence and oversight functions.

For personal gains

People, who were remunerated to fulfill responsibility of proper surveying and record keeping, betrayed the public and the government for their personal benefits, through criminal breach of trust and criminal conspiracy.  One of the key weaknesses in the land administration exploited by motivated individuals, according to the ACC report, was the lack of minimum safeguards in the land record keeping and management.  The element of forgeries, fraudulent insertions or tampering of records, missing records are very common in almost all illegal land transactions.

A case in point, the local leader, who is now known to be the kingpin in a series of land scams being investigated, had facilitated a sale of 55 decimal apple orchard to a buyer.  The transfer was processed through the local court as a “gift”.

The survey authority later discovered that the seller had five decimal only in Chazhag Thram.  It was also found that the local leader had worked in connivance with some surveyors and a clerk who tampered the Chazhag Thram record.  He had also falsely certified to the court that the seller owned 55 decimal of land.

The ACC report stated that weak supervision and complacent management also encouraged fraudulent behaviour to thrive in the system.  There were many documented incidents involving serious misconduct by land record officials, which the management superficially corrected as errors and unintentional oversights, even though such incidences were rampant and suggestive enough to warrant deeper investigations.

“Nexus between corrupt officials and local officials ran deep but remained discreet. Sometimes it was effectively used to steer administrative decisions to circumvent any adversarial situation,” the report stated.

For instance, a high-level inquiry in 2003 investigated several land related irregularities in Thimphu.  A finding showed that 4.50 acres of sokshing, belonging to the father of one local government official, had been fraudulently converted as panzhing in the Chazhag Thram record, and subsequently processed for land substitute from another location.  The land was eventually reinstated and the substituted land restored by the government.

However, in subsequent years, the local official, tactfully using his relative as a “front”, lodged appeals in an attempt to retake 4.50 acres substitute land from the same location, in lieu of 92 decimal acquired by department of roads for road widening.  The appeal was not only processed using inappropriate channel, but also favourably recommended by a senior land record official, in order to secure the approval.

The ACC investigation revealed that a certain member of the local leader’s family also later collected monetary compensation against 90-decimal plot in 2008.

In a separate incident, a land record official and the local leader had participated in a fraudulent land transaction, in which they illegally profited 10 decimal and 13 decimal plots respectively.

Meanwhile, fraud and corruption in Thimphu land case has stretched to Phuentsholing.  Sources say that, just as the ACC was completing its investigation on the former Chang gup’s case, the investigation led to another similar case in Phuentsholing.  A former civil servant was recently detained for interrogation in connection with the illegal transactions of 13 acres.

The commission had frozen more than 18.98 acres belonging to 24 people since ACC began investigation on the Thimphu land case in mid October last year.

Rinzin Wangchuk