SC asked landowners to restitute the land they bought  to the State

Rinzin Wangchuk

The 18 landowners whose land ownership will be cancelled following the Supreme Court’s verdict say they are denied justice and victimised because of the failure of State machinery.

The landowners, including some drangpons, bought plots from the former Chang Gup Kanjur in Chang Debsi in 2005 and 2006. Buyers, mostly public servants, claim that they invested all their savings, inheritances, and even borrowed from financial institutions to buy the plots when the former gup sold land from the 2.77 acres of wetland registered in the name of his mother.

The landowners claimed that all due processes of law were followed in transacting the purchase of their plots and acquiring their Lagthrams (legitimacy of ownership). “However, the courts have failed to recognise our legal titles gained through due diligence of various State institutions,” one said.

They stated that the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) had not consulted them at any point of their investigations or called them for questioning. Landowners claimed that during the course of Kanjur’s trial through successive courts, they filed a petition which was brushed aside. “The court verdicts were given without treating aggrieved landowners as litigants in the case,” they said.   

The aggrieved parties said they are victims of the failure of state institutions, who approved and issued Lagthrams. “We do not understand how some institutions which were involved in granting us the Lagthrams have the right to de-register the same land after more than 15 years of ownership,” they said. “The state failed to protect us as citizens.”

Citing some past precedence, aggrieved landowners said that courts had ruled in favour of “lawful buyers or owners” allowing them to retain their land. They cite examples of  the case of Lubding and Chang Gidaphu where courts ruled in favour of private entity based on Chazhag Thram, tax receipts and possession of land over a period of years.

Landowners claim that they have been paying land tax since 2005. “Besides the land tax, we contributed labour and money for community initiatives for more than 15 years,” they said.

Buying land in Debsi

With land becoming unaffordable in the core city and Babesa, many turned to Debsi, on the outskirts of Thimphu. Land was cheaper and available.

One buyer said that they bought the plots from Kanjur’s mother after verifying the Chazhag Thram with the NLCS and dzongkhag land record office since any one could produce a copy of Lagthram which was not reliable. Chazhag thram is the sole authoritative document that recorded and established the legitimacy of ownership title in the country.

As was the system in 2006, upon verification by the Chang gewog and Thimphu dzongkhag, ownership transfers were processed through the Royal Court of Justice. “Only after the court’s due diligence and verification of the Chazhag Thram with the Department of Land Record and Survey, transactions were completed in accordance with the Land Act of Bhutan 1979 in 2007,” one buyer said.

In 2010, after due process by the agriculture ministry and the then survey department, new Lagthrams classifying their plots as Kamzhing (dry land) were issued.

They said that they not only received Lagthrams from NLCS in 2013 but their plots were also included in the Local Area Plan for Debsi where the area was resurveyed, land pooled for development and new Lagthrams issued to individual owners. The infrastructure work has already been implemented in parts of their land dedicated as land pooling. As such, some of the landowners have as many as four Lagthrams in their possession.

With the recent decision, some are also questioning the National Land Commission secretariat (NLCS) for not following due process. They said that the enforcement of the judgment is pending with the Dzongkhag court since Kanjur’s Debsi land case is still under appeal. “We are confused as to how the NLCS has ordered the dzongkhag administration to deregister the thrams without completing the due process and enforcement order from the competent court,” said one.

NLCS issued the enforcement order to the Thimphu dzongkhag on July 25 to deregister the ownership and return the land to the State as per the Supreme Court’s ruling.


How the issue surfaced

In 2016, the ACC implicated former gup Kanjur for encroachment of government land in Debsi. The 2.77 acres of land fell within the purview of ACC’s investigations. Subsequently, the accused was prosecuted by the Office of the Attorney General and ordered by the court to pay a fine of Nu 90,000 for fraudulently registering government land in his mother’s name. Both lower and appellate courts ruled that the land be restituted to the State which has been declared as tsamdro (pasture land) as per the findings of ACC.

“Unfortunately, the biggest onus of the courts’ verdict fell upon the plot owners who have been in legal possession of the land which was bought as wetland and not tsamdro way back in 2005/2006,” the aggrieved parties told Kuensel.

Under such circumstances and in a state of helplessness, according to the lawful owners, they have no other option but to appeal to the authority to seek justice and save them from victimisation due to the failure of state machineries as it involves the security, wellbeing and future of their families.

A decimal of land in Debsi costs more than Nu 1.2 million today. When they bought it in 2005, it was around Nu 25,000 a decimal.