India's booming land values spark family feuds

Property dealer Jag Chima: 'We receive 15-25 calls a day in the UK'

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The dramatic rise in the value of land in India has resulted in a growing number of families of Indian origin returning from the UK to cash in on their inheritances. But many discover that the land is either sold, occupied or disputed - resulting in bitter feuds and lengthy legal battles, reports Poonam Taneja of the BBC's Asian Network.

At his home in the English city of Wolverhampton, Iqbal Singh pores over a thick pile of court papers, the result of 16 years of legal wrangling in the Indian courts.

He has inherited a legal battle to reclaim his parents' farmland in the rural Indian state of Punjab.

Mr Singh's father was a first-generation immigrant to the UK from India. Like other Punjabi men who arrived during the 1960s, he worked long hours as a manual labourer to overcome the financial hardship he initially experienced with his family.

Farm workers in Punjab The price of land in India has risen hugely in value over the last 20 to 30 years

"We were quite poor, we didn't even have a television," Mr Singh remembers.

His father spent every spare penny buying land in the country of his birth. He dreamed of returning there one day.

Twenty acres of farmland was purchased in Punjab at a cost of £30,000 ($47,000). The land, in one of India's prime agricultural areas, is now estimated to be worth more than 10 times that.

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London-based lawyer Harjap Singh Bhangal

It's a huge problem because many Punjabis in the UK stand to inherit ancestral land”

End Quote Harjap Singh Bhangal London-based lawyer

A relative was placed in charge of farming the land. However, during a visit to India the family made a shocking discovery.

"My dad went to the land, only to find someone else claiming to be the owners," Mr Singh said.

He alleges that the land was fraudulently sold by his grandfather - who had fallen out with the family.

In 1996, the family started legal proceedings to reclaim the land from the new owners, who insist the farm was bought in good faith.

Since then, there have been numerous hearings in the courts, but with no resolution.

It is a complex tale of lies, deception and betrayal - but it is far from an isolated case.

London-based lawyer Harjap Singh Bhangal works in Southall, known as "Little Punjab" due to the large number of Indian immigrants who have settled there.

He says that a growing number of Britons are embroiled in legal disputes over ancestral land with their relatives in India.

"It's a huge problem because many Punjabis in the UK stand to inherit ancestral land."

He says that relatives are doubly reluctant to hand over property because in many cases they funded migrants to leave home and seek a new life in the UK.

'Profiteering'

I made the journey to Punjab to investigate this issue.

Farm workers in India Reaching legal settlements in land disputes can be costly and take years

In the last decade, rapid urbanisation has meant the state has benefited from a real estate boom.

In the bustling city of Jalandhar, I met property dealer Jag Chima, who has offices in both the UK and India.

He shows me around a small plot of land on the edge of the city. Neighbouring plots have already been sold to developers, and shops and apartments have been built.

Two acres of land in this area now has a market value of £1m ($1.58m) - an increase in value that has provoked a corresponding increase in the number of land disputes within families.

"If it was worth £10,000, you wouldn't be too fussed about trying to claim it back if it was too much hassle. But when you find out it's worth £1m, that changes the rules of the game," Mr Chima says.

Judicial battle

Indians involved in land disputes with their British relatives accuse them of returning only to cash in on India's real estate boom.

Farmland in Punjab Criminal gangs have also entered the market in the battle for land

One farmer showed me around his disputed farm which has been in the family for generations.

"This is my daily bread; it's my livelihood," he tells me.

"A farmer's life is a hard one, waking early to tend the land and feed the animals, sow the crops and reap the harvest.

Start Quote

I made a promise to my dad on his deathbed - to get the land back - and I don't break my promises”

End Quote Iqbal Singh UK-based land owner

"Costs are rising and maintaining the land is expensive."

The last thing this farmer needs is a protracted legal battle.

Reaching a settlement in the Indian courts can take up to 25 or 30 years and can cost thousands of pounds.

It is not unusual for both sides to accuse the other of using violent threats and intimidation.

Between 2,000 and 2,500 such cases are lodged with the Punjab police each year, the majority being diverted to the civil courts.

But there is also a sinister element emerging - organised gangs taking advantage of disputes over land to make a fast profit by buying it at a cheaper price at the expense of both sides.

The Punjab police say they are aware of the gangs.

"We have come across a number of cases where organised gangs - comprising property dealers and maybe a few government revenue officials or police department personnel - may be involved," says Inspector General Gurpreet Deo, who is responsible for NRI (Non-Resident Indian) affairs in Punjab.

"They operate hand in glove with each other... we realise there are gangs which operate in this manner."

At a conference earlier this month the issue of land disputes was discussed by the Punjab government. It has now set up a special website where complaints can be logged and is considering setting up fast track courts to expedite cases.

But these reforms offer little hope to Iqbal Singh - lawyers say it may take another decade before his land dispute reaches the high court. Despite this he is determined to reclaim the family land his father worked so hard for.

"I made a promise to my dad on his deathbed - to get the land back - and I don't break my promises," he says.

Whose Land Is It Anyway is on BBC Radio's Asian Network at 1700 GMT on Monday 28 January

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