Partition's ghosts

Enemy property: Why India is still struggling with a political legacy of Partition

The history behind the ordinance that bans transfer of property of those who once left for Pakistan.

Nearly 70 years after Partition, and 50 years after the 1965 war with Pakistan, the government of India last week issued an ordinance that revives a debate around a legacy of those two seismic events, “enemy property”.

The ordinance specifically affects the fortunes of the Mahmudabad estate by, in effect, nullifying a 2005 Supreme Court decision that had allowed the family’s heirs to regain control over what was once classified as enemy property. That, however, is the specifics. More than that, the ordinance speaks of the continuing struggle with the political legacy of Partition.

The erstwhile Raja of Mahmudabad had vast properties across Uttar Pradesh, including in Lucknow’s Hazratganj, and present-day Uttarakhand. His very public role in the Pakistan Movement in the 1930s and ’40s was an influencing factor in the shaping of the politics and optics around the original enemy property legislation and the discussion about it today. After partition, the Raja left for Iraq, where he lived for some years, before settling permanently in London. His wife and son, however, remained in India as Indian nationals and the family continued to be active in Uttar Pradesh politics.

In 1968, three years after the war with Pakistan, the government of India enacted legislation establishing the office of the Custodian of Enemy Property. According to this, properties thought to be owned by individuals who had left for Pakistan were taken over as Enemy Property. Subsequently, when the properties of the erstwhile Raja of Mahmudabad were declared enemy property, his family went to court and contested the takeover all the way to the Supreme Court, which finally ruled in their favour in 2005.

The verdict, inadvertently, opened a Pandora’s Box, and cases began accumulating in courts where real or purported relatives of those who had left for Pakistan produced deeds of gift claiming they were the rightful owners of properties. Legislation was attempted to restore order by establishing which cases could be reopened and defining the rights of the Custodian (that is, the government) and the claimants. However, the United Progressive Alliance government’s efforts in this direction failed because of internal differences within the Congress party. The current government has managed to push this ordinance through and, as a result, the Mahmudabad estate finds itself back in the now decidedly incongruous category of enemy property.

Flood of migrants

The term Enemy Property was coined in the United Kingdom in the context of German commercial holdings within the country during the First World War. Rather than have the British sterling funnelled into Germany during the war, it was decided that earnings from enemy-controlled entities should flow to a custodian and their assets frozen. Similar measures were used elsewhere during the Second World War – notably in the United States against Japanese properties. In many of these cases, the funds were eventually returned.

In South Asia, the legal concept acquired entirely different applications. The idea initially gained currency in the years after the Second World War and it was adopted into legislative practice in the aftermath of Partition. The Evacuee Property legislations – a critical predecessor of the current Enemy Property laws – were first enacted in 1947, as two new nation states tried to find resources for the rehabilitation and relief for the millions of migrants who had streamed in.

In that ferment, it was decided to use the property left behind by those departing across the border. The office of the Custodian of Evacuee Property appropriated land and buildings worth crores of rupees and, in decisions that were notoriously controversial, attempted to use the properties to house refugees. Across South Asia, refugees found to their dismay that they were dealing with the increasingly capricious demands of an office named the Custodian of Evacuee Property.

While grim and exacting, Evacuee Property laws nonetheless worked within a logic of bilateral cooperation. Both India and Pakistan, in the aftermath of the enormous transfers of populations, had to be seen to be doing – however grudgingly – what they could to help. Offices such as the “moveable property wing” or the “evacuee property claims”, set up as wings to the High Commissions of both countries, gamely set about trying to sort out the paperwork of the overwhelming numbers of claims for compensation or reclamation.

The Evacuee Property legislations, theoretically at least, allowed a migrant’s family to reclaim in the country they settled in the value of its forsaken property. The threat of a flood of dispossessed migrants coming in from across the border in search of already scarce resources for rehabilitation formed the basis of an unlikely partnership between India and Pakistan, since neither government could afford to unilaterally introduce stringency in Evacuee Property legislation without a degree of calibration with each other.

Furthermore, neither government was entirely comfortable with the idea of forcibly claiming someone else’s property. For instance, in 1953, a senior official in the Ministry of External Affairs, Badr-uddin Tyabji, pointed out that quashing the titles of Muslim evacuees who owned land in India, so that refugees from West Pakistan could be rehabilitated, was short-sighted. One problem, he argued, was that it would leave India vulnerable to action from the government of Pakistan in the International Court of Justice. More pragmatically, he argued, such an action would “necessarily equate the claims of India and Pakistan to property left behind by their citizens, even though India’s claims to property in Pakistan is larger”.

Today, the problem is a peculiarly Indian one. In Pakistan, the seized enemy properties were sold off by the government soon after they were acquired.

Rights of citizens

In many ways, the post-1965 transition from evacuee to enemy property legislations represented the hardening of both governments’ attitudes towards the irreversible consequences of Partition. A letter from the Indian Commerce Ministry to state governments in 1969 baldly told state officials that “any cash balances, provident fund balances, gratuity and unpaid wages held by any person/ firm in India on behalf of all Pakistani nationals vest in the Custodian of Enemy Property for India”.

Both governments formally – and unapologetically – said that monies, resources and, most importantly, the proceeds from the sale of land could not be sent across the border. This was no longer an exercise which could be camouflaged as a massive rehabilitation project. Rather than being directed at large numbers of nameless, poor and powerless owners of small pieces of land, the legislation was often targeted at extremely valuable pieces of property, and contested the most prominently by wealthy descendants of old families.

Notwithstanding the finality of Partition, its aftereffects plague the internal and external politics of South Asia. Property remains one of these aftereffects. Whether it is the case of Jinnah House in Mumbai or funds transferred to London on behalf of the Nizam of Hyderabad after Operation Polo and bitterly litigated by India and Pakistan since, or the case of the properties of the Raja of Mahmudabad, the legal contestations over rights of citizens, the state and of migrants continue to this day.

While legislation about evacuee property has accompanied the nation state since its inception, the changing nature of its application is indicative of the current persona of the nation. Decades after Partition, the current enemy property ordinance poses the question of whether the Indian state should be seen as churlishly attempting to settle old scores by tightening its grip on property obtained by questionable means, or, with the wisdom and graciousness of age, seek closure to a painful chapter.

Pallavi Raghavan is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. She is working on a book on the history of India-Pakistan relations.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.