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EDITORIAL: 16-30 November 2002

Turning assets into liabilities... and vice versa

How easily assets can be turned into liabilities is evident from the status of hundreds of Muslim Waqf properties scattered all over the country. These properties of Allah, endowed by pious Muslim men and women over the ages for the benefit of the community, are largely under illegal occupation, trespassed or encroached upon. A very small percentage of them is being used by the community the way the donors had intended.

Retrieval, maintenance, preservation and development of these properties, whose value runs in thousands of crores of rupees, can dramatically improve the economic conditions of a sizable section of Muslims. A considerable number of these properties are in prime locations and commercial hubs of cities and large towns.

The illegal occupants, trespassers and encroachers come in all shapes, sizes, colours and religious denominations. Some times the offenders are government organisations, at others non-Muslim individuals or organisations, at yet other local mafia and landgrabbers. Most often Muslims themselves are the culprits. 

The most pernicious of the ills besetting these precious assets comes in the form of the mutawallis, or the guardians of these trusts of God. Almost as a rule, they have been running and misusing these properties without any accountability whatsoever. Many of them have sold off these properties, although they don’t hold the title.

Incomes from a majority of such properties have either not been accounted for, or the books have regularly been fudged. The result is that the only beneficiaries are the mutawallis, rather than the community, the intended beneficiary.

How such properties are being misutilised by people who are supposed to be looking after them is narrated by Justice Aftab Alam of the Patna High Court (who rescued a couple of such properties as a High Court judge) and Manzoor Ahmad, a retired IPS officer, who, besides holding other important public positions in his career, was once the administrator of Haryana and Punjab Waqf Board.

Both of them describe how the replacement of corrupt and inefficient Waqf administration alone dramatically raised the incomes of a few assets they restored and streamlined.

That shows with perseverance, tact and strong will much of this rot can still be stemmed. There are quite a few things that can be done — one of these being some fresh thinking. Call it ijtihad, if you will. Already, there are examples in Muslim countries where the value of such properties has been enhanced through innovative use for the ultimate benefit of these Waqfs and the Muslim community.

There is at least one example from Malaysia where a mosque gradually came to be surrounded by a large commercial area and the land price shot up tremendously. At that point a committee of Ulama decided to raze the mosque, built a commercial complex instead and put the mosque at the top floor, boosting the trust’s economic value (and regular income) without tampering with the spirit of the endowment.

A good example of efficient trust management comes from the Venkateshwar Temple Trust in south India. The trust has built a string of medical, engineering and other colleges and runs them smoothly. It has also built charitable hospitals and other institutions that serve a large number of people. All this has been done with the money offered at the temple by devotees. This trust is an example of efficiency and integrity, which can teach a lesson or two to Muslim Waqf Boards.

The joint parliamentary committee on Waqfs has already visited the temple to learn how best to administer public religious property. A comparable case, if not similar, is that of the Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Trust, but the community has yet to benefit from its sizable earnings. 

There is a need for further amendment to the Waqf Act, although the 1996 amendment has already been of great help. One of the important moves to be taken is the exemption of such properties from the Land Acquisition Act, because such laws are a source of loss of Waqf property.

At the administrative level, government officials assigned to look after the Waqf Boards should have sufficient authority to interact with district magistrates and police superintendents at an equal level to be able to mobilise the power of the state to prevent encroachment, trespass and illegal occupation, and to vacate such occupation with the help of police and magistracy.

Finally, it is the interest of the community in its own affairs that is the best safeguard against loss of its assets. The community has to remain vigilant and it has to help the authorities in Waqf surveys and send useful recommendations to the JPC on Waqf. There is also the need to avoid violent conflict (sometimes communal clashes occur over such properties) at all costs. Negotiations, cooperation and legal redress would save properties and precious lives.

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