By Rina Chandran
MUMBAI, March 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India's Maharashtra state has suspended a former head of a Muslim organisation in charge of land endowments, amid growing concern that "waqf" land and property set aside for religious or charitable use is being illegally sold on to developers.
The state land department, in an order last week, said Naseem Banu Patel misused her power as chief executive in declaring waqf land endowed for religious or charitable purposes, as non-waqf for sale to a developer.
Patel's mobile phone was switched off. She had stepped down as chief executive but was still an officer on the waqf board. The board's current chief executive, A.R. Qureshi, said he did not wish to comment.
Waqf is an endowment of land or property by a Muslim for a religious, educational or charitable purpose. Under Indian law, it cannot be transferred or sold, and must be used for the community's welfare.
It is estimated that waqf boards in India hold nearly 500,000 registered properties and tracts of land, making them among the top landowners in the country.
Yet several state boards have been accused in recent years of selling waqf land to developers and private buyers for low rates in return for illegal kickbacks as demand for land soars.
"Waqf properties are meant for the welfare of the entire community," said Salim Baig, a social worker who has filed lawsuits against waqf boards.
"A few bad managers are ruining the purpose of these lands, and the entire community is suffering, as a result."
India will have the world's largest Muslim population by 2050, according to a recent forecast by the Pew Research Center.
Yet the community, which makes up about 13 percent of India's population, lags the national average on indicators such as education, employment and political representation.
Maharashtra state last week launched a survey to determine the extent of waqf properties and encroachments.
A 2006 report by the Sachar Committee had called for an overhaul of waqf boards and stricter monitoring of properties.
Waqf properties make up a land bank worth about 1.2 trillion rupees ($18 billion), and can generate an annual return of 120 billion rupees. Yet it only yields about 1.6 billion rupees now because of encroachments and poor management, the report said.
None of the report's recommendations for waqf boards have been implemented, Baig told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
($1 = 66.7200 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)