Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Property Disputes

Was discussing today about property disputes in families between siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins and even between people who are 3 to 4 generations apart. Recalling the numerous  property disputes I have witnessed in India, I realize that in Canada, I have come across only one property dispute. This ‘ one’ property dispute  is that of  a colleague of mine, in her 50s, who is concerned that her mother will be duped into willing away her cottage to one of her brothers( who she believes is cunning) and she’s  worried that she will not inherit her share of her mother's cottage.
Property disputes are one major pain in the neck I have come across in numerous middle-class and upper-class families in India. At the time of dispute, the siblings seem to forget all the love and affection they had for each other growing up; they appear more like   mortal enemies, who don’t trust each other than like the siblings they really are! What depresses me now is the realization that hundreds, nay millions of hours in India which people could spend doing something enjoyable, go towards these property squabbles. If people realize that they are but visitors for brief periods of time on earth and cannot carry the baggage (read property) they accumulate here to the next lap of their journey, then, why waste so much energy, trying to accumulate property? Why not enjoy life, without trying to accumulate riches? Is life less fun if one wears a fake diamond instead of a real diamond???
Property disputes are especially bitter and rough in villages. The people’s behaviour is so disgusting, that I cannot believe that they are the same smiling relatives with whom I had interacted in the past.
I have seen disputes for land, houses, shares in wells, trees, crop yields, gold, things such as copper and brass utensils, etc.
I have seen disputes between
Brothers
Step-brothers
Brothers and step-brothers
Cousins
Sisters and brothers: This is especially sad as brothers in India, often think that the property should go only to the males in the family and not females. The females, especially the mild ones go through years of hell as their husbands and in-laws  insist they get their share of the property and the brothers refuse to give.
Believe it or not, I have seen disputes between mothers and their sons for property!
I have heard of rumours of murders for property in rural areas but as no one ever is arrested or jailed. I believe these rumours are true.
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A friend of mine says that he is so glad that his father, an impoverished government employee, never made any property. Thanks to absence of property, he and his siblings are still friendly and have a good relationship with each other. He strongly believes that if his dad had managed to build a house, there would be a huge rift between the brothers after the parents death for the property. He thinks his oldest sibling would have demanded that he should get the house as he is the oldest, the youngest would have demanded to keep the house as he looked after his parents when he started working, the middle one would have demanded the house as he is the only one with a son, while the rest have only daughters!
I can write pages and pages about the property disputes I have witnessed in my life, since childhood. In India, unfortunately, all disputes happen at home, in front of the children and no one seems to care how traumatic it can be! The fights can get physical, very ugly, yet, no one thinks of the kids watching all this with dread.
One dispute which moved me to tears was one in my village. Two brothers divided the land between them and had to share the water from their ancestral well to irrigate their lands. The older brother bought the share of the well from his brother by paying him and the younger brother who seems to be really stupid, was happy to get money for selling  his share of the well. In no time, the younger brother’s crops dried up and he had to pay his brother to use the well water every time! He tried to return the money to buy back his share in use of the well but the brother adamantly refused. Of course, after paying for water,(you actually pay for the electricity to run the pumpset to draw water) day after day after day, the younger brother hardly made any money from his crops. Neither did his elder brother agree to let him put another pumpset in the well. The younger brother gradually drifted into poverty and was forced to sell his lands.
It is so difficult for me to understand how a sibling can do this to another....watch a brother or sister sink instead of helping and in some cases, even cheat a sibling and let him slide into poverty.
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I have observed a cycle which repeats every generation in India:
   Adults fight bitterly with their siblings for their parent’s property.
Yet, these very adults become loving parents who have lots of great plans for their kids future. The parents never anticipate that when their kids grow up to be adults, the kids will likely fight with each other for the property and lose the affection they had for each other as children. Each adult fighting for  his share of property strongly believes that he is right and his siblings are greedy and bad; each of these fighting adults believe that their kids will never fight over property but live in harmony! I have seen this cycle, so many times, it is funny, how no one ever learns!
I still remember a lovely palatial bungalow in Coorg in a coffee estate built by my friend’s grandfather. He assumed that his sons will live together even after they married and he built a huge house, with several bedrooms and bathrooms.  Now this palace sort of building is lying empty and none of his sons live in it; these sons   hate each other so much that they visit and stay at this house only when they are sure that the  other siblings are  not in the house!
You my dear reader may be wondering, why the hell these people don’t go to a lawyer and fix the property division in a neat fashion..... but(1) writing wills and(2) bringing in  lawyers is something alien and unliked by most people I know. My own dad is refusing to write a will and says that his property should be equally divided between us!
Majority of the  educated middle-class people in Bangalore  I know refuse to write a will or officially  transfer property  to whom they like. Most things are said orally and these days, that is not enough. For example, one old man wanted one of his sons-in-law to get his house as this son-in-law had always taken care of him.The father-in-law always stayed at this son-in-law's house during his visits to the city over several decades. But he only told this orally to the people around him and did not transfer the property to this son-in-law or write a will. After he died, the other son-in-law demanded a share of the property and the house was sold and money divided among them!
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 I am going to add here a few of  the property disputes I have seen in India amongst my friends and relatives. It seems funny to me, a bystander but I do know how painful it is to the people involved.
 I am not from a rich circle and so the disputes I have witnessed are  for small amounts of wealth. I can only imagine how terrible the disputes must be in families who are much richer such as the families with businesses, film stars, politicians, etc.
One hilarious dispute I can think of right now was the division of coconuts in one tree belonging to two brothers. This tree was near my land and I would sit under this tree and read my books, when I visited my village in holidays. This is what happned during one of my summer holiday visits. One morning,  one brother who owned this tree came and looked up at the tree and his wife asked him to pluck a few coconuts. He plucked a few coconuts and left. In the afternoon the younger brother came with his wife and both looked up and spotted the missing coconuts. They asked me if the brother had come in the morning and I said yes and they asked me if he plucked coconuts and I said yes. The younger brother’s wife asked her husband to pluck some coconuts and he did it reluctantly. He said they did not need it but she insisted!
By now only the green tender coconuts were left in the tree. The next day the same thing happened again and in 2 days, the tree was stripped of even the tender coconuts! This stripping of the tree happened within weeks of the death of the father of the two brothers From what I later heard from laughing villagers, the two brothers stripped the tree as soon as the new tender coconuts appeared big enough and never ever let the coconuts ripen in the tree!
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Is it the poverty that makes people so greedy?
 Is it the fact that a person cannot bear the thought of another person  having more than him which leads to  fights for property?
 Is it anxiety about the future which drives this need to accumulate as much as possible for the future?
 Is it that parents do not trust their children’s capacity to fend for themselves  as adults and they feel a need to make property...through hook or crook, for their kids future well being? That they have to make property which will support their kids, in case their kids do not get jobs? 
These assumptions above  are my analysis of people's motives for their property making behaviours. For some reason people I know do not trust stocks and shares and only invest in real estate, gold to some extent and agricultural land. None of the people I know ever think of investing in businesses.(except for a few Shetty community friends)
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Another common but hilarious property division feature I have seen is the building of a wall right in the middle of a house to divide the property between two siblings. There is no money for the brothers to make the division look elegant and so a wall is simply constructed. One side of the house gets the kitchen while one side gets the bathroom; one may get the cattle shed while one gets the bedroom! The families live like that for years and do not think of sharing and co existing without the wall. Division of houses is common in cities too but may take various ways. One sibling may get the first floor and one may get the second floor. Or the house may be sold and the money divided. Or as usual in villages, the property may be divided by building a wall in between.
One unfunny aspect of property division is the division done immediately after the death of the male head of the family. The timing of property division seems so wrong to me…in the middle of grieving the widow is expected to settle this property division between her sons. Often there is nothing given to the widow…everything goes to her sons on whom she has to depend  in future. Ugly fights happening at a time when the body is barely cold is something I have heard of but not seen…Thank God.
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One unconfirmed rumour from a neighbouring village I have heard is of a childless couple adopting a baby boy several years ago. The father of this boy died of old age and a few years  later his wife died. The adopted son who was an adult did not get their property as expected! He was ruthlessly evicted from the house and his father's house and lands were taken away by his adopted parents relatives! The village witnessed all this silently but no one dared to support or help this adopted son. The idea is that he is not a blood relative and the property should go to the blood relatives!
The adopted parents suspected that this may happen and had signed papers willing their property to him. However they had also signed blank court papers for something else and their lawyer filled in these papers after the couple's death, willing the property to the relatives, who he felt were the rightful heirs!
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I am moving  from  talking about property disputes to a topic which comes up when talking of property disputes in India i.e. forging signatures and signing blank documents.

Signing blank sheets and blank cheques and blank court documents which are filled up later by lawyers is something which was common in rural India about 2-3 decades ago. I am not sure if this still happens.  But this is how it generally goes. The lawyer or whoever the official is explains orally to the illiterate person/client about what he is going to do. The illiterate and maybe  busy farmer, signs or puts his thumbprint on the relevent document; trusts the official or lawyer to do the right thing and goes back to his farming. The lawyer or official deals with the documents and does what is expected of him while the farmer goes back to his village. Most villagers do not comprehend the convoluted system of the courts, government offices dealing with sale and purchase of lands, banks, etc and prefer to let someone they trust to do it for them. The trust is so complete that they sign in advance, trusting that the document will be drawn in their favour. They are also so busy on their lands that they cannot afford to spend time, scrutinizing documents and running around the burecratic government offices.
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I myself have recently mailed signed blank papers to my relatives in India. I do not have the time to run from one bureacratic government office to another in India to get my work done ; I trust my friends and relatives completely  and my signature will help them, get my work done easily! For example, they can go to the government office, find out how the letter is to be written and they fill up the blank space above my signature and my work is done. I do not have to go to India for that ! Ideally it is not the right way to do things  but trust is trust!  I know I am contradicting myself by saying that I am signinng blank papers butr that is how India still works. When government forms have to be signed, well meaning people have forged signatures for others to save time. (1)The right path: take the form, mail it to person, who fills and signs and mails it back and then you submit and then get work done: This takes 2-3 weeks. (2)The quick route: If your friend visiting the government office on your behalf, forges your signature, work gets done immediatly! and No harm done!
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Of course, there are numerous tales of unscruplous money lenders duping poor illiterates of their money by making changes in the loan documents. One can see this in the old black and white Indian movies.
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I really liked this article I saw online called the Godfather of Bangalore about the land mafia in Bangalore. It gives a clear picture of what is going on in Bangalore's underbelly today. You can read about how a Mafia character settles property disputes between people (even members of the same family!)and makes money himself!
http://www.wired.com/techbiz/people/magazine/16-11/mf_mobgalore?currentPage=all

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