Residential buildings on Napean Sea Road in Mumbai. NRIs have become targets of greedy relatives and dubious developers. Image Credit: Supplied picture

Dubai: Owning a piece of land or house in their home country is every Indian’s dream.

But the fairy tale often turns into a dark tale of tears, loss and deceit when these assets are unlawfully grabbed by relatives, squatters and shady property dealers.

Caught in this dismal scenario, many Indian expatriates in Dubai are fighting seemingly unending legal battles back home.

It is not easy, as many have realised given the hassle of frequent visits to India and the notoriously lengthy legal process in the country. Some cannot even put on combat gear as the enemy, in many cases, is one’s own parents or siblings. 

Dad did me in

Maneesh Mukund, 41, is in a similar fix. The Dubai-based architect said his parents and younger brother who moved into a two-bedroom apartment he bought in a prime location in Pune are now refusing to move out.

“I bought a 1,200-square-foot two bedroom apartment near Wakad in Pune two years ago. It cost me around Dh323,000 at that time. Now the apartment is worth at least Dh450,000 and I want to sell it. But my family is refusing to move back to their ancestral house,” said Mukund who has been working in Dubai for the last nine years.

He said he gave the keys to his father thinking that he can supervise maintenance work. “Little did I expect that he would rent out his own house and grab mine. They think I am digging gold in Dubai,” said Mukund.

The father of two earns Dh23,000 and has to pay for his mortgage in addition to meeting the household expenses. His wife is a school teacher and earns Dh4,200. Mukund said he is not getting into a legal tussle with his family over the property because it will take an emotional toll on him. 

Hostile in-laws

Abu Dhabi resident Mekhna Rao is entangled in a property feud with her deceased husband’s family over his ancestral properties worth Dh2 million.

The deceit and double-dealings by her sister-in-law in grabbing her late husband’s property, as narrated by Rao, can put to shame high-voltage family dramas seen on Indian television.

Rao’s husband Vivek Chand, 37, died of liver cirrhosis on August 26 last year in Delhi, a month after his father passed away on July 12.

“Vivek was planning to join me in Abu Dhabi after his father died. But God had other plans. He had a severe infection in the stomach and underwent a liver transplant on August 13 at the Fortis Hospital in Noida.

“He slipped into coma and doctors said he would not make it. My sister-in-law who was so close to me seized the opportunity and grabbed all his property, my father-in-law’s bank accounts, to which my husband was the nominee, and my jewellery when I was in hospital praying for Vivek’s life,” said Rao, 36, who works as a business development manager for a private firm in Abu Dhabi.

According to Rao, her sister-in-law got hold of the suitcase that had the will signed by her father-in-law, his bank passbooks and other documents that rightly belonged to her husband.

“Now that her father and my husband have passed away, she is claiming to be the sole legal heir to all our property, including a house and agricultural land in Haryana worth over Dh2 million,” said Rao.

The childless widow said she does not know how to fight a legal battle in India as it would mean taking time off from her demanding job and frequently flying down to India. 

Misuse of Power of Attorney

According to lawyers, the misuse of power of attorney is rampant across India. Invariably, NRI owners top the list of victims. “The power of attorney is the villain. Instances abound when family members have become property grabbers,” said Ahmedabad-based lawyer Mukund Chokshy.

This proved true in the case of Josekutty Varghese who lost his house to his brother-in-law.

“I gave absolute power of attorney to my brother-in-law in 2010 so that he could complete transactions involved in the sale of my house in Thrissur, Kerala. But I got duped when he used his legal authority to change the house registration to his name and sold it,” said Varghese, who runs a vegetable shop in Dubai.”

The house, according to Varghese, was worth Dh265,000 in 2010 and the value is up by at least Dh200,000 more now.

Chokshy, a seasoned lawyer with over 30 years of experience in Gujarat civil courts, said he has seen many NRIs go through bitter experiences. “A father should never give his children the power of attorney for his house, and the children in turn should also never trust their parents or siblings with the same. When it involves money, you never know how people will behave,” he says. 

Fast track courts

The illegal grabbing, occupation or confiscation of properties have long been a pressing issue for Indians residing out of the country, so much so that a US-based Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) has demanded the establishment of fast-track courts for speedy disposal of their property disputes.

According to the organisation, many US-based NRIs owning houses and land in Kolkata, New Delhi, Punjab and Kerala have been struggling for years to reclaim properties usurped by friends, families or caretakers.

The increasing number of illegal and forceful land grabbing cases was also a topic of concern at the recently concluded 11th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) conducted by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs between January 7 and 9 in Kochi, Kerala.

According to lawyers in India and the UAE, expatriates are particularly vulnerable to fraudulent elements back home because of time constraints and lack of legal support in fighting their cases.

NRIs are at a great disadvantage as they reside far away from their home country and civil cases in India can take 15-20 years or even more due to an overloaded judicial system.

In criminal cases, the plaintiff needs to be present for court proceedings in India, which is another logistical roadblock for NRIs. 

Professionals to manage your property

So alarming is the situation that an army of ‘property managers’ have mushroomed in big cities in India like Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Ahmedabad, Mangalore, Chennai and Kochi to manage the assets of NRIs. “Most of our customers are based in the US and the Gulf countries. We facilitate buying and selling of their properties, manage their assets, including regular maintenance and liaison with tenants,” said Jayachandran of NRI Property Services in Kerala. 

Legal safeguards for NRI investors

Even while buying properties, chances of NRIs getting duped are high if they do not invest time and money to investigate the credibility of the property and the seller.

Kavitha S. Panicker, a Dubai-based legal consultant and partner of legal firm Panicker Partners in the UAE, said there have been cases where property developers and agents have duped NRIs because of insufficient inspection of relevant property documents.

“Ownership titles and other legal encumbrances are not verified leading to complications and loss of properties,” she said, adding that one in every three NRIs is a victim of some kind of property fraud.

She adivsed all NRIs buying property in India to get a due diligence report from a legal source before signing on the dotted line.

“A due diligence means the lawyers who issue the report will investigate the credibility of the property dealer and will verify all legal documents, including the title deed. They will also ascertain whether there are legal encumbrances on the proposed land or house. But unfortunately such legal safeguards are not followed by NRIs before they invest,” added Panicker.