‘Land Records Digitization’ has been a focus area of multiple governments. A dedicated central sector scheme was launched in 2008 to address the issue. While the numbers related to various aspects of land records digitization look impressive, most studies confirm that mere adoption of technology is not a one-stop solution. Other issues related to land governance persist that must be addressed parallelly.
Land is a distinctive asset – it neither shrinks nor expands. Like any other asset, its value is also determined by many factors – land type, location, extent and so on. Land is equivalent to life and livelihood for the people dependent on it. It also provides a sense of dignity and security to millions of people across the world. The significance of access to land in poverty reduction and economic development is well established. Proper land governance could help transformation across multiple sectors by augmenting the avenues for growth. Land governance is simply defined as the management of property rights, and land by various institutions using different policies, and strategies.
However, dealing with land records is a double-edged sword- precise and accurate land records could bring in transformation, while erroneous records could potentially invite conflicts, thereby building up tensions. A study by Land Conflict Watch, a private data research agency, estimated the potential investment affected due to land conflicts in India is around Rs. 26 Lakh Crores. Since the benefits offset the costs, it is imperative for the government to ensure proper land governance. Acknowledging its potential, successive governments have directed their efforts towards cleaning the land records.
Traditionally, the system of land records in India is mired with severe complexities ranging from legacy issues and poor capacity of the administration to the multiplicity of actors involved, and the loopholes in the legal framework. Entrenched in deep corruption, the land sector faces unprecedented challenges, both at the individual level as well as the political level. To eradicate such malaises, the Government of India had approved National Land Records Modernization Programme (NLRMP) in 2008, as a centrally sponsored scheme. This was transformed into Digital India Land Records Modernization Programme (DILRMP), a central sector scheme with effect from 01 April 2016. Additionally, each land parcel will be identified using a 14-digit unique identification number called the Unique Land Parcel Identification Number (ULPIN). Several states have already launched this initiative.
It must be kept in mind that the subject of ‘Land’ and its management falls under the state list provided under Entry 18 and Entry 45 of List II of Seventh Schedule of Indian Constitution. The Union government only provides financial assistance to states in digitizing the land records.
In this story, we look at the status of the implementation of DILRMP and some issues surrounding it, using data from the DILRMP dashboard, Land Record and Services Index (LRSI) by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and various parliamentary questions.
Before diving into the analysis of DILRMP, it is essential to understand the basic terminology relating to the land sector.
- Land Titles: These are the documents that establish the ownership of the land. In India, we follow the presumptive land title policy instead of the conclusive land title policy. Land possession in presumptive land titling is identified using past transactions like the sale deeds, mortgages, etc. The ownership is based on the current possession. It does not guarantee the ownership title of the land since no legal framework or government is involved. Whereas in conclusive title policy, the land title is guaranteed by the government and the titleholder is not responsible for disputes arising out of it.
- Record of Rights (RoR): It is a document that has information regarding the landowners, land, and other such details.
- Cadastral Map: While RoR refers to textual land records, cadastral maps are basically the land records in spatial form. Ownership of land parcels along with demarcation & labelling is shown in these maps.
Financing Land Record digitization in India
Since the inception of this program in 2008, states undertook several initiatives to ensure transparent and tamper-proof land records. As already mentioned, the Union Government provides financial assistance to the states for implementing this program. The actual expenditure has been low compared to the budget estimates since the inception of the scheme. This was even highlighted by the Standing Committee on Rural Development in its Fourteenth Report. The scheme is majorly demand-driven and the Union government allocates funding based on the proposals of the states.
While the scheme was initially up to 2020-21, it was further extended to 2023-24. When asked why it was necessary to extend beyond 2020-21, the Department of Land Resources specified that even though there is significant progress in digitization, some states and Union Territories are yet to ensure 100% completion of all the components under DILRMP. Another reason is the implementation of new initiatives like the integration of consent-based Aadhaar numbers with land records etc.
Implementation of land digitization
All India level
Land digitization consists of several objectives under its ambit. The Survey/Re-survey, the computerization of land records, the automation of sub-registrar offices (SROs), and similar other objectives complement the land digitization process in India. The performance at the all-India level is not the same across these objectives. There is significant progress in several goals, but at the same time, progress in other goals is dismally low. The lowest progress is achieved in the survey/re-survey objective.
As already mentioned in this story, Land and its management fall under the jurisdiction of the states. The responsibility for effective implementation of this program lies with the states. The performance of all the states is not uniform – some states did exceptionally well, while some states have fallen short significantly. The states in the Northeast and erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir region are the low performers. This could be primarily because of the history and culture of those regions, where community rights dominate individual rights. The Majority of the rest of the states have developed their own state portals, where all the key functions like mutations and downloads could be executed. The department shares the best practices and success stories from different states in the formulation and execution of this program on its website.
Is Technology a solution to this age-old problem?
The land sector in India, particularly the land records are in a wrecked state. The reasons behind such a shabby state of land records include the lack of co-ordination among different agencies like the revenue, survey and registration overseeing the land. Another reason could be the administration of land throughout the history and its disparity. Digitization aims to provide transparent and tamper-proof land records. But can technology become a magic pill to all the ills that affect land governance in India?
The concerns relating to technology in land governance are less about its efficiency and more about the architecture behind such technology. Issues like the selection of technology, the usage of such data and its access, concerns on privacy, the methodology behind such data collection and interpretation are primary concerns. Currently, different states have adopted different technologies and there is no proposal to adopt blockchain technology in the department as per a parliament answer from February 2021. However, some state governments have launched initiatives for the use of this technology in land records.
The NCAER’s N-LRSI report made an attempt to compute an index that assigns weights to a set of identified components and the method of evaluation of these parameters. These components include textual records (20), spatial records (20), registration (20) and quality of land records (40). The value in brackets indicates the weightage out of 100. Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, and Tamil Nadu stood out as the top 5 performing states in 2020, while Kerala, Chandigarh, Sikkim, J&K, and Ladakh stood in the bottom five. The mean score of all the states is 38.7, which further increased to 45.1 in the 2021 edition of the index. Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu stood out as the top 5 performing states in 2021, while Assam, Chandigarh, Sikkim, J&K, and Ladakh stood at the bottom five.
The study also provides an insight into the integrity and reliability of the land record data sources. Primarily, the data in the Department of Land Records dashboard is reported and updated by the States/UTs and there is no third-party authentication for such data. The report highlights the mismatches in terms of data collection and lack of data standardization among different states. The study also faults the prioritization of tasks to ensure clean and transparent records. Digitizing the textual records, which are conflict-ridden are prioritized rather than fresh surveys to ensure correct mapping of spatial and textual records.
The Center for Policy Research’s Land Rights Initiative also highlights concerns with the intersection of Land Rights and the Digital Revolution in India, with a focus on DILRMP and three other programmes (JAGA Mission, SVAMITVA, Agri Stack). It talks about the concerns like the lack of gender inclusivity, persisting land conflicts and non-uniformity across the states among other things.
Further, the Indian Institute of Human Settlement’s policy brief on Land Modernization talks about how the accuracy of land digitization is dependent on the reconciliation of three data sets- textual records, spatial records and satellite map data and how a mismatch in any of these data sets could potentially invite further legal dispute. The policy brief also dives into the legal challenges that could arise due to land modernization.
Though the objective of the scheme is to provide transparent and tamper-proof land records, thereby reducing land disputes and fraudulent transactions, the statistics relating to the reduction in land frauds due to land digitization are not maintained by the states. In the absence of any such record, the impact of land digitization is hard to measure. The states that have their own land portals also suffer from serious inadequacies like the wrong data entry, mismatch in the extent of land and so on. The Dharani Portal of Telangana, after a year of its launch, had 30 issues, causing hardships to people. Similar is the case with the Bhoomi Portal of Karnataka.
The standing committee of Finance’s 28th report on the Benami Transactions Prohibition (Amendment) Bill, 2015 also highlights the impact of digital land records on the poor and vulnerable and the difficulty of genuine landowners in establishing their titles. It also mentions about the old land titles that are non-traceable, making it difficult to establish ownership. Cadasta.org, a private organization working towards securing land rights estimates that around 1 billion people around the world who depend on undocumented land are vulnerable. Digitalization of such inadequate data could have disastrous consequences, particularly for the poor and vulnerable.
Most studies confirm that mere adoption of technology is not a one-stop solution, and it could be insufficient to address the complex challenges in land governance.
Featured Image: Land Record Digitization