A lot of the discourse is focused on land markets and removing distortions in these. In 2005, there was a UN Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, and it submitted its final report in 2008. One of the four “pillars” mentioned in this report was property rights. Land is an important slice of property, but not the only one. Here is a quote from the report: “Property rights is to be understood as a bundle of rights and obligations between people and assets, reflecting the multiplicity and diversity of property systems around the world. In all property rights systems, creating security and predictability is fundamental. Property systems are a central facet of state functionality and are important indicators of its effectiveness… In economic terms, to be fully productive, assets need to be formally recognised by a legal property rights system.” You will find familiar arguments and cross-country evidence on the benefits of stable and certain property rights in the report. The reason for quoting is the expression “bundle of rights”. The moment one mentions land markets, there is an unnecessary presumption that one is tinkering with ownership legislation. There are different kinds of rights on land and it is possible to unbundle them. A lot of the recent discourse in India has also focused on government acquisition of private land.
Distorted land markets lead to inefficiencies in land usage. However, government also owns (or has leased) land. Is that efficiently used? A quote from that report again. “Conducting state land audits and publishing the findings can help reduce the opportunities for the grabbing of public land.” Do we know much land the government owns? Do we have a ready inventory, with computerised land records and updated surveys? Stated thus, the answer is in the negative. Part of the problem is that “government” is too vague a term. Since there are layers within “government”, the word can mean different things. Let’s rephrase the question. Do we have such an inventory for all land owned by Union government? This means defence ministry, the Railways, central para-military forces, the postal department, the road transport ministry, sports authorities, the civil aviation ministry, ports and central PSUs/corporations. I don’t think we do, since these agencies function in silos. Here are some numbers, based on what we seem to know. Defence is the largest land-owner with 17.57 lakh hectares. Railways follow with 4.40 lakh hectares, though only 43,000 hectares have been identified as land not required for operational purposes. Ports Trust has 6,300 hectares, though one isn’t quite sure how old and reliable data for Mumbai and Kolkata Port Trusts are. (I have also seen a figure as high as 1.04 lakh hectares for ports.) Airports Authority has 20,400 hectares. India Post has at least 1,900 vacant plots of prime real estate in metros, such as Mumbai and Delhi. Central PSUs possess 95 lakh hectares of surplus land.
Figures vary because there is a difference between possession and surplus. One isn’t always sure which number is being cited. Figures are also unreliable because we don’t have an inventory. Nor do we always know how much land has been encroached upon. Air India (AI) has tried to monetise its real estate and property, in India and abroad. In that list of overseas properties, there are bungalows and flats in Mauritius, Nairobi and Hong Kong. There is a remarkable story about such a flat in Hong Kong, located in a prime area. Since this is based on hearsay, I can’t vouch for its authenticity, right down to nitty-gritty detail. But it’s so bizarre that it is likely to be true. AI bought this decades ago and should have paid stamp duties and registered it. That wasn’t done. Resultant penalties have increased exponentially. If there is an inventory of Union government land, land can be consolidated and pooled, transferred across departments. Consider what’s happened with the Hong Kong apartment now. Other organs of Indian government will want it because of its prime location, but will be deterred because of the horrendous penalty. Even if AI should morally/legally pay the penalty before such a handing over or sale, it doesn’t possess the resources. Nor will Air India find private players. No option but to rent it out. Post-mortems serve limited purpose, but clearly, this is an outcome that shouldn’t have occurred. Nor should it have gone undetected for decades.
But there is a silver lining and that’s the defence ministry’s directorate general of defence estates. Though roots go back to a 1992 initiative, because of a specific scheme started in 2011, we now have digitised, indexed and computerised records for land owned by defence, with surveys, demarcation and verification and a proper land audit. I am surprised more people don’t know about this, since this success warrants greater dissemination. More importantly, why can’t this be replicated elsewhere in Union government? There is no reason why it can’t be done. One only needs to figure out who is going to do it. One naturally thinks of the department of land resources, but that is with rural development ministry. Notwithstanding National Land Record Modernization Programme (NLRMP), its present mandate is different, since it focuses on delivering centrally-sponsored schemes in the states. I wonder about Indian Defence Estates Service (IDES). Having done this for defence, can’t IDES be roped in to do this exercise for all Union government? Better still, how about changing IDES to an Indian Estates Service?
The author is member, NITI Aayog. Views are personal