An Aadhaar for land

The Unique Land Parcel Identification Number is a move in the right direction, even if target dates aren’t likely to be met

economy, aadhaaar
Land is of course a state subject and land rights are a complex bundle of rights and unlocking this unproductive asset has many layers. (IE)

In March, there was a national conference on Bhu-Aadhaar. With bhu meaning earth/land, Bhu-Aadhaar is good coinage. More people may recognize this as Unique Land Parcel Identification Number (ULPIN). On the occasion, Giriraj Singh, Union minister of rural development and panchayati raj, mentioned some figures. To quote from the PIB release, “Once the digitization process of land records and registration is complete, it will helpmitigate the huge pendency of court cases involving land disputes. The GDP loss to the country’s economy is about 1.3% due to projects being stalled over litigation involving land disputes, he said. A study says, 66% of all Civil suits in India are related to land or property disputes, and the average pendency of a land acquisition dispute is 20 years.”

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The study mentioned is the 2017 Access to Justice Survey by Daksh. Just so that we are clear, 66% of all civil suits aren’t necessarily related to land or property. That will require hard objective data. Daksh’s survey is a perception-based one, administered to a sample size of 50,000. There is a difference between subjective perceptions and hard data. Indeed, 66% of civil cases, perception-wise, concern land/property, and as per the Daksh survey, that figure is almost constant across income groups.

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Understandably, the importance of land/property cases will vary from court to court. Perhaps one should quote from a paper by Devendra Damle and Karan Gulati—a August 2021 Working Paper from the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP). “However, the premise that such litigation constitutes the majority of a court’s workload and that most of it is rooted in land-titling issues has not been sufficiently established…We find that 17% of all disputes at the Delhi High Court are related to immovable property. In these cases, the largest proportion of litigation is between private parties. The Union government is the petitioner (or appellant) in 2% of such litigation but is the respondent in more than 18% of cases. Tenancy disputes are the most common type of litigation, closely followed by land acquisition related matters. Contrary to expectations, disputes originating from and related to property records form a small proportion (13.6%) of immovable property litigation.” This, based on Delhi High Court cases, suggests caution, whenever there is a figure that 66% of all civil suits concern land/property, or that 35% of cases before Supreme Court concern land/property.

There are differences, across type of court. As a cause of litigation, land/property issues are indeed important. But the quantitative case for modernisation of land records alone, in absence of other changes (such as multiplicity of laws on land and rural/urban silos), should not be over-stated. For instance, in similar vein, the Economic Survey 2014-15 tracked stalling of projects and found that land acquisition is not as much of an issue as is commonly made out.

This does not negate the importance of making land markets more efficient, though quantifying inefficiency in GDP or other terms is fraught with problems. The Daksh study concluded, “The loss of productivity due to attending court hearings because of wages and business lost comes to 0.48% of the Indian GDP.” This is of course a small slice of the welfare loss. Ergo, the gains from more efficient land markets will be more.

Land is of course a state subject and land rights are a complex bundle of rights and unlocking this unproductive asset has many layers. This brings one to Digital India Land Record Modernization Programme (DILRMP), a programme that integrates computerisation of land records, strengthening of revenue administration and updating of land records.

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Once this has been done and the system is cleaned up, every plot/parcel of land (both urban and rural) can get the 14-digit alpha-numeric ULPIN (Unique Land Parcel Identification Number), Bhu-Aadhaar so to speak. Technology helps and hand-held devices can lock in latitude-longitude coordinates and marry land records with satellite imagery. Computerisation and strengthening revenue administration is the easier part and of course there are efficiencies because of a standard template throughout the country for registration and record of rights, including addressing of the multi-lingual issue.

The problem is in updating of land records. Digitisation of cadastral records is easy. But how good are those cadastral records? How old and consistent are they? Cadastral maps will typically not have latitude/longitude data. There may be elevation and projection problems. Can they be validated through aerial, field or satellite surveys?

What we want through something like ULPIN is simple enough. The record we have of the title must reflect ownership, with new registrations and mutation being automatic. With or without title insurance, this guarantees title, and just as Aadhaar captures biometry, ULPIN captures everything about that plot/parcel.

Given the history and the complex nature of land laws, this can certainly not be accomplished by March 2024 (or even March 2026), both target dates. However, this is not a fair way to look at ULPIN. ULPIN isn’t a binary, where everything has to be accomplished by a certain date. It is more about incremental improvements. There are parts where land titles and records are in a mess, cleaning up requiring a gargantuan effort. But there are parts where titles and records are clean. Those can readily have their ULPIN, those efficiency gains acting like a demonstration effect for others to come on board.

The equivalent of a dashboard is old. It is for physical targets achieved in 2019-20. This suggests, even in March 2024, the tense of the verb will be present continuous.

The writer is Chairman, EAC-PM

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First published on: 13-04-2023 at 04:15 IST