Though property disputes are probably the single-largest source of litigation in the country, as Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto pointed out decades ago, the impact on productivity is much larger. Without clear titles, banks find it difficult to give loans or enforce collateral, buyers find it time-consuming and costly to hire lawyers to vet property documents, and farmers don’t find it worth their while to invest in improving the land they till through, for instance, investing in water-harvesting schemes. Things are so bad that, while various municipal authorities have no problem collecting property taxes, their receipts clearly state that payment of taxes does not guarantee title to the land/building. Indeed, municipal authorities do not even stand by the veracity of information in their land records—if there is a dispute on the property bought after due diligence at the land records office, the local government does not accept any responsibility for this. The first serious advocacy on this, in India, was done by DC Wadhwa of the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics who argued that the government should guarantee title—which meant that, if the ownership of any property sale based on its land records was disputed, the government would make good the money. Once the municipal authorities had done their basic checks to authenticate the property data, Wadhwa’s argument was a simple one—while the likelihood of fraud was low, and could be insured against, the gains to the government and the economy in terms of more people doing deals on the basis of property records data would be far higher.
This is precisely what the government is now trying to work on, and technology has come to its rescue in a big way. With satellite technology allowing every single piece of land to be given a distinct number—like an Aadhaar one—what remains is to map this with details of the property in terms of its ownership through purchase/inheritance/gift; other details of occupancy or cultivation can also be tagged on. With 21 states already computerising their record-of-rights and many placing these lists on their websites, the next logical step is to put in place teams of lawyers to start verifying the authenticity of the data. An ideal way to do this is to crowd-source the data, getting property owners to upload the documents they have to verify their claims and, within a certain period of time during which all objections are recorded and disposed off, get a title guaranteed by the local property office. Under normal circumstances, doing this across the country could take decades, but if done correctly, the process could be speeded up immensely—if a land titling authority is created along the lines of UIDAI that built the Aadhaar platform, that body could explore innovative solutions to speed up the process including farming out the authentication work to different agencies across the country and mapping records with existing disputes in various courts across the country. If the Aadhaar programme was one of the UPA’s most significant contributions, the land-titling one could well be a signature project for the NDA.