States and the Centre need to take up land record modernisation with due diligence. Without it, the economy cannot grow to the $5 trillion mark
By Nivedita Haran
Reliable, and robust land records form the bedrock of good governance. It may not be globally accurate, but in India, every individual owns or aspires to own at least one immovable property, be it farm land, homestead, or a flat in a multi-storied building. Land is an asset without which human life cannot exist. Land is also an inelastic asset—it cannot be added to or destroyed. It is possible to reclaim land through filling up of water bodies, and to make areas uninhabitable through excessive exploitation. But, this involves change in land use, the surface area of the earth still remains the same.
Management of land is the government’s sovereign duty. Every citizen desires hassle-free access and control over their land. Maintenance of land records is a state subject, land title records, transfers, and public records being managed by the Land Revenue Department. Ironically, the department has the dubious distinction of being most prone to corruption.
India’s first ground survey was carried out in 1800. It was a Herculean task, and took nearly 50 years; thousands of lives were lost to disease, and wildlife attacks. The first base-line for the Great Trigonometrical Survey was laid near the tip of the southern coast, and the survey teams moved up gradually until they reached the Himalayas. One of the biggest projects of its time, it calculated the total land area of the country, and, ultimately, also the height of Mt Everest. The methodology was based on basic trigonometry. The first theodolite was shipped in from England; this was at a time when countries like France, and Britain had not been surveyed. It involved equations ‘more complex than any in the pre-computer age.’ The travail is beautifully captured in the book The Great Arc, recommended reading for all IAS trainees at the Mussorie Academy.
Under the overall guidance of the Department of Land Records, every state/UT has been updating its records. Land documents maintained by the village officer or patwari, under the supervision of the taluk tahsildar, carry a database of every land holding. Any change in ownership through sale, inheritance, or gifting is recorded. This change needs to be reflected in the basic records, both textual and spatial, through a procedure called mutation.
We are lucky to be living in times where modern technology provides for satellite imagery, unmanned drones can take aerial photographs, and there are equipments to locate land points with uncanny accuracy. Using digital GPSs, the Surveyor General of India has set up Ground Control Points with declared ground coordinates that maintain globally accepted accuracy, measured as WGS-84. The revenue department in each state is required to ensure every land holding gets reflected as a digitalised set of coordinates, which, when joined, forms the parcel boundary. The work begins through satellite images or aerial maps over which the existing cadastral, or land map is super-imposed with necessary ortho-rectification. Thereafter, through the process of ground-truthing or field verification, a reasonable sample of land holding boundaries including public assets, viz, rivers, hills, roads, etc are verified. Much like laying out the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the final map of a locality, a ward and a village is thereupon generated.
The process, though in progress in every state/ UT for over a decade and a half, is nowhere near completion. Being a state activity, the methodology adopted by each state varies and progress in some states is quite indifferent. In fact, it is doubtful whether the methodology adopted in some places would actually give the desired result. No doubt the government of India has been monitoring progress, and also providing limited funds for the work. But, the process is tedious, long-drawn and demands total commitment, which may not always be present among public servants. There is a flip side too: in states where the work has been out-sourced, the reliability and quality of the data may turn out to be inaccurate.
As mentioned above, a complete solution would emerge only when the three concerned departments, viz registration, revenue and survey function on the basis of a common database, and any change in title or tenure is in real time. But, given the propensity in human nature to misuse authority, there are cases where the process of digitisation of land records has ended up generating lakhs of complaints. For instance, a simple shift in the location of a corner point of one property and change in coordinates by a degree would impact the location and, possibly, extent, of every other holding down-stream.
Time is then spent in redressing the resultant grievances, distracting attention from the basic digitalisation work. This is the position in many districts in Kerala. Such dishonesty also leads to inflating the number of civil litigations and unnecessary harassment to the land-holders.
Government of India has expressed its intention to move the country’s records from presumptive to conclusive titling. But, conclusive titling is based on the presumption that the land records are totally accurate. Until the records are fully digitalised the records will remain prone to errors and tampering. Conclusive titling implies closure of all past land-related disputes and indemnification of any owner adversely affected. With the present state of the records, government would go bankrupt trying to indemnify those affected. Even the basic cadastral map of the famed Dal Lake was found to be destroyed in a fire years ago with concerned officers unaware of it.
Moreover, there is a need to ensure compatibility between the digitalised map finally produced by each state/ UT so that with the assistance of the Survey of India, the composite cadastral or land records map of the entire country can be generated.
In conclusion, to enable the country to move ahead, to encourage mushrooming of start-ups, to prevent build- up of NPAs in banks and for FDI to come in with ease, the states and Centre need to take up land record modernisation with due diligence and alacrity. Without it the country’s economy cannot grow at a speed that would take us to the $5 trillion level.
The author is Retire