Opinion: Prerna Prabhakar
With livelihoods affected during the pandemic the importance of land ownership for access to formal loans as well as government relief programmes became more evident. But the relatively poor availability of clear and updated land titles remains a hurdle.
For a significant section of the rural poor land is both an asset and a source of livelihood. Many informal jobs in the urban centres were lost as the economy was hit by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. The resulting reverse migration placed greater demands on household resources in rural areas. With livelihoods affected the importance of land ownership for access to formal loans as well as government relief programmes became even more evident. But the relatively poor availability of clear and updated land titles remains a hurdle.
Though efforts to update land records began as early as the 1980s there is a long road ahead for achieving the final objective of updated and conclusive land titles. The government of India’s Digital India Land Records Modernisation Programme (DI-LRMP) scheme is the most recent effort in this regard.
The dismal state of land records is due to the failure of the Indian administration to evolve from British-era land policies. In addition land record regulations and policies vary widely across Indian states/union territories. For a comprehensive understanding of land records in India it is imperative to bring out the comparative picture in this regard. Though DI-LRMP provides a common framework for reporting the progress of land record management by states/UTs the heterogeneous nature of regulations/guidelines for land record management in India makes the progress non-uniform. NCAER made a pioneering effort in this direction by launching NCAER Land Records and Services Index (N-LRSI) in 2020. The index assesses states’ performance on two broad dimensions — digitisation and quality of land records. Despite the pandemic states/UTs made rigorous efforts over the course of a year to make improvements in various parameters of the index. These improvements are clearly captured in the N-LRSI 2021 findings the extent of which can be gauged by Bihar’s jump from the 23rd to 8th position in the index by making substantial progress in the digitisation of maps textual records and registration process.
Nevertheless some challenges remain. As had been noted in the pilot impact assessment of DI-LRMP one of the major roadblocks in ensuring continuous updation of land records is the lack of skilled manpower in land record departments in states. Another dimension relates to effective integration across land records departments. The N-LRSI analysis has brought out the poor synergy across land record departments — revenue department as the custodian of textual records the survey and settlement department managing the spatial records and the registration department which is responsible for registering land transactions. The N-LRSI design entails a sub-component of updating of ownership (within quality of records component) which gauges the extent of integration between registration and textual records — swiftness of the process of updating ownership as the result of the registration of a transaction the phenomenon which is commonly known as mutation. The information obtained from all the state/UT sources in this regard revealed that no state/UT has the provision for online mutation on the same day as the registration.
The study also brought out the weak linkage that exists between the revenue department and the survey and settlement department. This creates a huge divergence between the land area reported by the textual and spatial record enhancing the chances of legal disputes over the definition of boundaries and the extent of a land plot. With such poor inter-departmental synergy aspiring for updated and accurate records will always be a distant goal and states/UTs should take necessary actions to have the appropriate systems in place.
A key takeaway emerging from the two editions of N-LRSI is states’ receptiveness and will to improve. However these are constrained by inherent structural rigidities in the system. It is only by strengthening these institutions that the desired quality of land records can be attained. The improved system of land records is likely to facilitate the efforts that some states/UTs are making to ease land transactions — like lowering stamp duties by the Maharashtra government — to meet its increasing demand for housing infrastructure. Finally these efforts are going to be instrumental for the health of India’s rural economy.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 2 2021 under the title ‘A health warning on land’. The writer is an associate fellow at National Council of Applied Economic Research.