For a significant portion of the rural poor, land is both an asset and a source of income. Many informal jobs in urban centers were lost when the economy was hit by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. The resulting reverse migration placed greater pressure on household resources in rural areas. With livelihoods affected, the importance of land ownership for access to formal loans as well as government relief programs has become even more evident. But the relatively low availability of clear and up-to-date land titles remains an obstacle.
Although efforts to update land records began as early as the 1980s, there is still a long way to go to reach the ultimate goal of updated and conclusive land titles. The Indian Government’s Digital Land Registry Modernization Program (DI-LRMP) is the most recent effort in this regard.
The sorry state of the land records is due to the failure of the Indian administration to evolve from the land policies of the British era. Also, land registration regulations and policies vary widely across Indian states. For a comprehensive understanding of land records in India, it is imperative to bring out the comparative chart in this regard. Although the DI-LRMP provides a common framework for reporting progress in land registry management by states/UTs, the heterogeneous nature of regulations/guidelines for land registry management in India makes progress uneven. The NCAER has made a pioneering effort in this direction by launching the NCAER Land Records and Services Index (N-LRSI) in 2020. The index assesses state performance on two broad dimensions: digitization and quality of land records. Despite the pandemic, states/UTs made rigorous efforts over the course of a year to improve various index metrics. These improvements are clearly captured in the N-LRSI 2021 results, the magnitude of which can be gauged by Bihar’s leap from 23rd to 8th position in the index by making substantial progress in digitizing maps, records texts and the recording process.
Nevertheless, some challenges remain. As noted in the pilot impact assessment of the DI-LRMP, one of the main obstacles to the continuous updating of land registers is the lack of qualified manpower in the land register services of the states. Another dimension relates to effective integration between land registry departments. The N-LRSI analysis highlighted the weak synergy between the land registration services – the revenue service as custodian of textual records, the survey and settlement service handling spatial records, and the land registration service. registration, which is responsible for registering land transactions. The N-LRSI design involves a Property Update subcomponent (in the Record Quality component), which measures the extent of integration between the record and the textual records – speed of the update process. day of ownership following the registration of a transaction, the phenomenon commonly referred to as mutation. Information obtained from all state/UT sources in this regard revealed that no state/UT scheduled the transfer online on the same day as the registration.
The study also highlighted the weak link between the revenue department and the investigation and settlement department. This creates a huge discrepancy between the area of land reported by textual and spatial records, increasing the chances of legal disputes over the definition of boundaries and the extent of a parcel of land. With such weak interdepartmental synergy, aspiring to up-to-date and accurate records will always be a distant goal and States/UTs should take the necessary steps to put the appropriate systems in place.
One of the main conclusions of the two editions of the N-LRSI is the States’ receptivity and willingness to improve. However, these are limited by the structural rigidities inherent in the system. Only by strengthening these institutions can the desired quality of land records be achieved. The improved land registries system is likely to facilitate efforts by some states/UTs to facilitate land transactions – such as the reduction of stamp duty by the government of Maharashtra – to meet its growing demand for housing and infrastructure. Ultimately, these efforts will be critical to the health of India’s rural economy.
This article first appeared in the print edition of April 2, 2021 under the title “An onshore health warning”. The author is a research associate at the National Council of Applied Economic Research.