Is Digitizing Land Records the Ultimate Answer?

The author argues that digitization is an important step in the larger subject of property rights but there are crucial steps before and after the digitization process.
Is Digitizing Land Records the Ultimate Answer?
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A small town in Bihar, Chhapra recently saw a protest as government officials came to measure the land to build a new flyover, proposed by the state government. The land which was measured included few homes and shops which were occupied by citizens for a long time. In response to the citizens’ concerns, the officials said the land was unsurveyed and hence public property. Further, concerned citizens are also not offered any compensation for the demolition of their home and workplace where they have been staying for centuries.

Incidents such as these are not in isolation, they happen all the time. The widely accepted solution rightly so, is digitizing land records. Digitization would not only improve land records but also land services. It will establish conclusive titles on lands thereby giving immense opportunities that the citizens can gather from these lands such as getting loans from the formal financial sector, contrary to what we saw earlier, citizens can claim just compensation and not let the government misuse eminent domain, etc. The number of benefits that come with the conclusive titles and digitization of land records is clear but is digitization the ultimate answer? Unfortunately, my answer would be no. Digitization is an important step in the larger subject of property rights but there are crucial steps before and after the digitization process.

Let’s again consider the abovementioned case study, if a digitization process were to take place in Chhapra, the land which is in dispute would still have been marked public property and nothing would have changed. The only difference would have been that in this case, the digitization would have created more concrete titles and fewer chances of citizens protesting. It can be seen from the NCAER Land Records and Services Index 2020 (N-LRSI) the index is broadly divided into two components where the second component measures the quality of land records and services and how congruent it is with the on-ground situation concerning possession, land use, land ownership, etc. The component is 40% of the overall index which means the states are marked with the highest score of 40. Bihar scored a meagre score of 12 out of 40, not just Bihar the overall average score of all the states was only 15.1 again out of 40. It is an alarmingly low score which points to the gap between the textual land records that are with the state governments and the on-ground situation.

The government intends to roll-out a countrywide initiative called Unique Land Parcel Identification Number (ULPIN), an Aadhar-like identification that will assign every parcel of land in the country a geo-referenced 14-digit unique number. It has been launched in a few states and the countrywide rollout is expected by March 2022. This initiative is in line with the flagship programme of the Government’s vision of Digital India. ULPIN is going to be a useful addition in the process of digitization where the initiative intends to create an Integrated Land Information Management System (ILIMS), which will boost real-time information on land, assist in policy and planning among other things but it also comes with many setbacks. The digital divide that exists in India was seen in the pandemic lockdown where as many as 80% of students couldn’t access online schooling, the creation of internet middlemen and combining that with the drawbacks that we are already aware of the Aadhar system such as mismatched IDs, lack of accountability, etc. However, the biggest problem that remains is what does digitization, ULPIN means for citizens whose claim remains unsettled. For example, only 14.46% of the total forest areas in the country have been recognized. So how does it benefit the forest dwellers and what happens to their rightful claims? As a result, it becomes extremely critical for the government and the concerned authorities to deal with only those properties where the land titles are concrete and well-settled.

There is a need for a clear and concrete policy for the unsurveyed land. The citizens in Chhapra while filing a petition to get their rights mentioned that they have been paying property taxes to the government. In 2015, the Patna High Court believed that the unsurveyed land’s nature is not identified and hence not concrete and therefore those lands cannot be considered to be public lands. The fact that the citizens have paid taxes and after the High Court’s judgement the answer to the problem is straightforward but even then, the citizens have to go through such inconvenience and have also been charged with a criminal case for protesting. The revenue official charged them with voluntarily causing hurt and on the ground that the citizens were preventing a public official from discharging their duty and also violating Covid-19 protocol. The only reasoning for such inconvenience that seems to follow in this case is that if the state government acknowledges the rights of the people of Chhapra it would mean they would have to acquire the land under the LARR Act, 2013 and pay the citizens to double the market rate as compensation. The petition before the High Court mentions Article 300-A of the Constitution of India 1950 and their right to property and how all laws enacted by Parliament or State Legislature are subservient to the principles mentioned in the Constitution. The petition also mentioned landmark judgements of the Supreme Court on their rights. Even a trespasser cannot be evicted forcibly and has to be evicted following the procedure prescribed by the law.

Several issues are to be dealt with before taking up the responsibility of digitizing the land records at a countrywide scale because it is only going to end up in a costly exercise without any benefits. While on the other hand, certain concerns are to be kept in mind for what happens after the digitization process is complete. One of the biggest concerns is the government’s idea to link land records to Aadhar, which means linking Aadhar to the ULPIN.

At the moment, it has only been allowed on a consent basis and not a mandatory exercise, but it only seems like a matter of time before it is binding. The plan of Aadhar linkage can be traced back to 2014 but it is showing some execution in the present times. Needless to say, such an initiative will open a pandora’s box of legal and privacy issues even though the Supreme Court upheld the Aadhar programme in 2018. The government can work around the idea and make this linkage to provide benefits or services to the citizens, but Supreme Court did not approve the Aadhar in its entirety. The Supreme Court did strike down the orders to link Aadhar with cell phones and bank accounts.

Digitizing land records is without any argument non-negotiable, but it should always be considered only as of the first step in the larger picture of property rights. As we saw with the example of people of Chhapra, there needs to be congruency between records with the government and the on-ground situation, all the unsurveyed land needs to be surveyed before digitizing them and there needs to be a policy plan to deal with such occasions and also circulating the bill to elicit public opinion. All the land and property-related litigations that are pending, are also to be dealt with before digitizing the land records.

Right to Privacy, which is now the Fundamental Right of every citizen under Article 21 is another component to be kept in mind. It will be a time-consuming task and therefore slow and accurate work is always better than hurried and incorrect. Political parties should take time in executing the digitization process instead of just trying to fill up spaces to show a long list of things they have achieved in such a short period.

The author, Akriti Kumari, is currently pursuing LLB from Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat.

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