Digitizing Land Records in India: The Centre’s Challenge to Alleviate Concerns and Engage States

The central government is considering a proposal on the feasibility of buying and selling land via video call. “Land transactions via video calls are being considered,” an agent from the Union Land Resources Department told ET, on condition of anonymity.

While the details are still on the anvil, this idea, if implemented, would mean that someone holidaying in Mauritius would be able to settle the transaction of their land in, say, Meerut or Madurai, simply over the phone. But the obstacles are many. Existing laws such as the Information Technology Act 2000 and real fears that fraudulent practices could increase in online modes throw a spanner in the works. At present, the IT law does not apply to “any contract for the sale or transport of real estate”.

A compromise formula could be that the buyer and seller might have to make a trip to the sub-registry office for a physical check, the officer explains. The government has remained silent on the proposal. Yet a close look at Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s budget speech in February would reveal that she referred to a “register anywhere” option for deeds and documents (paragraph 75) without giving details of this. topic.

FM talked about it as part of a new sarkari software called the National Generic Document Registration System (NGDRS), which turns into a one-stop shop for registering and storing land documents. An ambitious ‘registration anywhere’ initiative will only work if all land plots in India, around 800 million, are properly surveyed and digitally stored, in addition to having a unique identification number assigned to each plot .

The Digital India Land Registry Modernization Program (DILRMP) was launched in 2016 as a core sector program. According to data available from the Department of Land Resources, 58,10,300 parcels in 18 states and union territories have so far been inspected and ULPINs issued.

The ULPIN, or Unique Land Parcel Identification Number, is a unique 14-digit alphanumeric identifier generated for each parcel of land. Just as Aadhaar is for humans, ULPIN is for conspiracies. The NGDRS is implemented in 12 states or UTs: Punjab, Goa, J&K, Manipur, Mizoram, Daman and Diu, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Tripura, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

“A bank usually hires a solicitor to check the anteriority of a piece of land. They go to the local revenue office before filing a title search report. If the report is positive, the land is accepted as collateral. If land papers are available in digital form, it will be easier for banks to lend money””

— KISHOR KHARAT, former Managing Director and CEO, Indian Bank

This massive ongoing exercise to map and digitize India’s 800 million plots of land will bring transparency, reduce the number of court cases and help create vast bankable assets in rural India. The challenge, however, will be to take all states on board as land is a state subject. The GoI can only enter this area in a limited way. Large states such as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu have yet to take the plunge while the northeastern state of Meghalaya has expressed reluctance to join the bandwagon as customary laws government granted land rights mainly to communities.

Even in Assam, where the process of surveying and digitizing has started, work in Sixth Schedule areas (tribal districts under self-governing councils) has been postponed. Ashutosh Sharma, former secretary of the science and technology department, says that if the exercise of mapping and digitizing every plot in India is done perfectly, huge sums of money will flow into rural pockets.

“Sometimes the banks don’t accept the land as collateral because the papers are often not in order. Villagers are forced to turn to local loan sharks. Now the banks would start lending more money to these areas,” he says, adding that simply scanning the existing paper cards lying in the former almirahs of revenue offices across India would not help much.

“The plots must be surveyed by a drone with an accuracy of up to 10 cm. If there is a nala (canal), we need to know its depth and the amount of flood water that flows into it during the monsoon. The private sector will then come forward and build applications on those attributes,” he says. According to him, the mapping business in India would be around Rs 20,000 crore in 2030.

Kishor Kharat, former MD and CEO of

, explains how a financial institution generally verifies the land papers given as security. The bank typically hires a lawyer from its own panel to review a plot of land’s history for 30 years or more. “She goes to the local revenue office before filing a title search report. If the report is positive, the plot of land is accepted as collateral. If land papers are available digitally, it will be easier for banks to lend money,” he says.

“Last October, we launched our program, Mission Basundhara. We received over 8,000 online applications, mostly transfer cases. We settled them within a limited time frame. Everything was done online. reduces the human interface””

— JISHNU BARUA, Chief Secretary, Assam

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For ordinary citizens, sub-registries often mean long waits, corruption and even high-handedness from officials. People have to make several visits to the office. After collecting the paperwork, filing the fees and registering the deed (a record of a transaction between a buyer and a seller), they must wait a fortnight or more to receive the final document. The Land Resources Department officer says, “With the NGDRS software, the human interface is largely removed. And thanks to the software, the registration process only takes 15-20 minutes. There is no place for corruption. In addition, land registers are now available in the 22 official languages.

In April, the Department of Land Resources received the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Public Administration for this software application, which was developed at a cost of just Rs 4 crore. The income tax department and the ministry of agriculture are indirect beneficiaries of the software. While the Department of Agriculture has started using its data to match farmers with their land holdings, the IT department now receives information about real estate transactions almost instantly.

In areas where manual registrations continue, sub-registry offices periodically submit high-value land transactions of Rs 30 lakh and above to the revenue authority, but unlike the information generated by the system, manual interventions are not not free from manipulation. Former Central Board of Direct Taxation Chairman R Prasad says collecting more snapshot data is not enough.

“The key is to hunt these cases. Does the department have the manpower to organize investigations of new cases, send notices and prosecute them proactively? he asks, adding that tax sleuths will remain focused on high-value urban land deals and not those in rural areas. In addition, farmland transactions do not fall under income tax laws, he adds. The question is how long will it take to map and digitize every inch of land in India? And what if states pursued their own land surveying and document scanning policies instead of following the Center’s model? Assam Chief Secretary Jishnu Barua said the state is seriously considering surveying its land, updating records and removing the human interface. “Last October, we launched our own program, Mission Basundhara.

“Simply scanning existing paper maps will not help much. Plots need to be surveyed by drone with an accuracy of up to 10cm. If there is a nala (channel), we need to know its depth and the amount of flood water flowing into it during the monsoon. . The private sector will then build applications on these attributes””

— ASHUTOSH SHARMA, Former Secretary, Department of Science and Technology

We received more than 8,000 online applications, mainly transfer cases (transfer of title). We settled them within a specified time. Everything was done online and it was transparent. We have significantly reduced the human interface,” he says. While this program has helped Assam settle around 500,000 mutation cases, distribute uncontested cases and update legacy and mobile data, the real challenge begins now.

Large tracts of tribal areas in the hills of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao have never been surveyed. And of the 19,500 villages outside the Sixth Schedule areas, about 1,074 have never been surveyed. In addition, income cards since the 1970s have disappeared in 774 villages, mainly in Dibrugarh and Tinsukia. Assam Revenue Secretary Gyanendra Dev Tripathi said: “The manual investigation will take 30 to 35 years. We can’t wait that long.

Our goal is to complete the survey of all 20 million plots of land in the state within three years. So we deployed drones to Dibrugarh and Tinsukia to recreate the missing maps. We will deploy around 25 drones in Assam to expedite the investigation. The story of unsurveyed villages, missing maps and lack of surveys with modern tools is not an Assam-centric issue. It is widespread throughout the country.

Poor land records are the main reason why millions of Indians have been fighting the courts for years. In 2019, according to the Center for Policy Research’s Land Rights Initiative, an estimated 7.7 million Indians were affected by land disputes, threatening investments valued at around $200 billion. It also states that 66% of all civil cases in India are related to land or property disputes. In the Supreme Court, one in four cases involves land issues. A foolproof method of land surveying and digital record keeping will go a long way to unlocking value in rural India, reducing conflict and unclogging the courts.