The central government wants to take one more shot at land reforms. Wiser after the botched attempt to change the land legislation through Parliament last year, the new approach will try revamping the programme for digitalisation of records at the state level, including possible use of drones.
The government has been attempting for a few years to bring some order into land records by converting those into digital ones but the difference this time is the explicit backing it has been provided by PM Narendra Modi. To make it a top draw in the competing world of bureaucrat led schemes in India a nod from the Prime Minister was needed, said an official from his office. "It was very necessary," the officer said.
This was secured last week by making it the top agenda item in the monthly review meeting which Modi holds with secretaries of the central government, where the chief secretaries of states also tune in through video conferencing. A bland release issued after the meeting noted Modi, "called for integration of all land records with Aadhaar at the earliest. He emphasised that this is extremely important... ". The wordings are, however, meant to make the state government bureaucracies to respond with alacrity. The digitisation programme aims to make it easy for land to be traded in India, instead of being ringed in by state level silos.
One key pitch by the departments has been that it will aid the success of the Make in India programme since it will provide industry the accurate rights, cutting court battles. This will cut down the need for states to acquire land. It will also make the ambitious scheme to reach fertiliser subsidy to the farmer error free since it will now be calculated against his real holdings than what the fragmented land records show.
Critically the programme sits well with the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013 passed under the UPA government in 2013 to replace Land Acquisition Act, 1894.
Surprisingly the renewed push for digitisation happens when the Budget allocation at the central level for land titling has dropped off: Rs 339.75 crore was provided in the Budget for FY14 for the erstwhile National Land Records Modernisation Programme but has since come down to Rs 90.49 crore by FY16 of which only Rs 36 crore was spent. In FY17 under the new programme it will rise only to Rs 150 crore. An officer in the ministry of rural development explained that since the programme can only be executed by state governments the money with the Centre was a red herring, meant to finance studies in the sector. The support from the Centre will be technical like coordinating with departments and importing best practices from abroad, all, however, riding on the sort of push that the Prime Minister has offered.
The digital plan involves several components. At the first level, the states would begin to map the rural land using a combination of aerial and satellite imaging allied with ground markers. Till now, states have only changed their written records to computerised ones under the digitalisation programme. Some states have also asked to use drones for the purpose but the clearance has to be provided by the home ministry."We are examining it since there are security issues involved", said a spokesman from the home ministry. At the next phase the data would be matched with existing land records held by the district administrations. Currently there are no ground level observation techniques that can identify land holdings with a precision of less than a foot. For the farmers this difference can mean a lot.
As the price of land near urban boundaries after the passage of the LARR act has shot up, such errors can mean differences of a few lakh rupees in the price of even an acre. The new technology for which the states have begun to put out tenders will reduce the errors to nearly zero. This will give greater power to the farmers when they decide to sell land or when they negotiate for loans and insurance policies for their land. But the more dramatic change would come up in the next stage. The states will then begin to link the data on land holdings across districts. This is likely to prove contentious as it can immediately throw up data on how much land a person holds across districts.
The concentration of land holdings by middle level politicians, powerful bureaucrats and others could potentially come out in the open provided the states decide to make the data public. Since the Benami Act enjoins on the states to share such data with the tax departments there are more possibilities of the data coming out in the public than not.
The final element of the plan involves seeding the data with the Aadhaar numbers which will conclusively prove the identity of the land holders.
This huge source of information will not only throw up information on the perceived inequality of land holdings in rural India it will also make it easier to create a redistributive policies like imposing tax on land holdings above a threshold level - measures that had been jettisoned in the 1970s and 1980s. "Once actual titling begins to roll out instead of presumptive ones for land, it will show plenty of inconsistencies between records and actual holdings", said Rita Sinha, former secretary, department of land resources at the centre.
Along with the rural development ministry, the finance ministry has also got interested in the project, mainly because of the subsidy angle. The precise identification of who owns a piece of land and its usage can be used to decide how much compensation for fertiliser subsidy should be handed out. For the finance ministry this can translate into sizable savings from the current Rs 70,000 crore provisioned for in budget 2016-17.
NARENDRA MODI'S LAND RECORD DIGITISATION PUSH
Modi calls for integration of all land records with Aadhaar at the earliest
Digitisation programme aims to make it easy for land to be traded. It will aid the success of the Make in India programme, as it will help industry choose suitable land, cutting down court battles
Digitisation will make it easier for the Centre to pay fertiliser subsidy to the farmers without any error
- States will use a combination of aerial and satellite imaging allied with ground-level markers to come up with data on landholdings