Ownership of land in India makes you poor

"I made this charpai (cot) 25 years back when I got married in this house...this one I made two years later when a traveller gave me the legs of the charpai in exchange of some wheat," says Nasreen while admiring her skill of knitting complex designs for her cots.

The cot is the epicenter of power in this home located in the small hamlet of Ganga Ram Wala of Western Uttar Pradesh. Nasreen has looked at this power center with awe, making multiple attempts over the years to move closer into controlling it. But all of that could change, only with the death of her mother in law. Who ruled the cot, ruled the reigns of power in the home.

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Nasreen Begum is a farmer in her mid 40s in the Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh. Her husband owns 20 bighas (5.058 hectares) of land. They have been cultivating wheat on their land since they remember.

A few years back, a man named Hanif Nai from the nearby town of Badhapur claimed that he is entitled to three bighas (0.76 hectares) of land in their area. Hanif belongs to a lower caste family. Due to his social status, he got eight bighas of 'patte ki zameen' (land on lease) from the government. According to Nasreen, he received 5 bighas (1.26 hectares) of land in one location and 3 bighas across the river in another location.

Nasreen says that he illegally sold his one three bighas. And now, he is claiming that he never received the land. Hanif is demanding the rest of his three bighas and called a patwari (the land officer) to measure the land. According to Nasreen, people in their area who bribed the Patwari saved their land from Hanif's alleged claims. Since she did not have that kind of money, Patwari marked 2.5 bighas (0.63 hectares) of her land as Hanif's land.

Since then, they have been fighting a court case for their land. On each hearing one of the members of the family has to appear in the court. It is expensive to fight a court case and Nasreen has no hope of this legal battle ending anytime soon.

The reporter went to Hanif Nai and Patwari for comments but both of them were unavailable.

Is Nasreen a victim of greedy Hanif or a corrupt patwari?

The case of Nasreen is not unusual. Several farmers in the area are involved in some dispute regarding their land. Most of them are unable to fight prolonged court cases or bribe the right officials. And majority of them end up selling their land to wealthy farmers at very low prices. Later, they work on the same land as agricultural labourers. In a fraction of moment, from being the owners of land, they become labourers in their land.

According to Reserve Bank of India, small farmer means a farmer cultivating (as owner or tenant or share cropper) agricultural land of more than 1 hectare and up to 2 hectares (5 acres).

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Ameenuddin (popularly known as Meenu) another farmer in the hamlet complains about the corrupt government officials. To answer my many questions, Meenu picks up a stick and starts drawing in the dust. He outlines two farms with a line in the centre defining the boundary between the two farms. With the same stick, pointing to his drawing he explains that if this farmer is more powerful than the other farmer, the powerful one will shift his fence by a few meters into the land of the less powerful one.

He would continue doing this and one day stake his claim on those few extended metres. He would go to the patwari and bribe him into increasing his area of land ensuing a long court battle.

He further adds that in his village in Tarapur, chakbandi (consolidation of land holdings) is taking place. The farmer who is able to bribe the patwari gets fertile land and the poor one gets the land in the uncultivable river bed.

Lekh Raj, another farmer in the hamlet has several disputes with his brothers on his ancestral land. He can neither sell the land nor cultivate it. He ends up working on the lands of wealthy farmers to earn a living. He told that he is hoping to get married to a girl in the nearby village who owns 10 bighas (2.5 hectares) of land. That can change his fortune and current social status. Do Meenu and farmers like him suffer at the hands of the greedy powerful farmers or corrupt government officials?

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A World Bank study from 2007 states that some estimates suggest that land-related disputes account for two-thirds of all pending court cases in India. The disputes include those related to the validity of land titles and records, and rightful ownership. A NITI Aayog paper suggests that land disputes on average take about 20 years to be resolved. Land disputes add to the burden of the courts, tie up land in litigation, and lock the land market causing hindrance for any kind of development.

Is there no law/policy addressing this issue?

India has a unique problem. Land ownership is presumptive in the country. According to a research paper published by PRS India in 2007, in India, land ownership is primarily established through a registered sale deed (a record of the property transaction between the buyer and seller).

Other documents used to establish ownership include the record of rights (document with details of the property), property tax receipts, and survey documents. However, these documents are not a government guaranteed title to the property, but only a record of the transfer of property. During such transactions, the onus of checking past ownership records of a property is on the buyer. Therefore, land ownership in India, as determined by such sale deeds, is presumptive in nature, and subject to challenge.

The PRS research paper further points out, land records are poorly maintained; they do not reflect the on ground position. Land records consist of various types of information (property maps, sale deeds) and are maintained across different departments at the district or village level. These departments work in silos, and the data across departments is not updated properly. Hence, discrepancies are often noted in land records.

Poor land records also affect future property transactions. It becomes difficult and cumbersome to access land records when data is spread across departments and has not been updated. One has to go back several years of documents, including manual records, to find any ownership claims on a piece of property. Such a process is inefficient and causes time delays.

The land market in India is governed by policies that were framed before independence such as the Transfer of Property Act, 1882 and Registration Act, 1908. The laws are outdated and the whole market is engulfed with corruption, disputes that often go on till 20 years and lock the existence of a robust market.

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A small farmer often succumbs to greed of his neighbours, corrupt government official, archaic laws or just the slow pace of our guardians of laws. Surrounded with all this, an Indian farmer thinks differently.

"Yahan toh log abhi mein jiyein, agar zameen bechkar 5-6 mahine ka kharcha chalta hai toh koi banda yahan par do baari nahin sochta (People here live in the present, if selling land lets them cover expenses for next 5-6 months, then they don't think twice before selling)," says Nasreen.

The little money that they get from selling their lands is often spent in paying old debts, consuming alcohol and some money is kept aside for the marriage of the girl (if he/she has one). Inspite of receiving a lump sum amount upon the sale of the land, there is no change in the social status of the farmer. The wife learns to manage the home in lesser, the kids remain uneducated and after growing up reminisce the days when the family had land.

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Is there no solution to the problem?

Technology such as drone mapping, spatial maps and digitisation of land records are low hanging fruits that can address several land related issues in India. If we can reduce the interaction of people with government officials, it would reduce delays, harassment and bribery.

The Karnataka government through its Bhoomi project has shown that change can happen if there is political will to make the change.

Bhoomi is the project for the online delivery and management of land records in Karnataka. The project was implemented by the Karnataka state government based on the funding received from the Computerisation of Land Records scheme in 2000.

Under the project, all the manual Record of Rights (RoR), Tenancy and Crops (RTCs) which prevailed at the time of data entry were digitised and made available to the citizen through kiosk centres. The RTC is a document needed for several things such as obtaining bank loans, selling properties, creating partition deeds, etc.

Under the project, the Revenue Department in Karnataka has computerised 20 million records of land ownership of 6.7 million farmers in the state. Earlier, farmers were dependent on the village accountant to get a copy of the RTC. This led to delays, cases of harassment, and bribery. Bhoomi reduced the discretion of public officials by enabling mutation and data requests to be made online.

The government of Odisha deployed drones to provide land titles to its slum dwellers under Odisha Land Rights to Slum Dwellers Act, 2017. States such as Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Telangana are trialling land titles on blockchains. With the right political will, every problem can be solved / addressed.

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At present, ownership of a charpai can make you much richer and powerful than a piece of land in India.


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