Most of litigations pertain to land ownership in India
During a survey, one officer asked a farm-woman: “What’s your problem, you have land and possession with farming for decades, why do you need a piece of paper?” She said: “Sir, if you have knowledge, isn’t that enough? Why are you asking for a degree?”
Ownership is fine, but title is essential for transactions over it. Land records offer lifeline of agriculture economy. Land record is one of the most important document of human history. It indicates not just individual land ownership patterns but also the way communities worked and revenue models operated.
They indicate cultivation trends and economic development, show the gradual socio-political and economic transformation of a particular region, down to the very basic unit of a village. Land records are a commentary on social dynamics, gender equations and cultural hegemonies besides being the lifeline of an effective system.
They are the basis on which institutional mechanisms can work and provide their services, the foundation on which policies are designed, revenue sources are decided, welfare measures are delineated, beneficiaries identified and budgets prepared. They are the source for mapping and cartographic data.
Land is the source of sovereignty and basis of governance. Land provides legal status to land owner/cultivator. Most importantly, for a farmer to attain full legal status as an owner, it is required that: a) s/he should be in possession of the land; b) s/he should hold a title document/patta; and c) his/her name should figure in the revenue/land records as the owner of that particular land.
It is estimated that 50 to 80 per cent of land owners in Telangana do not have one of these three essentials. Recently, it was reported that the Chief Minister of Telangana asked revenue officials whether there was a single village where land records were proper. He knew the ground realities. Most of the farmers do not even know that their records are defective. If there is no straight record on hand, being on land will be of no help.
The record empowers the farmer. If defective, it robs the farmer of his livelihood. Though he does not have any money, he may still need to pay bribe or fee for lawyer and spend his time around courts of law for decades.
Disputes over land, frustration with corruption in revenue offices, delay in justice delivery drive the agriculturists to private settlement muthas or turn them criminals. Millions of families are being broken.
Daksh, an NGO, says Rs 58,000 crore is being spent on litigation in both civil and criminal cases by the people (State’s expenditure is additional). Around 66 per cent of litigation is about land. Litigation of this kind causes a loss of 1.3 per cent GDP. The poor still suffer as the litigation lingers on.
Surprisingly, updating land records through transparent procedures will result in reduction of 2/3rd of pending cases before judiciary. If land records are reformed, the judiciary will be reformed. Sunil Kumar of Landesa has identified at least 76 types of land record-related issues, disputes based on which could be resolved.
Former Chief Justice of India, M N Venkatachalaiah, in his foreword to a ‘Report on Status of Judiciary’ by Daksh, said: “Justice, it is said, is the greatest interest of humans on earth. The history of institutional mechanisms to resolve conflicts between citizens and the state, and citizens inter se, is in itself a reflection of civilisational values and the state of evolution of any society... Law, it is said, is a notorious laggard. It does not reach out as science does.
It follows social consensus which is itself behind the need of the times...Litigations linger on for generations. It is the result of unscientific, non-productive, petrified procedures and a history of wasted judicial time over routine non-judicial repetitive motions in courts without any value addition to the decision-making process. We are committing unthinking unilateral disarmament against injustice.”
The place where things really happen is the trial court and within the trial system. The problems of the superior courts in their correctional jurisdiction arise from the failure of the trial system. The result is loss of man hours, wages, and productivity on account of non-productive, idle listing of cases, estimated at Rs 50,387 crore a year, apart from the actual wasted expenses, estimated at nearly Rs 30,000 crores a year.
Land reforms or land-record reforms?
Land reforms cannot even be initiated if the land records are not reformed or refined. Without updating the land records there is no point in talking about digitisation of records, which means scanning the defective documents with thousands of wrongful and manipulated entries.
For updating records, one needs to first publish existing records or provide easy access to each villager, invite the objections, survey the land, consult the neighbours and finalise the records in an authentic manner. In some of villages in Telangana, where the records are written on the walls of panchayat office, the people thronged with a number of complaints, and increased pressure on revenue personnel to remove errors.
Allow people in every village to raise objections. Ambiguity of records is a natural block in access and definite source of corruption. Any government is bound to fail with the lack of transparency and rise of bribery.
Digitisation of error-free records is not just an issue of Right to Information. It will be a serious issue of administration, development, peace and progress also. Disclosure is a requirement of civilisation. If a state cannot disclose land records, it cannot be called as government and much less a democracy.
Without confirming owner or cultivator or possessor, subsidies, inputs, fertilisers or seeds and loans etc., would fill pockets of corrupt. Loan waiver, being a huge burden on exchequer, helps undeserved without serving the aimed objective, and fails to prevent suicidal tendencies.
Modernisation: An old story
National Land Records Modernisation is a great idea but it has been running for several decades. Achievements are nowhere near the target. The new government at the Centre reviewed, reformed and renamed it as Digital India Land Records Modernisaion Programme, providing 100 per cent funding to States, for which it allocated
Rs 11,000 crore.
Digitisation should not end with scanning of records but extend to continuous maintenance and access, with periodical updation of new transactions over land. The state should realise that the digitisation itself does not amount to automatic access.
Putting the records on website will replace almirahs with computers but does not solve the problems of illiterates and cilliterates (ignorant of cyber systems). Lack of computers, electricity, bandwidth and knowledge to operate will render digital records inaccessible, bringing the situation back to square one. The PIOs say information is available on website and close most of RTI applications. It is an indirect denial of information. Instead, they should download, print out and provide copies.
Insulate records from manipulations
Technology should not become a new iron curtain preventing access for rural masses and an easy tool for tampering. If updated records are not insulated from manipulations, story of exploitation continues. It should adopt legal changes like excluding the names of deceased and adding the new heirs etc., within a time frame, under the order of appropriate authority. A computer operator should not be allowed to change the name of owner in ten minutes to give a printed copy of computerised title deed!
The law and its non-compliance
Obligations prescribed under Public Records Act 1993 are to catalogue, classify, maintain and periodically update the records while a similar obligation is imposed under RTI Act 2005. The Public Records Act does not have enforceability in states, as they should have matching legislation. Besides the compliance of these two laws is a big issue.
Are we civilised?
Our archaic land records reflect our quality of administration and the goodness of governance. If we do not correct those records for decades, it reflects our efficiency. If we talk of reforms without reforming the records, it shows our commitment.
If we talk about empowerment without access to records, it shows our civilization. If we talk but do not decide, it explains our honesty. (Based on paper submitted by author at a conference of Central and State Information Commissioners on “Land Records and Right to Information,” on 15th July 2017)