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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Do digitised land records mirror reality?

by Sudha Narayanan, Gausia Shaikh, Diya Uday and Bhargavi Zaveri.

The World Bank's EoDB rankings estimate that it takes 53 days to register a property transaction and update the revenue records in Mumbai, and that the costs of such registration and updation aggregate to 7.6% of the property value. The corresponding numbers in OECD countries are 22.3 days and 4.2% of the property value. These rankings evaluate India's land administration systems on several parameters, such as the quality of the infrastructure for maintaining land records, the transparency of information and the dispute resolution mechanism. They rank India in the bottom quartile on these aspects.

Weak infrastructure for land record administration undermines property rights (DeSoto (2000)), and has an overall impact on growth (Deininger and Feder (2009)). Building sound infrastructure for maintaining land records assumes great significance in developing countries like India, where land accounts for a significant proportion of a household's asset portfolio. To improve the quality of such infrastructure, the central government rolled out two (2) centrally sponsored schemes across India in the late 1990s. Through wide-scale digitisation, the schemes aimed to achieve more accurate land title records and better service delivery to the citizen. The schemes were merged in 2008 and subsequently renamed as the Digitial India Land Records Modernisation Program or DILRMP. Such state-led interventions to define property rights in land have often been termed simplistic. Equally, they have been criticised for compromising local realities and existing institutional arrangements (Easterly (2008)). At the same time, the benefits of such approaches in allowing better enforcement of property rights and the consequential easier access to credit and capital, have also been widely acknowledged (Deininger and Feder (2009)). The jury is, therefore, out on the impact of a top-down approach towards improving land titling.

The biggest risk of a centralised approach towards digitisation is that the digitised records will not reflect reality (Bromley (2009)). In May 2017, we undertook a field study to ascertain the extent to which the DILRMP had been implemented in Maharashtra (link, link). One of the main purposes of the field study was to ascertain the extent to which the digitised records mirrored the ground reality on recording aspects such as parcel size, land use, ownership, possession and encumbrances. In this article, we summarise our findings from the field study on this specific question.

We find that for the sample land parcels under study, the records largely accurately reflect the names of the owners as well as the purposes for which the land was being used. However, there are greater disrepancies with respect to the parcel area recorded in the digitised record and the actual boundary area of the parcel. We also find disrepancies with respect to the encumbrances recorded in the digitised records and those purporting to actually exist with respect to a given parcel. Finally, we find low levels of public awareness of the digital means available to obtain or rectify property records. These findings hold insights into the aspects of the land record digitisation initiative that need to be improved for true impact.

Methodology

We studied 100 parcels spread across five villages and two Tehsils. The selection methodology is explained below:

  1. We selected two sample Tehsils, namely, Mulshi and Palghar, for this leg of the study. These Tehsils are mainly peri-urban locations with relatively high land transaction intensity and some prevalence of land litigation.

    Given our focus on the DILRMP, the sample tehsils are those where the programme had been implemented, in part, if not in full. While both Mulshi and Palghar fit these criteria broadly, they also differ in significant ways. Mulshi has been the focus of intensive effort by the state government, designated as a model tehsil where twelve (12) villages were selected for pilot implementation of the entire bouquet of interventions relating to digitisation. In contrast, Palghar tehsil represents a somewhat typical tehsil in terms of implementation attention.

  2. Within these two tehsils, we first randomly selected five (5) villages from the roster of census villages. Within each village, the goal was to pick ten (10) parcels that were not located in abadi, industrial areas, forest or wastelands. The parcels would be at least 0.3 hectares in size in rural areas, and at least 500 sq m in urban or peri-urban areas. Our goal was to ensure that some of these parcels were transacted in the past two (2) years.

    In reality, not all the villages we picked had a transaction intensity desirable for the project. We, therefore, selected five (5) villages each in Mulshi and Palghar, which, according to the department, had seen a lot of transactions in the past twelve (12) months. Where we did not get enough parcels per village, we included more villages. Often, parcels of the desired size were not available. Nor was it the case that the owners of all the parcels we picked were willing respondents. This meant that the final selection of parcels for the survey departed from our original stratified random sampling methodology. Given that the purpose of the survey is to garner insights into the implementation of the DILRMP, the sample parcels offer adequate material for the purpose, with the above caveats.



What did we corroborate?

For all the parcels in the sample, we recorded information about the parcel from the revenue records (i.e. 7/12 extracts) on the following five aspects: (1) ownership; (2) possession; (3) encumbrances; (4) area; and (5) land use. We then went to the parcel to corroborate the information so recorded.

Four of these five parameters were verified on the ground via personal interviews through a structured questionnaire and local inquiries. The verification of the fifth parameter, namely area, was done by measuring the parcel using e-Trex GPS devices as well as ETS by trained staff. The e-Trex involves a perimeter walk around the parcel, the ETS uses laser technology to mark corners of the polygon representing the parcel.

For those parcels which had been transacted in the last five (5) years, we also surveyed the respondents about their experience with interfacing with the department and their own perceptions of the current system and how citizen experience can be improved. We supplemented individual respondent surveys with focused group discussions (FGDs) in the premises of the sub-registrars in both Mulshi and Palghar.

What did our sample look like?

Our individual respondent sample is described below:
Percentage of respondents who
Are females 24
Are the owners themselves 92
Are the relatives of the parcel owners

4

Acquired (purchased/inherited) in the past 3 years 62
Percentage of samples which
Are agricultural land 93
Are encumbered 28
Have multiple owners 61

We conducted FGDs with a fairly wide variety of stakeholders, including:

  1. Residents : Residents of both Mulshi and Palghar Talukas were interviewed to gain a practical understanding of how processes work in the relevant Taluka, inefficiencies in these processes and the effect of digitisation, in their interaction with various sections of the revenue and land administration.
  2. Revenue Officers : Revenue officers were interviewed to understand the status, good practices and deficiencies in the system, before and after digitisation initiatives.
  3. Other Stakeholders : In addition to the above cohorts, we also interviewed lawyers, brokers and agents, and land surveyors. While lawyers were asked specific questions with respect to the effect of digitisation on legal processes associated with land transactions, the questions to brokers and agents focused on the efficiency of land transaction processes, before and after digitisation. The questions to surveyors focused on the efficiency, accuracy and hardships involved in measurement, re-survey and drawing up of maps.

Findings

Table 1 summarises our findings on the extent of corroboration between land records and ground reality. The first row indicates the total number of land parcels studied. The subsequent rows indicate the number of parcels for which the land records reflected the ground reality.

Table 1: Concordance between land records (RoR) and ground reality
Attribute Mulshi Palghar All
Total number of parcels

50

52

102

Ownership

49

52

101

Possession

48

48

96

Encumbrance

27

17

54

Land use classification
Agricultural land in both RoR and on-ground

44

47

91

Agricultural land in RoR but non-agricultural or mixed
on-ground

2

1

3

Non-agricultural land in both RoR and on-ground

2

2

4

Non-agricultural uses but agricultural in RoR

1

2

3

Table 1 shows that with respect to ownership, we saw a high degree of concordance between the information on the land records and the on-ground reality. In all except one case, we were able to identify an owner who was mentioned in the revenue records, and in 92% of the cases, we interviewed the owner. As with ownership, for the sample parcels, the land records, by and large, accurately reflected the actual possession. In general, with respect to shared ownership, except for parcels which have been sub-divided by an order of a revenue authority, possession of specific areas is not reflected in the revenue records.

We did not find the same level of concordance as regards encumbrances. The encumbrances reflected in the land records did not match the parcel holder's response of the encumbrance on the land parcel. The revenue records only reflect encumbrances associated with loans. We also saw a general reluctance to share financial information (28% of the respondents did not respond to encumbrance related questions, 1% of them explicitly stated they did not want to share this information, and around 8% did not seem aware of any encumbrance).

Overall, 95% of the land conformed to the land classification and use as reflected in the revenue records. Only six parcels did not so conform - three were designated as agricultural land in the revenue records, but were either non-agricultural or mixed use in reality and three others were deemed non-agricultural in the revenue records but were being cultivated in reality.

We found significant discrepancies in the area recorded in the 7/12 and our measurement of the actual land parcel. Although the ETS is deemed to have greater accuracy than the hand-held GPS device, for both measures, about half of all the sample parcels showed a deviation of more than 20% of the area mentioned in the revenue records. Table 2 summarises our findings on the extent of concordance between the parcel area recorded in the revenue records and the actual area. As with Table 1, the first row indicates the total number of parcels surveyed and the subsequent rows indicate the percentage of deviation from the area recorded in the revenue records.

Table 2: Concordance between recorded and actual area of land parcels
Margin of difference with hand held device
Number of parcels

50

50

100

within 1%

1

2

3

within 3%

8

6

14

within 5%

12

9

21

within 10%

21

11

32

within 20%

28

21

49

Margin of difference with ETS device
within 1%

8

2

10

within 3%

12

5

17

within 5%

18

7

25

within 10%

20

14

34

within 20%

27

25

52

Reasons for the disrepancies

Our report shows that the digitised records do not mirror reality with respect to recording encumbrances and area of land parcels. There are several reasons for this. For instance, we find that while banks and other credit institutions diligently inform the revenue records office of the creation of an encumbrance, the details of satisfaction are not communicated as regularly. Also, the revenue records reflect the loan amount for which the land parcel is encumbered. The repayment of installments of the loan are not communicated to the land records offices, which is one of the reasons for the discrepancy between the details of encumbrances recorded in the land revenue records and in reality.

A natural answer to the above problem is providing incentives to creditors to update details of encumbrances in the revenue records. Borrowers generally do not update the details of the encumbrances on their land owing to a variety of reasons such as the difficulty of accessing the land records offices. This problem can be resolved more easily by incentivising borrowers to update the details of their encumbrances to the revenue records offices. For example, the ability to intimate the satisfaction of a loan electronically, may deliver quicker outcomes on this front.

The area-related discrepancies are driven predominantly by the lack of awareness of the parcel owners of the true extent of the parcel. There were several cases where the white stone markers, typically installed on the ground to demarcate boundaries, were missing. In other cases, where the parcel was a part of a larger parcel earlier, the owner mentally treated the larger parcel as the relevant one. Demarcation was not done in most cases - with multiple owners, those who were cultivators used mutual understanding of the area to cultivate their piece of the larger parcel. The same understanding seemed to prevail between neighbours in most cases. Most did not feel the need to measure and demarcate the plot. Unless there was an impending sale, it seemed that demarcation and subdivision was routinely avoided. In essence, this issue emerges as a deep concern. Several people also brought up the issue of measurement. In Mulshi, where resurveying and measurement often led to conflicts because the measure did not match the records, they resolved it informally amongst themselves.

Currently, while the settlement and survey office is in the process of conducting re-surveys in parts of Maharashtra, the re-survey exercise is time consuming and difficult, owing to a variety of factors such as constraints on the survey equipment and personnel, and disputed land. This requires scalable solutions involving regular surveys and re-surveys of land. The government should consider technological as well as outsourcing solutions, such as those adopted for surveying land in parts of Africa, for their suitability and adaptability in Maharashtra.

Conclusion

The household level field survey described in this article serves as a template for a larger audit system for assessing the effectiveness of programs such as the DILRMP. The outcomes of the survey would be richer if it also entailed questions pertaining to citizens' experiences with digitised registries and also examined questions of access. As with all good audit exercises, the findings can act as a feedback loop for the administration in the design or implementation such initiatives. The quantitative and qualitative findings generated by such surveys will go a long way in pre-empting future errors and discontent that is often associated with such top-down initiatives.

References

De Soto, H., 2000. The Mystery of Capital. Basic Books, New York.

Klaus Deininger and Gerhson Feder (2009). 'Land Registration, Governance, and Development: Evidence and Implications for Policy'. 24 The World Bank Research Observer, vol. 24 (2), 233-266.

Easterly, W 2008. Institutions: Top Down or Bottom Up? American Economic Review, Papera and Proceedings 98(2):95(9).

Danier Bromley. Formalising property relations in the developing world: The wrong prescription for the wrong malady, Land Use Policy 26 (2008) 20-27.

 

Sudha Narayanan is faculty at IGIDR. Gausia Shaikh, Diya Uday and Bhargavi Zaveri are researchers at IGIDR.

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