Modernization of land records in India

Effective management of land resources is central to a nation’s social and economic prosperity. Updated and comprehensive land records play an important role in administering this scarce resource effectively. In India, land records have existed since the pre-colonial period, and were overhauled under British rule. The colonial system, comprising of deeds-based registration and presumptive land records, is still in use.

Systemic & Legal Characteristics of Land Records

As per the Indian Constitution, maintenance of land records, as well as other related aspects such as land revenue, survey and record of rights, are State List subjects. This makes the respective Indian state governments (and not the central government) the primary actors in the record modernization process. Various central initiatives since the 1980s have attempted to modernize land records in states. Central initiatives, such as a proposed revamped Digital India Land Records Modernization Program (DILRMP), should attempt to incentivize state action, while incorporating various state particularities and diversities, stemming from complex and layered histories of land tenure ship, settlement and recording of rights.

Land records have historically served a revenue function and were created for taxation purposes during colonial and pre-colonial times. The primary function of maintaining land records is still held by the Revenue Department in most states. Colonial records were created through extensive surveys and settlement exercises which mapped agricultural land holdings and linked the holdings to owners and tenants. Most states continue to have a Survey and Settlement Department that is closely linked to the Revenue Department. Any land record modernization effort has to take into account the role of the Revenue Department, while encouraging coordinated action among various other departments. Since land revenue no longer holds much significance, land records have fallen into disuse and need urgent updating. At the same time, with growing urbanization, land records have assumed critical significance.

Land Records

India has a deeds-based registration system and presumptive land records. When property transactions/transfers occur using non-testamentary documents, a deed with the transaction details is registered by the Registration Department. Subsequently, the title change caused by the transaction is updated in the land records via a mutation process by the Revenue Department. Changes in ownership occurring through testamentary documents such as wills do not need to be registered and mutation can occur directly and land records are updated. The Revenue Department’s land records are presumptive, i.e., they may be challenged in court. Courts therefore play a central role in adjudicating property claims and disputes.

Land records typically comprise of:

  1. A textual record: A Record of Rights (RoRs), called ‘Jamabandi’ in many states, comprises of 12 to 13 columns to record details such as ownership, possession, extent of the land holding, etc. Most RoRs have a ‘remarks’ column, significant in many states, since it allows for a place to note details that other columns cannot capture, including transactions of built-up property in both urban and rural settings. RoRs are land records and not property records.
  2. A spatial record: The property details in the RoR are supported by a property-level sketch and a larger map showing land holdings in a village and revenue estates that comprise the village. Typically, spatial records are not as updated as the RoR. Furthermore, spatial records often have high error margins. Courts do not accept spatial records as a legal record of spatial extent of a land holding. In case of disputes, the area recorded in the textual RoR is considered. Recent modernization efforts, driven by the Centre, have aimed at digitizing the RoR, the spatial records, and, in particular cases, some states have attempted a real-time updating of the actual on-ground situation with mixed results.

Land Records in Urban and Peri-Urban Areas

Revenue departments in most states typically have poor records for urban and peri-urban areas and village settlement areas. These areas were not covered in the colonial records that focused on agricultural land, which was the main source of tax revenues at the time. Even today, settlement areas of many villages (‘Abadi’ areas) and cities (which existed in the colonial period) appear as one aggregated revenue estate, with a single survey number in land records, without internal subdivision and ownership details.

A few city surveys were conducted in the Bombay and Mysore regions in the colonial period and some urban records exist in these areas (typically across Maharashtra, Gujarat and parts of northern Karnataka). Post-independence coverage of urban areas has remained incomplete, given high levels of transactions, high rate of urban spatial expansion and the overlapping and expanding jurisdictional boundaries of multiple urban authorities.

Some states such as Himachal Pradesh do not distinguish between urban and rural areas and therefore have some urban records. Some other states such as Karnataka and Gujarat have a system of urban property ownership cards, or property cards. Most cities have municipal tax records, maintained by urban local bodies (ULBs), which enumerate urban properties, but they do not validate ownership and cannot be used in court in case of ownership disputes. The primary incentive in municipal efforts to modernize land records is the need to enumerate properties for taxation purposes and not to identify ownership details, since the latter is also fraught with litigation questions.

Rudimentary Inference

The subject of Land is very comprehensive and the anomalies in its perception are a major factor contributing towards the thought hype of the same. Apart from that, there is a clear sense that mere technology upgradation, without taking into account specificities of revenue processes in respective states, would not work. A one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to work in land records modernization in a country as diverse as India. At the same time, the challenge is to work out particular incentives focused on outcomes (such as reducing litigation) based on the particularities of specific states. A five-fold typology of classification in terms of ownership, possession, extent, classification and encumbrances could be considered. There is also the need to build systems that will encourage real-time updating of individual, community and institutional land and property transactions. These details and challenges have specific state-level characteristics which need to be recognized and built upon. Procedures and protocols to address these issues need to be developed at the state-level, with reference to Tehsil and district-level differences, to be successful and sustainable over the long term.