India plans overhaul of colonial-era land titles

    by Rina Chandran
    Wednesday, 26 July 2017 14:33 BST

A boy spreads red chillies to dry at a farm on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Amit Dave

Most land holdings have uncertain ownership, so fraud is rampant and disputes over titles often end up in court

MUMBAI, July 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India is considering updating its colonial-era land records with a system that cuts fraud and protects the poor as mounting wrangles over land crimp economic growth, an official said.

But the overhaul could take decades to come good, he added, despite a growing thirst for land deals in fast-growing India.

"Every transaction is imperfect, and the onus of establishing ownership is on the buyer," said S. Chockalingam, director of land records in western Maharashtra state.

Chockalingam also has influence on a national level, as he advises the government policy thinktank Niti Aayog on land matters.

In an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Chockalingam said a system to guarantee land titles should protect buyers from fraud and avoid the sort of lengthy court battles that frequently hold up development plans.

Land records in most Indian states date back to the colonial era. Most land holdings have uncertain ownership, so fraud is rampant and disputes over titles often end up in court.

Protracted legal battles can delay property deals, discourage investors and raise the cost of land. It also hurts the poor, women and minority communities who may lack the resources or the skills needed to engage in such fights.

"Right now, it's only a presumptive title and you cannot be 100 percent sure of disputes and claims related to it. The intention is to establish ownership and provide a conclusive title," he said.

Matters related to land and property make up about two-thirds of all civil cases in the country, according to a study released last year.

States will study land records, survey maps, transactions and court records to determine the ownership chain and litigation history of every property that is registered with the land titling centre, Chockalingam said.

This can be done for new and existing properties, he said Chockalingam.

Land records in India are gradually being digitised, and several states are taking steps to speed up land transactions and issue title deeds.

Rajasthan state last year said it would set up an independent authority to verify and guarantee land titles in its cities, as demand for real estate rises on the back of rapid urbanisation.

A nationwide biometric database, which has details of most of India's 1.3 billion people, will also help reduce fraud and opacity in land deals, which are now required to be linked to the unique identity number of the buyer and the seller.

Distortion to land markets is one of the main barriers to faster growth, accounting for 1.3 percent of lost gross domestic product growth in India every year, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the global consulting firm.

"There are many great challenges to guaranteeing land titles, and worldwide, it has taken countries many years to do it," said Chockalingam.

"But we want to take the first step; maybe in 20-30 years, we can guarantee all titles."

Sign up for our weekly newsletter