India Begins Digitizing Labyrinthine Landownership Records

Many of the hand-written documents in the office of Bharat Lal Sharma, a 27-year land record officer in the northern state of Haryana, go back a century.
Many of the hand-written documents in the office of Bharat Lal Sharma, a 27-year land record officer in the northern state of Haryana, go back a century. (By Rama Lakshmi -- The Washington Post)
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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 17, 2009

CHARUNIJATTAN, India -- Bharat Lal Sharma knows every inch of the land in 11 northern Indian villages like the back of his hand.

As a powerful local patwari, or land record officer, he has kept track of farm plots in his jurisdiction in the state of Haryana for 27 years. His office is full of tattered, handwritten documents, many of them going back 100 years.

"We follow the age-old system of writing down everything about land in India -- who owns what, where, how much, and what is grown," said Sharma, 47, reading from his yellowing register. He pulls from his tote bag a 60-year-old map of a village, hand-drawn on a large cloth and soiled by tea stains.

"It is not easy to guard these maps and registers," he said. "They are always under attack from rains, mice and termites."

But Sharma's world is slowly changing. In recent months, timeworn documents such as his have been uploaded to an online database as part of a $1.5 billion drive to digitize India's labyrinthine landownership records.

The country has never had centralized information on ownership and usage of land, officials say. Much of the land is locked in litigation, and the opaque manual system of record-keeping is subject to widespread manipulation at the village level.

"Our manual land records are unreliable and don't always reflect the reality on the ground. They are also prone to fraud," said Rita Sinha, secretary of the government's Department of Land Resources. "Many of our patwaris are corrupt and have played havoc with the records."

Launched in December, the digitization project is intended to hasten India's switch from the present system of presumptive land titles to one in which the government confers clear, conclusive ownership. At present, Sinha said, all land in India technically belongs to the government, and citizens are permitted only to "enjoy the fruits" of the land, making their ownership status tenuous, at best.

Modernization of land records will also reduce litigation, improve planning for disaster relief and food security, and encourage investment, analysts say. A World Bank report released this month lists land-related red tape as one of the biggest obstacles to doing business in India.

"The scale of land-locked capital in India is unimaginable. With conclusive titles, the enormous economic benefits of land will come," said Barun Mitra, director of the New Delhi-based Liberty Institute. "It has the potential to change the face of poverty. A small plot of land is the only tangible asset many poor villagers have. Now they will finally be able to capitalize it."

Potential problems abound. Some states have been digitizing old land records without verifying them, perpetuating flaws in the files. Some are uploading data using local languages and terms, despite the government's efforts to persuade them to adopt a national code.

"We are still using terms and units from the Mughal era," Sinha said, referring to the dynasty that ruled most of northern India from the 16th to the 18th centuries. "They mean different things in different provinces. It is like the Tower of Babel."

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