How updated land registers can help revive the rural economy

For a significant portion of the rural poor, land is both an asset and a source of income. Many informal jobs in urban centers have been lost as the economy has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. The resulting reverse migration has placed greater demand on household resources in rural areas. With livelihoods affected, the importance of land ownership for accessing formal loans as well as government assistance programs has become even more evident. But the relatively low availability of clear and up-to-date land titles remains an obstacle.

Although efforts to update land registers began as early as the 1980s, there is still a long way to go to achieve the end goal of updated and conclusive land titles. The most recent effort in this regard is the Government of India’s Digital India Land Records Modernization Program (DI-LRMP) modernization program.

The dismal state of land registers is due to the failure of the Indian administration to evolve from the land policies of the British era. In addition, land registration regulations and policies vary considerably from one Indian state or Union territory to another. For a comprehensive understanding of land registers in India, it is imperative to bring out a comparative picture in this regard. Although DI-LRMP provides a common framework for reporting on progress in the management of land registers by States / UTs, the heterogeneous nature of regulations / guidelines for land registry management in India make progress inconsistent. The NCAER made a pioneering effort in this direction by launching the NCAER Land Records and Services Index (N-LRSI) in 2020. The index assesses state performance on two broad dimensions: digitization and the quality of land records. Despite the pandemic, States / UTs made rigorous efforts over the course of a year to improve various parameters of the index. These improvements are clearly captured in the results of the N-LRSI 2021, the extent of which can be assessed by the passage of Bihar from 23rd to 8th position in the index by making substantial progress in the digitization of maps, records text and the recording process.

Nevertheless, some challenges remain. As noted in the pilot impact assessment of the DI-LRMP, one of the main obstacles to the continuous updating of land registers is the lack of skilled labor in land registration services. States. Another dimension concerns the effective integration between land registration services. The N-LRSI analysis highlighted the weak synergy between the Land Registration Departments – the Revenue Department as the custodian of textual records, the Investigation and Settlement Department handling spatial registrations, and the Land Registration Department. ‘registration, which is responsible for the registration of land transactions. The N-LRSI design involves a property update sub-component (within the recording quality component), which assesses the degree of integration between the recording and the textual records – speed of the update process. ownership day following the registration of a transaction, a phenomenon commonly referred to as mutation. Information obtained from all state / UT sources in this regard revealed that no state / UT planned to transfer online on the same day as registration.

The study also highlighted the weak link between the revenue service and the investigation and establishment service. This creates a huge discrepancy between the land area reported by the textual and spatial registration, increasing the risk of legal disputes over the definition of the boundaries and extent of a piece of land. With such interdepartmental synergy, striving for up-to-date and accurate records will always be a distant goal and States / UTs should take the necessary steps to put the appropriate systems in place.

One of the main lessons to be learned from the two editions of N-LRSI is the receptiveness and willingness to improve of States. However, these are limited by the structural rigidities inherent in the system. It is only by strengthening these institutions that the desired quality of land registers can be achieved. The improved system of land registers is likely to facilitate efforts by some states / UTs to facilitate land transactions – such as the Maharashtra government’s cut in stamp duties – to meet its growing demand for housing and infrastructure. Finally, these efforts will be critical to the health of India’s rural economy.

This article first appeared in the print edition on April 2, 2021 under the title “A sanitary warning on land”. The author is an associate researcher at the National Council for Applied Economic Research.

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