Category Archives: Land Governance

Picture of a landscape in rural India

Indian states taking ownership of land records digitisation, up to govt to expand it now: Study

This piece was originally published in the The Print, on 16th April, 2021.

 

The NCAER’s second Land Records and Services Index 2021 has found that states and Union territories have made considerable progress in digitising their land records and services over the course of one year despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bihar and Odisha now offer the facility of a web portal to register a transaction, the N-LRSI 2021 found. Three UTs have made their circle rates available on their websites for the first time (Chandigarh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Dadra & Nagar Haveli and Daman & Diu) while four other states have enabled online payment of registration fees and duties (Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, and Punjab). These are important steps in facilitating citizens and easing the process of transaction in land. States are also taking more interest in upgrading the integration between their textual records and the registration process. Three more states — Sikkim, Odisha and Bihar (in addition to the seven as mentioned in the N-LRSI 2020 report) — now ensure automatic generation of a note in the Record of Right (RoR) when a transaction is registered.

The N-LRSI, first unveiled in 2020, is an attempt to measure the performance of all states/UTs in digitising their land records. The index looks at two aspects of the supply of digitised records — first, the extent of digitisation of land records, comprising the textual and spatial land record, and the various stages of the registration process; and second, the quality of the land record evaluated on the basis of five proxy indicators for accuracy of reflection of ownership, possession, use, extent and encumbrances.

The N-LRSI not only helps each state know where it stands in terms of providing digitised land records and associated services but also suggests the specific steps that can help the state improve its performance.

The government of India can profitably look at the N-LRSI experience as an instrument to secure improvement in the domain of land records and services.

 

Digitised land records, a critical step

Land market imperfections have often been highlighted as one of the foremost constraints affecting investment and growth in India. Since the McKinsey report of 2001 to the recent World Bank Ease of Doing Business reports, the difficulty of transacting in land and property in India continues to be pointed out as a major area of concern.

The digitisation of land records is a critical first step in addressing this issue because it lays the foundation for the creation of a more accurate and comprehensive property record that can, with appropriate database linkages, be updated in real time. This will reduce the possibility of disputes leading to litigation and the delay inherent in attempting a proper title search. At the same time, using property as collateral becomes easier. Not only does this facilitate starting new business, digitised records offer the prospects of long-term spin-offs in lowering transaction and litigation costs for individuals and the economy as a whole. Moreover, accurate records that reflect the on-ground situation can speed up infrastructure creation under various government programmes facilitating both planned urban growth and industrialisation.

Computerisation and modernisation of land records have been targeted through central programmes for over three decades now. The latest incarnation is the Digital India Land Records Modernization Programme (launched in April 2016 to replace the National Land Records Modernisation Programme). The progress made by states under these programmes has, for many years, been reported on the website of the Department of Land Resources (DoLR) but obviously this has not been considered sufficient to address the issues that bedevil land markets.

 

N-LRSI, a success story

Is there another way to secure better results? An experiment in this direction is the idea of subjecting the progress reported by states to a credible verification, and using it to rank the relative performance of states. Presenting a credible ranking of performance can be a useful instrument to create a spirit of competition among states and even become a means to offer rewards as an incentive for better performance. And the success of the N-LRSI experiment proves it.

The N-LRSI not only helps each state know where it stands in terms of providing digitised land records and associated services but also suggests the specific steps that can help the state improve its performance.

The N-LRSI 2021 enabled both measurement of states/UTs’ progress on the parameters that formed the basis of N-LRSI 2020 and an assessment of the extent to which the recommendations for further improvement received attention. The exercise brings out that on the 100 point N-LRSI, the average score has improved by more than 16 per cent in one year — from 38.7 in 2019-20 to 45.1 in 2020-21. Twenty-eight states/UTs (out of 32) have shown at least some improvement in N-LRSI scores. Madhya Pradesh once again emerged as the top performer, scoring over 80 points, while the number of states scoring over 70 points increased from one to five.

Performance of states in the NLRSI 2019-20 and NLRSI 2020-21

The considerable countrywide progress in making available digitised RoRs to the public was evident even last year. Since then, states have shown considerable improvement in making available digitised cadastral maps to the public and in offering online facilities for the various stages of the registration process. Karnataka, Tripura, and Bihar are new additions to the list of states that have uploaded the digitised copies of their cadastral maps on their websites. Test checks verify the achievement reported by states/UTs to the extent of 87.8 per cent in 2020-21 as compared to 63.9 per cent in 2019-20. In other words, reporting progress on the DoLR website is now taken more seriously. More states are now making the cadastral maps available in mosaic format with the actual measurement of plot boundaries than was the case last year. In improving the services offered, West Bengal has upgraded the value of its digitised records by making digitally signed copies of both RoRs and cadastral maps available on its website, and Himachal Pradesh has started providing legally signed copies of the maps from its Citizen Services Centres as well instead of only from the departmental offices.

The N-LRSI gauges the extent of digitisation of the registration process along five steps. This year’s edition notes that West Bengal has become the first state in India to introduce a provision for compulsory digital signature by the Sub Registrar’s Office (SRO) at the time of registering a transaction and online delivery of the registered document. Bihar has joined the list of states giving out a soft copy of the registered document.

 

A roadmap for govt

The N-LRSI has shown that credible efforts at measuring performance can become a means to secure better performance by states. It has demonstrated receptivity to the areas that it has highlighted as deserving attention. States have taken ownership of the process to the extent that the progress reported in the last one year is not based on even a single rupee being claimed under the central Digital India Land Records Modernization Programme. Going forward, it is evident that there is reason to continue bringing out the N-LRSI. Adding a survey of users of land records and related services can show the value to the public of the ongoing digitisation efforts and further highlight matters that require greater attention.

The government of India can profitably look at the N-LRSI experience as an instrument to secure improvement in the domain of land records and services. It can be a useful adjunct to a central programme like the Digital India Land Records Modernization Programme to reward better performing states. At another level, it is a principle that can be extended to other sectors to motivate improved performance by states.

 

Charu Jain is an Associate Fellow  and Deepak Sanan is Senior Advisor at National Council of Applied Economic Research
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

GIS Imagery for Citizens’ Agency

This piece was originally published in the Indian Express, on 27 January, 2021.

 

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a well-worn cliché. But the value of a picture can be particularly high when dealing with marginalised communities which are disadvantaged by their ability to read or write. Visuals can make communication simple and direct without the need for interpretation or translation or indeed, confusion.

In a sense, this follows the same arc that news did. Newspapers were earlier restricted to those who could read and write. This naturally limited their reach to the elite. The radio transformed this “monopoly” and anyone could access information and news. The advent of video combined with the proliferation of mobile phones and cheap data then added a visual layer that forever democratised news and also enabled citizen access and journalism.

Each shift enabled a more real reporting of the situation on the ground. Geospatial (GIS) techniques that can correlate data to a particular location can have that same impact for governance as data costs and technology-enabled and democratised access.

For example, a GIS map can help policy makers, governments and citizens overlay area with marginalised populations with the quantum of welfare benefits access in those areas to see how and why they don’t overlap. Indiapulse@ISB highlights various use cases of this.

A GIS map can also help urban commons be registered and recorded and protected from encroachment. Chandigarh is already attempting some form of this as has a Navratna public sector company. Similarly, a GIS picture can help a tribal lady point out her land on the visual in front of her and use that to claim and regularise her forest-based land. A site visit to see this in action with civil society organisations like Pradan brings to life how extremely difficult land right issues can be handled in a simple and participatory way.

A GIS map can help policy makers, governments and citizens overlay area with marginalised populations with the quantum of welfare benefits access in those areas to see how and why they don’t overlap.

These illustrations underline the fact that geospatial payoffs are particularly high where there is greater complexity and where the community at risk is extremely disadvantaged.

A closer look at such problems and payoffs is best evidenced in relation to the livelihoods and land rights of India’s 100 million-strong tribal population. Post-independence, this community which had depended on forest land as a primary source of livelihood was deprived of their access. This set off a chain of marginalisation that has now resulted in 47 per cent of India’s 100 million tribal population living below the poverty line. These are also the communities that are lagging on most social indicators. The Forest Rights Act of 2005 sought to remedy this. The new legislation was to bring legal recognition for the rights of tribals over forests and any person belonging to a Scheduled Tribe could claim the right to live in and cultivate up to four hectares of land.

Access to secure property rights has been a well-proven way to improve economic and social well-being. A safe and secure home enables the wellbeing of the household not just in terms of physical safety and health but also from the perspective of being able to use their asset for economic advancement. This 2005 Act, therefore, had the ability to improve lives of 100 million people in India and bring 50 million out of poverty.

However, 15 years after this legislation was passed, the number of titles awarded stands at a meagre two million with over 20 million still without titles. A significant reason for such low access to land titles and security is the lack of education and resultant agency. This is compounded by complex governmental processes and low rates of such claims being accepted.

Access to secure property rights has been a well-proven way to improve economic and social well-being. A safe and secure home enables the wellbeing of the household not just in terms of physical safety and health but also from the perspective of being able to use their asset for economic advancement.

It is in situations like this — involving complex land issues and vulnerable communities — that GIS imaging can play its most critical and conclusive role. Visuals that highlight geographic markers like trees, streams or houses can easily allow gram sabhas to sit together and agree on landholdings. These images can bring to life the complicated maps and property markers that otherwise elude disadvantaged communities to legitimise the claim to their space. Spatial maps over many years can also help in establishing whether this landholding existed in the cutoff year.

In urban governance as well, geospatial imagery can help municipalities record their land visually. This is being rolled out already by some cities and will then be an excellent record for city planning, protection of urban spaces and for better tracking of service infrastructure like sewerage networks.

The biggest potential win for geospatial is to increase citizen agency. The combination of mobile phones, cheap data and GIS imagery can democratise their ability to engage in the development of both rural and urban property.

The biggest potential win for geospatial is to increase citizen agency.

However, in the end, this needs to be supplemented with reliable and efficient offline governmental processes to really build the momentum. A strong push to incorporate easily available GIS tracking by both governmental and civil society organisations can help in four important ways: First, better preservation of land ecosystems and protection of private property; second, improved public finances with accurate and simple tracking of property-related taxes; third, an easy to understand governance tool; and fourth, a game-changing and democratising tool for the land rights of the most vulnerable.

 

Shilpa Kumar is a partner at Omidyar Network India an investment firm focused on social impact, which has invested in and provided grants to some of the organisations named in this article.

An unlikely common strand of 2020 — land and property rights


This piece was originally published in the Hindustan Times, on 24 December, 2020.

The year 2020 drew sharp focus to land and property rights issues in India. The year began with protests against the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which — if implemented — would have relied on citizens having their land records in place to prove citizenship. Many commentators lamented how landless migrant labour would meet these stringent requirements in a country where land records management is in an abysmal shape with limited digitisation.

With the onset of the pandemic, and India going into an unprecedented lockdown, the shocking sight of migrant labourers walking the highways for days exposed the lack of inclusive housing in our cities. They were forced to leave cities not only due to the lack of affordable housing, but also because informal rent agreements enabled abrupt evictions. While many developed countries enforced rent moratoriums and protections against evictions, in India, authorities could not create such a safety net. Informal tenancy in urban and semi-urban India and landlessness in rural India plunged the most vulnerable populations into further despair.

Migrant labourers were forced to leave cities not only due to the lack of affordable housing, but also because informal rent agreements enabled abrupt evictions.

Lockdowns across the world also forced businesses to consider diversification of their supply chains. This turned the attention of policymakers to the ease of doing business to make India an attractive destination for companies looking to invest in new locations. Again, land reforms became a central part of this conversation. While the central government explored the idea of creating land banks, some states focused on structural reforms. Karnataka amended laws to remove restrictions on buying and selling of agricultural land by non-agriculturalists.

Other developments that brought focus to property rights include the SVAMITVA (Survey of villages and mapping with improvised technology in village areas) scheme launched in April 2020. The scheme aims to survey non-agricultural inhabited land in rural India. The stated goals are connecting rural Indians with institutional credit through better property records, and empowering Panchayati Raj institutions through property tax collection.

In October 2020, in response to the migrant crisis, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs announced the Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHCs) Scheme. The scheme aims to fill the affordable housing gap in cities by utilising government-funded vacant houses along with construction, operation and maintenance of new affordable housing projects by private players.

In an unrelated development, the Supreme Court passed a landmark judgement; it ruled that daughters have equal coparcenary rights in Hindu Undivided Family properties, even if the father died before the enactment of the 2005 Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act. Gender activists celebrated the judgment as this ambiguity had presented a big hurdle for women across India in accessing their property rights.

Though these developments seem disparate, it is worth noting that land and property rights dominated people’s lives and public narrative even in an extraordinary year such as 2020. The year highlighted the fault lines in our land governance and exacerbated the effect of existing inefficiencies in our system. As we look to kickstart recovery in 2021, one hopes that policymakers will retain focus on making land records services citizen-friendly, undertaking surveys of previously unsurveyed areas, improving land markets and continuing to invest in affordable housing in our urban centres.

Though these developments seem disparate, it is worth noting that land and property rights dominated people’s lives and public narrative even in an extraordinary year such as 2020.

Presently, there are interesting policy proposals under discussion to achieve these goals. Apart from ARHC and SVAMTIVA that may be scaled up, a Model Tenancy Act aimed at bridging the trust deficit between tenants and landlords is under consideration. The Centre and states are mulling subsidies in stamp duty rates to boost the real estate market and property registration. Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are making huge investments in new surveys and technology to improve land governance.

A continued focus on land and property rights is important — these cross-cutting issues not only impact the growth of India’s economy but play an important role in the lives of all Indians. Among other things, 2020 has also been a stark reminder that governments must prioritise securing land and property rights for all its citizens.

 

Aparajita Bharti is founding partner and Bindushree D is policy associate at The Quantum Hub, a public policy research and advocacy firm.

 

Securing property and land rights in India

This article was originally published on India Development Review on 24 July 2020, and can be viewed here.

Land governance and property rights have been historically overlooked in India, and reforming them is critical to securing high growth.

 

Secure property rights are fundamental to the economic and social development of any country. However, in India, we are faced with a curious conundrum where more than 70 percent of a household’s assets are held in land and housing, yet there is insufficient data and research on people’s property rights. On one hand, the government aspires to provide 18-20 million affordable housing units in urban areas, while on the other, more than 10 million housing units are lying vacant, as per the 2011 Census. The judicial pendency of land disputes is also high, with several million cases pending in Indian courts. Approximately 25 percent of all cases decided by the Supreme Court involve land disputes, of which 30 percent concern disputes relating to land acquisition. 

All these factors, combined, result in insecure tenure for a large population, especially the poor and vulnerable, which in turn poses a complex set of challenges for effective governance. It also impacts the efficiency of our judicial system and our ability to attract investments. According to the ‘Ease of Doing Business Rankings’, India ranks 156th on the metric of ‘Ease of registration of property’—in contrast with its overall rank of 63 in the 2020 index. With the current rate of population growth and increasing competition for finite resources such as land, it is important to draw policy attention to these issues.

 

Land governance and property rights have been largely overlooked in India.

 

Despite the severity and complexity of this issue, land governance and property rights have been largely overlooked within policy research and development initiatives in India. The reasons for this are many, ranging from historical to political. Historically, the bulk of the colonial government’s revenues came from taxing agricultural produce. Over time, as this revenue declined, the focus on rural land administration reduced. As our cities grew in an unplanned manner, we did not invest in building strong land administration systems. On a political level, land and housing are very valuable assets, which, when regulated poorly, attract corruption and violence.

In addition, land and housing often have deep emotional relevance for people, and access to these are, in some cases, dictated by old beliefs and traditional customs. For instance, patriarchal norms often hinder women from owning properties, even though studies have shown that when women own properties, families show better indicators of health, nutrition, and education. Similarly, when marginalised groups own land, they have better food security and gain increased respect from the local communities. However, these require shaking up some deep-rooted social norms, which can be very challenging for both nonprofits and donors.

While India has undertaken reforms in many sectors of the economy, land and labour—the core factors of production—have not seen reforms. For decades, we have witnessed the effect of broken land administration in our daily lives. With reportedly as much as 66 percent of all civil cases pertaining to property disputes, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that every Indian family has faced a property dispute. The COVID-19 pandemic has borne testament to some of these issues as well, as we see the scale of the impact it has had on people living in informal settlements, where issues of poor sanitation and housing are fuelled by lack of tenure security. It is quite evident that a bulk of our current social and economic challenges are centred around the lack of secure access to land and housing rights.

 

Reforming the land rights regime is critical for India to secure high growth.

 

The fundamental building block to define and secure land rights for anyone, is the underlying property record. This record should accurately reflect all pertinent information, including ownership, the geo-coordinated location and boundaries of the property, any mortgage claims, tenant claims, and disputes. Improving the accuracy of land records, including maps, should be the topmost priority. It is the basic infrastructure required for secure access to land and housing rights, and would bring in more confidence in land-related transactions, reduce conflict, encourage more investments, and also improve the government’s ability to deliver welfare schemes.

India also needs reforms in other critical land governance areas. We have progressive laws, such as the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which need to be implemented on the ground to ensure that more than 100 million people belonging to Scheduled Tribes are able to secure the patta (or land title) to their land and gain access to all welfare benefits that have not been made available to them till date. Organisations, such as ARCH Vahini in Gujarat, that work towards helping communities secure land pattas have observed significant improvements in agriculture production and incomes. We need more nonprofits working in Adivasi communities to help families apply for pattas, which will have multifold benefits in reducing poverty in these areas.

 

Ooty landscape with houses on the side of a hill-land rights

In India, although more than 70 percent of a household’s assets are held in land and housing, there is insufficient data and research on people’s property rights. | Picture courtesy: Pixabay

Land leasing is the third area where we need policy reforms. Given the small landholdings in India, millions of farmers lease additional land to enhance their farm output. However, these contracts are largely informal, and farmers with informal leases do not get access to any government benefits such as agriculture credit, PM KISAN, crop insurance, fertiliser subsidy, or Minimum Support Price procurement. A few states, including Uttar Pradesh, have recently amended their land leasing laws to allow tenancy to be formalised, thereby securing the rights of tenant farmers. Implementing these changes on the ground will require concerted efforts from civil society and government officials, as it requires changing decades-old practices.

Attention to reform in hitherto poorly focused areas, such as land and labour, will be critical for India to resume a high-growth journey. As we grapple with an economic slowdown due to COVID-19, the recently launched NCAER Land Record Services Index (N-LRSI) offers a step towards changing this. The N-LRSI is the first piece of research that carries out an in-depth analysis of land records in India. The index assesses the current status of digitisation, identifies the existing gaps in each state, and can help under-performing states implement specific remedial actions. 

The report finds that in 28 states and union territories, digitisation stands at 86.3 percent. However, it also reveals considerable accessibility issues, such as changes in administrative units and mismatch of names/spellings, language and translation issues, and other user interface problems. We clearly have a long way to go, and the N-LRSI could become a bellwether of improved land governance in India.

 

Technology can be leveraged to secure property rights.

 

Technology, especially geospatial technology, can also significantly drive change on the ground. Drones are perhaps the most exciting new entrants in this spectrum, as they offer great potential for innovation. Recently, the Odisha state government used drones to map close to two lakh households across the state. The whole exercise was completed in a matter of a few months, which by traditional methods would have taken several years. Moreover, the drone imagery brought in transparency to the whole process and allowed the communities to engage with the maps to identify their own homes and community boundaries. This greatly helped in reducing information asymmetry and building trust. Nonprofits such as PRADAN have also employed geospatial tools to map land and help Adivasi families claim their patta.

While there is no doubt that technology can be a force for good, it is also important to acknowledge its limitations in social impact and transformation.

The Government of India also recognises the importance of using technology, as seen from the Prime Minister’s recent announcement of the Swamitva scheme, which aims to map rural inhabited lands using drones and issue property cards to those living in abadi areas (inhabited rural land) without a record of rights.

While there is no doubt that technology can be a force for good, it is also important to acknowledge its limitations in social impact and transformation. Technology is not a silver bullet, and needs to be complemented by non-tech solutions, if we want sustainable impact. Therefore, the focus needs to be on responsible technology, that is used in close engagement with a range of actors, from businesses, to governments, to civil society. 

 

Donors should pay more attention to the issue of property rights.

 

Land and property rights are often viewed as a very political issue, which may discourage donors from investing in research in this area. Cognisant of this research gap, we, at Omidyar Network India, have invested in supporting the Property Rights Research Consortium (PRRC) to create evidence-based solutions, without political biases. 

We also believe that there is an opportunity for donors working on WASH, agriculture, and gender issues to include secure land tenure as a key component in their programmes. For example, a programme working to improve farmer income enhancement would need to identify and support tenant farmers to make it truly inclusive, and could include a component to identify tenants and help them formalise the tenancy agreement and access government benefits. Similarly, gender programmes can also try to include women’s names in the property documents, since research shows that it reduces instances of domestic violence and increases women’s confidence and agency. WASH programmes in urban slum communities also require access to land for sanitation  infrastructure. Ahmedabad’s Slum Networking Programme, which started in the late 1990s, demonstrated that providing secure tenure to communities can transform the sanitation and health conditions in informal settlements by leveraging government resources as well as community funds.

Recently, Ashif Shaikh, founder of Jan Sahas, aptly described land as a horizontal, cross-cutting issue across interventions. Evidence shows that that developing programmes that address the land use challenges of target communities are able to significantly boost the overall impact of the programme on the lives of families for a sustained period. Therefore, it is time that we start taking concrete steps towards securing land and property rights in India. 

 

 

Shreya Deb leads Omidyar Network’s investments in property rights in India where her interests are in supporting scalable models that can help provide more secure land and housing rights to economically vulnerable people, including in urban slums.  Before joining Omidyar Network in 2011, Shreya spent four years at The Boston Consulting Group. Shreya has an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and a BTech in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

 

Refine land acquisition process to unclog courts

Originally published in Financial Express on 1 September, 2020.

Executive discretion and inadequate compensation have led to litigation clogging the courts.

 

The debate over the recent Karnataka Land Reforms (Amendment) Ordinance has brought into focus the contestations over land in rural India. Conflicts over land form a large proportion of civil litigation in India. DAKSH’s Access to Justice 2017 survey showed 29.3% of civil disputes concerned land and property. Apart from disputes between private parties over inheritance, encroachment and eviction, there is widespread litigation over the compulsory acquisition of land by the state.

DAKSH conducted a study of land acquisition litigation in six districts and the High Courts of two states, Maharashtra and Karnataka between 2008 and 2018 to understand the nature and causes of such litigation. These cases relate both to the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 (‘1894 Act’) before 2013, and the new Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (‘2013 Act’).

In Maharashtra’s Amravati, Beed and Raigad districts, land acquisition cases on average remained pending between 1,516 days and 2,462 days. In Amravati and Beed, execution cases in land acquisition took inordinately long to get disposed. Execution cases here usually are for payment of the compensation amount. These delays in execution indicate serious flaws in the administration of the process, especially the payment of compensation by the state. If the state takes 1,424 days to merely pay money to a person whose land has been acquired, it points to a severe lack of planning in the executive processes.

In Bengaluru Rural, Mysuru and Kalaburagi in Karnataka, land acquisition cases remained pending between 729 days and 4,038 days. In Mysuru and Kalaburagi, the large volume of appeal cases before the district courts indicates a general proclivity to appeal in the expectation of higher compensation or perception of not having been treated fairly. This tendency to appeal persists despite the prospect of the case remaining pending for years, indicating that the perceived benefits of a favourable order from the appellate court far outweigh the litigants’ transaction costs in terms of time, effort and money.

Cases involving a challenge to compensation constituted 52.9% and 51% of the land acquisition litigation before the Bombay and Karnataka High Courts, respectively. Among such cases, reference courts (district courts hearing appeals from the decision of the land acquisition officer) have almost always enhanced compensation owed to landowners. Despite the increase in compensation by the reference courts, people still approached High Courts, seeking a further increase in compensation. The Bombay High Court enhanced compensation in 46.8% of the cases and the Karnataka High Court did so in 41%. It would be fair to conclude that inadequate compensation, coupled with a trend of courts increasing compensation, incentivised landowners to litigate.

The other major reason for litigation at the high court level is procedural irregularities. The most common procedural irregularities alleged were related to the preliminary notification of acquisition, declaration of public purpose and invocation of the urgency provision. These echo one of the major criticisms of the Land Acquisition Act 1894, of unbridled executive discretion. This kind of discretion led to a lot of room for arbitrary actions, various interpretations of statutory provisions and hence created fertile ground for litigation.

The 2013 Land Acquisition Act has reduced executive discretion to determine compensation and has delineated the ambit of ‘urgency’ and ‘public purpose’. However, the new provisions relating to compensation, social impact assessment, rehabilitation and resettlement still leave scope for executive discretion and hence the possibility of protracted litigation.

State governments need to create guidelines and set up protocols that narrow the scope of executive discretion and hence create more equitable outcomes for all parties concerned. It would be useful to have nodal officers at the department-level to avoid and contain litigation.

The 2013 Act has also ousted the jurisdiction of district courts over land acquisition, and references from Collectors’ awards now lie with an authority to be created under the Act. However, several states are yet to establish these authorities seven years after these were mandated. It is imperative that state governments issue guidelines on implementation and establish these authorities. Any changes in land laws will fall short on expectations unless the basic infrastructure for dispute prevention and resolution is in place.

 

 

Leah Verghese is Research manager at DAKSH, Bengaluru.

 

 

 

mountains in Himachal Pradesh

In Himachal, effective forest management could make cities more resilient too

Originally published in Citizen Matters on 29 October, 2018.

Forests become an easy scapegoat for urban infrastructure development. Recently, the National Highways Authority of India blamed meteorological events for triggering landslides in Himachal Pradesh, but such events are not the only cause of environmental degradation.

With the reckless cutting of 23, 785 trees to four-lane the Shimla-Kalka highway and excessive cutting of thousands of other trees to facilitate several hydroelectric projects, it is evident that excessive human activity in Himachal Pradesh is leading to degradation and deprivation of forest quality, which, ironically, would only impede the development that the state is hoping for.

The recent water woes in Shimla in which most areas of the city received water supply only once in eight days, and tourists were requested to avoid visiting the city, is one such example. Several news reports have documented how the drying up of the city’s water sources led to a consistent decrease in water supply quantity, while the city’s population keeps growing.

It is well-established that one of the major factors for these disappearing water sources and reduced rainfall is the loss of surrounding tree cover. The story of Shimla is likely to be repeated across the state, unless some pragmatic measures are taken.

In the face of rapid urbanisation, states need to compensate for the over- extraction of ecosystem services especially forest resources, by their large urban centers. A city does not exist in isolation from its surrounding region, and Participatory Forest Management (PFM) at the regional scale is one of the methods to achieve sustainable urbanisation. It is essential to not only escalate plantation drives and undertake compulsory compensatory afforestation as part of development projects, but also design programmes that are sustainable, people-friendly and self-driven. In doing so, taking care of the needs of the local community stands as a prerequisite to success.

The record so far

Since 1993, there have been several initiatives adopted by the State government of Himachal Pradesh in collaboration with international development agencies such as the World Bank and JICA to execute Joint Forest Management (JFM) programmes aimed at increasing the State’s green cover.

According to the India State of Forest Report (ISFR, 2017), the total forest cover in Himachal Pradesh has increased by 1% since 2015. However, today, after more than two decades, there are only approximately 635 active JFM committees within the State. This number has dropped from 963 active JFMCs in 2014.

According to many forest fringe communities, this increase in the number of inactive JFMCs has primarily been due to the lack of willingness among people, aggravated by erratic financial support from the Forest Department. Rapid urbanisation leading to less dependency on forests and drastic changes in climatic conditions are other factors leading to an increase in the number of non-functional JFMCs. Clearly, this requires a cross-examination of the socio-political conditions and the existing legal framework within the State.

Strengthening Joint Forest Management

An inclusive, rather than a top-down bureaucratic approach might prove worthy in the success of JFM. Involvement of stakeholders in the mere execution of forest programmes, originally prepared by the forest department, does not seem promising. Participation of villagers in the initial stages of developing micro-plans can lead to empowerment of locals by instilling a sense of ownership, planning and decision-making. Granting ownership rights to forest dependent communities may facilitate greater participation by involving more people in JFM activities.

Representation of women and members from vulnerable communities such as SCs and STs is critical in determining the success of JFM programmes. Taking into consideration indigenous knowledge required for planting native varieties is also essential. Gram Panchayats should be involved in selecting the sites and plant species for afforestation.

In addition to existing forest conservation programmes, awareness campaigns and subject specific training programmes will not only contribute to capacity building but also ensure improved practices and dignified livelihoods. There is a need to put in place monitoring and evaluation, and a system of social audit to assess the ecological, social and economic impact of such programmes.

An evaluation of the extent to which adoption of the legislative framework has responded to the needs of the local people is another significant realm. Preference should be given to the needs of the local communities, which is the intent of the law. The salient features of the State JFM Notification (1993) and PFM Rules (2001), over time, might create a mismatch with the evolving needs of people and changing land and climate conditions due to overexploitation of forests for infrastructure development and urbanisation.

External aid pumps much-needed fiscal support into the existing forestry framework in Himachal Pradesh. However, the success and effectiveness of a donor-driven initiative largely depends upon its ability to engage people in forest management activities and ensure continued collaboration between forest department and local communities, even after the life of the project. In the past, lack of consistency in the execution of forest conservation projects and absence of sustainable participatory afforestation practices have compromised the very agenda of the forest department.

Recent measures

This year, in February, the Supreme Court partially removed a ban on green felling in Himachal Pradesh by allowing limited silviculture felling across three districts. Partial removal of this blanket ban after more than two decades will allow regeneration, felling, and thinning of trees, thereby promoting the health of the forest.

Entitlement to a significant share in financial gains received from the sale of timber is another incentive. The extent of participation in co-management of forests, including integration of village micro-plans into Forest Department’s Working Plans, will play a vital role in long-term sustenance of conservation and regeneration activities.

In addition, the present State government in an effort to increase the forest cover recently introduced three forestry schemes—Samudayik Van Samvardhan Yojna, Vidyarthi Van Mitra Yojna, and Van Samridhi, Jan Samridhi Yojna—with a special emphasis on promoting Participatory Forest Management. The proposed schemes will allocate plots in forest land to local people for plantation of useful species and to schools to carry out afforestation activities. These are welcome initiatives and shall go a long way in increasing forest cover.

Given the proven role of forests in filtering pollutants, regulating rain and water supply and restricting flooding, these measures will, in turn, significantly enhance the resilience of those very cities that are often prioritized over forest conservation and management. However, the onus for success of all such programmes rests on the capability of the Forest Development Agencies and JFMCs to sustain and continue conservation practices.

Hansika Seth is an Associate at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. She is trained as a Sociologist and a Social Worker, and has worked on issues of land rights, gender and Right to Education. At IIHS, her work focuses on land record management including institutional policy questions on land ownership, land use and the political economy of land.

Satellite image of JLN Stadium

Is Delhi ready for development based on land pooling?

Originally published on Citizen Matters on 26 October, 2018.

On 11th October the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs notified a land pooling policy under the 2021 Master Plan for Delhi, to address the large scale housing gaps in Delhi. Through this policy, Delhi is set to get 17 lakh new affordable housing units, with a capacity to accommodate 76 lakh people.

This policy signals a change in the Delhi Development Authority’s (DDA) model of land acquisition and development to a ‘land pooling model’, where the private sector and land owners are both partners in the development. However, while the policy is a first step, the release of land (whether through land pooling or other means) cannot alone ensure adequate and timely delivery of affordable housing. Unless followed by proper implementation and associated safeguards, Delhi could meet the same fate as Gurgaon and Faridabad, which have a fair supply of housing, but are still severely lacking in public goods such as water supply, sanitation and road infrastructure, in the absence of which the very purpose is defeated.

The revised policy, which transfers many of DDA’s responsibilities to the private sector, thus brings up two major areas of concern: first, is the DDA ready for the implementation stage of the policy in terms of its resources and institutional capacity?

Second, will the DDA be successful in satisfying the private sector by ensuring secure returns on their investment, while simultaneously implementing a stable regulatory frame that enforces creation of public goods?

Why land pooling?

In 2013, a new Land Acquisition Act was passed, laying down procedures for granting compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement of people affected by land acquisition. This act has generally been perceived by officials as too onerous, with increased costs and delays due to litigation impacting the financial viability of urban development projects.

Land pooling, on the other hand, offers a mechanism where land-owners directly pool their land for a project, and get a share of developed land in return instead of monetary compensation. Lately, land pooling has became an acceptable mode among the landowners to aggregate land, and Amravati, the new capital of Andhra Pradesh is the most popular example of land-pooling being used for urban development.

Gujarat is one of the earliest states to use land pooling, starting with the Jamalpur scheme in Ahmedabad in 1925, and has evolved its land pooling process by continuously adapting to changed situations, achieving relative success. While several states have come up with land pooling policies, most have had weak institutional adaptations, thus affecting the implementation and return of benefits.

Punjab introduced land pooling in Greater Mohali area in 2012, but benefits to the landowners have been delayed. In Haryana, approvals required from multiple departments have stalled the final notification of the land pooling policy.

Timeline for Delhi policy

With its rising population, Delhi had begun acknowledging the need for a shift from the acquisition process to an alternative for land aggregation to meet its housing demands, and deliberations for public-private partnerships in the process of land development had begun in 2003. Since Delhi has a peculiar constitutional set up as the national capital with dual jurisdiction of Union and State governments, it took almost a decade for a formal policy to this effect to be approved in 2013. But this too was not followed up by regulations for implementation.

In 2017, the DDA came back with major amendments in the pooling policy, restricting its role to that of a facilitator and regulator, and transferring many of its responsibilities to the private sector, especially those related to development and redistribution of developed land parcels and housing units. These amendments have now been approved, replacing the 2013 policy and should be followed by implementation regulations.

Is DDA ready?

Before any development can be initiated, there are certain aspects which the DDA needs to work on, one of them being the timely revision of the Zonal Development Plans (ZDPs). Delhi has 15 zones under the Master Plan, and each has its own ZDP. It is the ZDP that would denote exact areas which are open to land pooling.

If a consortium of developers has 70 per cent of contiguous area in any sector, it can apply for a development license for that area. However, these sector boundaries are yet to be defined in the ZDPs, and this becomes an urgent prerequisite to be met by DDA to initiate the implementation of the policy.

The policy has also introduced concepts such as ‘external development charges’ and ‘tradable Floor Area Ratio (FAR)’ to the Delhi real estate market. External development charge is the amount that the builders would pay to DDA, for providing public services and infrastructure; while tradable FAR would be floor space that can be used by developers for building additional floors on certain other locations, or for trading them to other developers. Awareness about these concepts and their acceptance among the public and the stakeholders is crucial, since this would play a key role when these documents are used for transactions.

To ensure public awareness, transparency of information and confidence building among investors, DDA will need to strengthen its communication strategy significantly.

Ever since the first draft of the policy was introduced in 2009, many potential buyers have ended up putting token amounts in proposed projects, even when the area under the land pooling scheme had not yet been declared. In the absence of any real estate regulator and redressal mechanism then, the situation was not handled strategically by the DDA; the latter merely circulated a notice to not buy flats which claim to be on land developed through pooling, but could not take legal action in such cases.

Presently, the Real Estate Regulatory Authority (RERA) Act, 2016 has been enacted and would function parallelly to regulate real estate development and strengthen the buyer’s rights, but the integration of this law into the land pooling model remains to be seen.

Coordination of DDA with private sector

The private sector, understandably, has been keen to get the policy implemented and it is reported that in the ninety-five villages declared as part of the development area, land has already been aggregated by private entities. Under the new policy, there may be a sudden boost in the land development process, putting pressures on DDA and other service providers to keep pace with private development for integrated infrastructure provision.

However, with DDA’s limited capacity and lack of sufficient experience with private sector partnerships, it will have to scale up institutional capacity and resources.  The land pooling policy itself will need more elaboration on aspects such as the phasing and prioritisation of the projects.

Although Delhi has seen development through private entities and through co-operative housing societies, land pooling as a policy brings in new concepts such as providing a licence to prospective developers based on the applications made and other obligations such as checking the compliance of the submitted plans to building byelaws, implementing a proposed ‘single window system, and keeping a check on the final implementation.

The city will also need to have a mechanism to address any disputes between developers, landowners, buyers, and other stakeholders. All this will put immense strain on the limited capacity of the recently formed land pooling cell in DDA.

Ruby Moun is an Associate at Indian Institute for Human Settlements. She is trained as an architect-urban planner, and has worked on land administration, particularly related to land assembly and land records management in various states. Views expressed are personal.

Podcast: Land and Reforms in 2020

What land reforms does India need in 2020? How can we think about property rights, and a complicated legislative history and ground reality in India?

 

Shekhar Shah and Pranab Ranjan Choudhury give host Pavan Srinath a masterclass on land and reform on Episode 142 of The Pragati Podcast. They discuss what constitutes property ownership in India, what land reforms have meant between the 1950s and 1980s in India, and what they can mean in 2020. The discussion spans rural land conflicts, weak land record systems, the challenges faced by Adivasis and tribal groups being denied their legitimate rights, land acquisition, the growth of private industries, and more.

Dr Shekhar Shah is an Economist and the Director General of NCAER (@NCAER), the National Council for Applied Research in New Delhi. As a part of their Land Policy Initiative, they released the first edition of a Land Records Services Index in February 2020 and ranked Indian states and union territories. Learn more here.

Mr Pranab Ranjan Choudhury (@prchoudhury) works with the Centre for Land Governance in Odisha, and has worked for over 18 years on natural resources management and land governance across India. Read more about his work here.

 

For further listening:
Pragati Podcast #148 on the unfinished journey of women’s property rights in India, with Shipra Deo and Devendra Damle. Listen to it here