Updating land records in Telangana: What cities could learn from the rural exercise

The Telangana Land Records Updation Programme (LRUP) has been hailed as a success, especially for the planned and extensive use of state resources to complete the survey in an intensive time-bound manner. Yet gaps in scope are evident, and the state must keep these in mind when it initiates the same exercise in cities.

After having completed the first phase of the Telangana Land Records Updation Programme, targeted at improving documentation of rural land records, the state government will be initiating the next phase focused on covering urban land records. While the first phase has been hailed as a success, there have been some glaring omissions from the scope of the overall exercise. Thus, it would be a good idea to look into some of these deficiencies before initiating the next phase of updates, looking at urban land records.

In November 2017, the Chief Minister of Telangana made a lengthy statement in the state assembly, outlining the reasons, framework and objectives of the Telangana Land Records Updation Programme (LRUP). At the time of his address, the first phase of the programme titled ‘Rythu Vari Bhu Survey’ was already under way. Initiated on 15 September 2017, it focused on ‘purifying’ the textual land records in rural areas of the state, and was to be concluded by the end of December.

From the outset, it was apparent that the Rythu Vari Bhu Survey was not a cadastral survey or re-survey exercise as delineated in state land revenue legislations, despite being carried out by the Revenue Department. Instead, it tailored its objectives to meet the capacity-building requirements of rolling out the Rythu Bandhu scheme.

The Rythu Bandhu scheme is an ambitious farmer investment support scheme meant to give Rs. 4000 per acre to land-owning farmers for each cropping season. Naturally, the availability of reliable land ownership records were crucial to the implementation of the scheme. But as the Chief Minister himself recounted in his address, the land records in the state were in poor shape and ascertaining ownership of land parcels was problematic. Therefore, the survey was launched with the primary objective of updating textual land records with the ownership details for agricultural lands.

However, several other aspects of land records were also sought to be updated as part of the survey. This included: the status of implementation of land acquisition orders, updating the records of various types of lands, updating unrecorded successions, partitions of land, and even the socio-economic status of the occupiers in case of government assigned lands.

The survey was an intense activity carried out over three and a half months. 1418 teams comprised of 3500 revenue officers were deployed across 10, 825 revenue villages to complete this survey. Each team was allotted ten days following a strict set of guidelines. The basic procedure of enquiry as laid down in the Telangana Rights in Land and Pattadar Passbook Rules, 1989 was to be followed to enable the collection of claims from the villagers.

The Tehsildars or Revenue Divisional Officer heading the team were given quasi-judicial powers in verifying a claim made by a villager but were bound by the general rule of making changes in favour of those who were in lawful possession of the land. The survey teams were issued strict instructions to simply make a record of lands which were subject to legal dispute and not settle the ownership claims on these lands.

The entire process was concluded with the team handing out copies of amended textual records to the villagers, which once attested by them would be the new textual record. The post-survey process included the distribution of new e-pattadar passbooks cum title deeds.

While the survey helped in building capacity for the rollout of the Rythu Bandhu scheme, it did not tick all the boxes that a proper exercise to update land records should have. A major gap was the exclusion of spatial records from the scope of the survey, despite the Chief Minister himself pointing out instances where spatial records were not up to date or missing.

The trend among Indian states has been to avoid updating spatial land records by carrying out a cadastral resurvey. Even in Gujarat, the only state where a cadastral resurvey of the revenue villages was In comparison, the Rythu Vari Bhu Survey covering only textual records, has claimed significant success in updating the land records.

An examination of the survey as carried out by the Dr. Marri Channa Reddy HRD Institute of Telangana states that the “purity level of the records which was around 65% has been raised to 93% after the purification drive”. However, the initial distribution of funds to farmers in the state under the Rythu Bandhu scheme has seen several instances of farmers complaining that they had not been accounted for in the new records created by the LRUP.

One reason for such discrepancies could be that the Rythu Vari Bhu survey did not take into account the results of the Rythu Samagra survey conducted almost simultaneously by the Agriculture Department in coordination with the Revenue Department which had built a database of farmers and crops grown across the state.

Another significant gap in the LRUP is that it leaves agricultural tenants out of the scope of the survey. According to the Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011, 57.54% of rural households in the state do not own land. There are an estimated 14 lakh agricultural tenant farmers in the state and their absence from both the Rythu Bandhu scheme as well as the LRUP, defeats the overall objective of ensuring that the financial benefit is received by the actual tiller of the land.

Groups like the Rythu Swarajya Vedika have even moved the state High Court to protest the state government’s approach of only providing for owners of agricultural land. On its part, the government maintains that it consciously chose to avoid including agricultural tenants from the ambit of these schemes to avoid the litigation borne out of their informal work conditions.

The exclusion of agricultural tenants appears to be in line with other measures taken by the state government. Amendments introduced to the Telangana Rights in Land and Pattadar Passbooks Act 1971 in November 2017, expressly removed mortgagees and tenants from the category of persons that can apply for passbooks, which are essential for receiving aid from the state.

Despite these significant gaps in its eventual outcomes, the Telangana Land Records Updation Programme presents a new approach to improving land records, a problem which plagues just about every state in India. The extensive use of state resources to complete the survey in an intensive time-bound manner is unique, and the apparent success of these methods in updating a large chunk of the land records makes it an initiative worth noting for other states.

The real challenge in Telangana however will lie in ensuring that land records are consistently updated in order to avoid singular correction exercises such as this. The Sada Bainama initiative launched in the state in 2016 to regularise unregistered sale of agricultural land is another instance of the state allowing for post-facto creation of records. This is a dangerous trend since it not only affects compliance behaviour in general but also opens up the possibility of people taking advantage of these regularisation or updation schemes to reverse transactions in land or avoid the payment of the applicable stamp duties and registration fees.

In the larger scheme of things, the lessons above hold good for updating land records anywhere – in rural, peri-urban or urban settings – as they have wide-ranging implications for any scheme or programme in which disbursal depends on such records of ownership or possession.

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