Land disputes,titling & landlessness

Notes from Centre for Policy Research

An estimated 7.7 million people in India are affected by conflict over 2.5 million hectares of land, threatening investments worth $ 200 billion. Land disputes clog all levels of courts in India, and account for the largest set of cases in terms of both absolute numbers and judicial pendency. About 25% of all cases decided by the Supreme Court involve land disputes, of which 30% concern disputes relating to land acquisition. Again, 66% of all civil cases in India are related to land/property disputes. Competing historical and current policy narratives of property rights over land, have resulted in the coexistence of numerous, conflicting laws leading to legal disputes over land. This problem is compounded by administrative failure to comply with the rule of law. The pendency of conflict, in turn, is a result of legal and evidentiary barriers in bringing land disputes to court, largely due to administrative and judicial incapacity; this prevents expeditious resolution of land disputes.

There are two conflicting narratives about ownership and management of land in India. The first narrative – inherited from the British colonial state – views common land, or land that is not privately owned, as merely a commodity, no different from labour and capital, with the state as the ultimate owner. The second narrative – articulated by the ‘people’, including farmers, both landowners and tenants; and other traditional communities, such as cattle grazers, forest dwellers, tribals and fisherfolk – views land as an economic, social and cultural resource over which multiple groups exercise property rights. As a consequence of these two historically competing policy narratives, the constitutional, legislative and administrative framework governing land is as fragmented as the land holdings in India.

The Centre for Policy Research(CPR) Land Rights Initiative (LRI) study of all Supreme Court cases on land acquisition during 1950-2016 shows that 95% of the disputes arose because of administrative non-compliance with the legal procedure for acquisition of land, including the process of computation of market value compensation for land acquired. Additionally, since colonial times, land in India has been broadly administered by the revenue and forest departments. But there have also always existed disputes between both departments as to which land belongs to which department. Manual land records and no digitization of land titlings is major backlog. This in turn creates and prolongs land disputes. Finally, legal disputes over land are also created by evidentiary barriers for establishing rights over land in the absence of documentary proof because of outdated/no land surveys and accurate/outdated land records in most states.

Model Bill on Conclusive Land Titling

 The Bill was prepared by the NITI Aayog. India currently follows a system of Presumptive land titling. It means that land records are maintained, with information on possession, which is determined through details of past transactions. Under a conclusive land titling system, land records designate actual ownership. Once a title is granted, any other claimant will have to settle disputes with the government, not the title holder. It will provide state governments power to order for establishment, administration and management of a system of title registration of immovable properties.

Land Authorities to be set up by each State government, which will appoint a Title Registration Officer (TRO) to prepare and publish a draft list of land titles based on existing records and documents. If disputing claims are received, the TRO will verify all the relevant documents and refer the case to a Land Dispute Resolution Officer (LDRO) for resolution. Over a three-year period, these titles and the decisions of the TRO and the LDRO can be challenged before Land Titling Appellate Tribunals, which will be set up under the law. A special bench of High court shall be designated to deal with appeals against the orders passed by the Land Titling Appellate Tribunal.

Landlessness and poverty

In India land acquisition has always been a controversial issue,resulting in conflicts within social,economic and political structures. In India, over 56% of population has no land holdings. According to committee on State Agrarian Relations and unfinished Task of land Reforms under M/o Rural development reported that Landlessness population has grown form 40% in 1991 to about 52% in 2005-05 and thanks to the LPG reforms. The census of India 2011 shows that 47.3% of farmers in the country are landless tillers. The 2013 draft National Land Reforms Policy reported that landlessness is a strong indicator of country’s rural poverty. The land Consolidation act,1961, says the land is for physical, emotional and financial protection in the form of land for farming and shelter. The land Ceiling act 1972 stipulates that a 7 hectare maximum of legal irrigated land and surplus should be distributed or leased out at nominal rates among landless and resources poor cultivators.

The land and all the issues attributed are complex in India. These were ignored right from the colonial period and successive governments failed to make an umbrella legislation. The LRI study notes there are some 1000 laws and regulations pertaining to land and jurisdictions with various ministries. All in all the land is like centric point in a spiders web.

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