How can an entire hamlet become landless overnight?
Whether in the fields, in the common areas or at the community’s functions, this is what the inhabitants of Naya Toli have been puzzling over for the last two years. “That’s all that everyone is thinking about…how do we get out of this problem?” said Mukesh Kujur, a 27-year-old paddy farmer, who has been involved in raising awareness about this issue in Naya Toli, a village in Ranka block in Jharkhand’s Garhwa district, about 200 km northwest of the state capital Ranchi.
Kujur and fellow villagers have been up in arms against the Jharkhand government after having discovered that their 108 acres were no longer in their name, as per the state’s digital records. The land had been transferred in the name of the previous owner, from whom they had purchased it four decades ago.
The situation is not unique to Naya Toli. People across the central Indian state have been discovering that their land abruptly has new owners, or that strangers have been listed as heirs to family land, or that their land ownership has shrunk. The errors are an outcome of a critical reform programme, according to officials of the Jharkhand land records department.
Not only is this leading to a fear of displacement, but is also sowing the seeds of disputes in the state, which is in the midst of a five-phase Assembly election. Chief Minister Raghubar Das, under whose tenure land-related issues led to many agitations and political campaigns, is seeking a second term.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to deflect some of the criticism against the Das government’s policies when he campaigned in the state last week. The Bharatiya Janata Party is “committed to protecting your right to jal, jungal and jameen,”, Modi said at a rally in Daltonganj, about 50 km east of Naya Toli.
The BJP was not alone in relying on land-related issues as a poll plank. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, spearheading the opposition alliance, said it would bring a “right to land” law that would ensure the landless got land, and also promised to not acquire agricultural land for private companies. The Congress, on its part, promised to return all acquired tribal land that had been lying vacant for more than five years.
A history of anxiety
To understand the fears of the Naya Toli villagers would be to understand the centrality of land in Jharkhand. Tribals constitute 26.3% of the state’s population of 32.9 million. Half of them, 50.4%, depend on agriculture. Jharkhand’s land is also rich in mineral resources – 40% of India’s mineral deposits, from coal to bauxite and graphite, are in this state, according to Jharkhand State Mineral Development Corporation data. “The exploration and exploitation of gold, silver, base metals, and precious stones are the potential areas of futures,” according to the corporation’s website.
In January 2016, the state government inaugurated a ‘land bank’ portal, listing district-wise information about land that could be used for industry and non-agricultural purposes. Many tribal groups protested this, saying their common lands as well as historically cultivated farmland had been included in this land bank. A verification exercise by civil rights groups in Khunti district revealed that tribal religious and burial spaces had been included in this land bank.
Later that year, in November 2016, Das’ government proposed the amendment of two laws – the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 and the Santhal Pargana Act of 1949, which tribal activists and leaders believe had served as a safeguard against displacement for the state’s tribals. Both these laws protect land belonging to Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes from being transferred to persons not belonging to those categories.
Das had said that the amendment would allow the government to use these lands for non-agricultural purposes such as setting up of industries as well as public facilities. There was immediate backlash within the Jharkhand Assembly and across the state. Tribal groups protested and threatened to continue their stir until the amendments were withdrawn. The state’s governor, Droupadi Murmu, refused to sign the amendments and returned them to the government, forcing it to withdraw the two bills in August 2017.
Against this backdrop, the entire exercise of digitisation of land records is viewed by many as an extension of the government’s policies on land matters, which had demonstrated little regard for the rights of tribals and marginalised stakeholders.
Most tribal communities are not digitally-literate, and so there was widespread ignorance about digital procedures, said tribal rights activist Sunil Kerketta. “As a result, there is a fear that the land digitisation programme is just an extension of the government’s attempts to take over tribal land and use it for industrial purposes,” he said.
Kerketta has been helping tribal communities across Gumla district, southwest of Ranchi, to determine the status of their lands. “Discrepancies are commonplace in digital records,” Kerketta said. “We’ve seen hundreds of cases [in Gumla alone] wherein people’s lands have either been transferred to a different owner or the land size is incorrectly listed. You will find such cases in every village in Jharkhand.”
Distress in Naya Toli
Naya Toli is a unique hamlet in the Ranka block of Garhwa district in northwest Jharkhand. It shares borders with the states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh. Nineteen Christian families belonging to the Oraon tribe, one of the largest tribal groups found across north and central India, inhabit the hamlet. While these tribals have lived here for centuries, it was only in 1973 that they came together to buy 108 acres of land, according to Kujur. Houses, schools and a church were built on 18.27 acres, while the remaining was allocated to families. “We decided to distribute land in such a manner that every family received enough to live and work on,” Kujur said.
Of the 19 families, 17 own 4.57 acres of farmland each, while two other families owned 8.43 acres and 3.61 acres, respectively. The land sustains all the families, entirely through cultivation of paddy and corn – just about enough to survive on. Some families exchange their rice with local shopkeepers for other essentials such as oil, salt and spices. Some inhabitants work as farm labourers in neighbouring villages.
“Each family owned the land that they lived and farmed on”, Dilip Minj, a 32-year-old paddy farmer, said. “We pooled in money so that we remain self-sustained.”
It is this dependence on land that has been driving fear in Naya Toli. When the villagers went to the local Common Service Centre or pragya kendra – privately-run centres that facilitate government services such as payment of fees and taxes, and access to banking services – to pay their annual land tax in 2017, CSC officials showed them online land records that revealed that their 108 acres were listed under the ownership of the person whom they had bought the land from in 1973. “Overnight, we went from being land-owners to encroachers,” Kujur said.
The CSC officials refused to let them pay tax. The villagers have not managed to pay taxes, despite attempts, for the last three years. “We are afraid that if we don’t pay the tax, the government might turn around and say that we don’t have a claim on this land because we have not paid the tax. And so they might hand over the land to the previous owner,” Kujur said.
The villagers were unable to find a way to navigate this catch-22 largely because there had been no satisfactory response from the state government. “We showed our documents, which prove our ownership, to the local authorities a few times,” Kujur said. “They said they cannot do anything because the system is all online.”
A central push
The land records digitisation exercise has been carried out under the Centre’s Digital India Land Records Modernization Programme, a nationwide scheme to digitise all land records and, ultimately, build a database of all land records in order to manage them centrally, according to Jharkhand’s land records officers.
The DILRMP is a revamped version of the previous United Progressive Alliance government’s National Land Records Modernization Programme, launched in 2008 to achieve the same ends. The DILRMP, official documents show, has three focus areas: digitisation of land records, surveying of land parcels, and the digitisation of the entire process of registration of titles and transactions.
As of 2019, Jharkhand had the sixth-highest rate of digitisation of land records, according to data on the DILRMP dashboard. More than 99% of all land records in the state had been digitised since 2008 and 0.83% were being digitised. Pan-India, 90.13% of all land records have been digitised under the programme.
The Jharkhand government put all Records of Right online. These are documents that contain all the details about a land parcel, including its ownership, information about heirs and loan liabilities. It also achieved 100% digitisation of all land registration processes.
Jharkhand was also among the worst-performing states when it came to conducting physical land surveys, with 2.33% of land parcels surveyed and new maps drawn based on physical inspections, according to DILRMP data. Nationally, 5.85% of all land parcels were surveyed.
Naya Toli’s inhabitants believe this to be the reason behind their troubles. “Had they [surveyors] come here, they would have seen that families have been living in this village and tilling these lands for decades, and that we have ownership papers,” Minj said. “We also have a school here. Can a school ever be built on encroached land?”
Nearly 45 km northwest of Naya Toli, Mohamed Kalamuddin had his head in his hands. Kalamuddin and his family own 23 acres of land in Tisartetuka village. The 38-year-old and four of his family members are heirs to the land. Two years ago, when he went to the local CSC, the online record showed his family as owners of the plot, “but I noticed that they had listed a sixth person as a claimant to the land, along with the five from our family,” Kalamuddin said.
Kalamuddin had never heard of this person and started to make inquiries. “This person is [neither] from my village, nor from any of the neighbouring villages,” he said. Kalamuddin approached the local revenue office soon after, asking that the error be corrected. Two years since, and the error continues. “We don’t know who this person is and what his intent might be. What if he uses these records to demand a share in the land in the future?”
Jharkhand’s secretary of revenue and information technology KK Soan and director of land records Vipra Bhal both refused to comment and instead, guided this reporter to officials in Bhal’s department.
The errors and discrepancies in the online records, according to a land records department official who wished to remain anonymous, were likely introduced by private data-entry agencies appointed to manually enter data from physical land records into a digital software for each district between 2008 and 2016. He added that he was unaware of the agencies’ names as they were appointed by the local district administrations.
The official claimed that district-wise camps had been held all of last year to identify and correct such errors. He did not provide any information or data about the number of such complaints resolved.
Not just Jharkhand
The discrepancies in online land records were not unique to Jharkhand. In November 2017, the National Council of Applied Economic Research, the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy and the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research conducted pilot assessments of the DILRMP’s implementation in Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra respectively.
Thirty-four percent of the digitised land records in Himachal Pradesh did not show accurate ownership details while 78% of the digitised records showed inaccurate land areas compared to the ground situation, the assessment found. It found minimal inaccuracies in ownership details in Maharashtra and Rajasthan but, like in Jharkhand, found that 79% of the online records in Maharashtra and 68% of records in Rajasthan were inaccurate.
The conclusions might help to explain the situation that Naya Toli residents find themselves in. “This [high rate of variations] was attributed to the failure to record the cases of change in ownership due to sale or succession,” said NCAER’s Prerna Prabhakar, who was the project coordinator for the pilot assessment. “The variations are a primary reason for increasing property disputes and hence, it is imperative to limit this.”
A survey of land parcels would set right the inaccuracies and discrepancies in the online records, said the Jharkhand land records department official and added that the state had appointed the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee in 2017 to conduct a pilot survey in 875 villages across three districts in a phase-wise manner. The survey across Ranchi, Khunti and Simdega, officials said, would combine georeferencing of all lands in the state using satellite imagery but verifying these maps through intense ground surveying.
Deepak Singh, head of the survey team at IIT Roorkee, said that the first phase of the survey was completed but said that an all-important second phase was waiting to take off. “After completing the georeferencing of all the villages, where each land parcel is assigned coordinates, we need more staff for ground-truthing exercises where officials will go and verify these records through physical inspections.”
Singh said that IIT-R was waiting to hear back from the Jharkhand government for its request for additional staff. While Singh refused to elaborate, citing protocol, another IIT-Roorkee official said that the lack of ground-truthing and the delay in surveying land parcels was causing errors in the digitisation of land records. “The truth is, unless you have ground staff verifying maps which were made in 1932, such errors are bound to be there because the maps have not been updated,” the official said.
Such delays mean that Jharkhand’s land digitisation woes might not end anytime soon. The official at the state land records department said that corrections in Jharkhand’s methodology for digitising records will be made only after the pilot project is completed.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.