The orders came abruptly. On the morning of September 7, the Telangana government told revenue officers of all villages to submit every paper land record in their possession to the district collector by 3.30 pm that day. There would be no registration of land records or any change in them until further notice. Then on September 11, the Telangana government introduced a bill to abolish the post of village revenue officer who keeps a copy of all the village level land records in the state.

Two weeks later, the state ordered all municipal, district and panchayat officers to finish registering all non-agricultural property including flats, plots and houses in the state’s online land records portal called Dharani. The government officers were given time till October 20 to upload all the documents for the entire state.

Since September, Telangana has made sweeping changes to how it maintains its land records. It has passed four new land laws without any debate in the state assembly. These changes are the culmination of a longer, deeper shift towards digitising land records, which the state began in 2017. That was followed by the launch of Dharani where people could access land records.

Telangana and the central government’s planning body Niti Ayog say that these changes are a step toward having a clear land record system to avoid land disputes and to allow industries “ease of doing business”.

However, these laws exclude small and marginal farmers, eliminate the earlier checks and balances that prevented wrongdoing in transfer of land records while not replacing them with new ones, and disproportionately distribute power between ground level officers increasing the chances of error.

Land rights and governance scholars also warn that the new changes could further complicate the messy land records system without doing a land survey. “You can’t have revenue reforms without undertaking a land survey,” said K Nageshwara Rao, a professor at Osmania University in Hyderabad. “If you just go by the documents, a lot of complications will arise.”

For example, he says that thousands of land transactions happen on white paper (commonly called sada bainamas), which are not registered in government land records. “People who are genuine landowners but without record will be left out,” says Rao. A land survey instead would help fix who is a possessor of a plot of land, something that the Telangana government has not done yet. The government has recently begun to regularise white paper transactions and has allowed owners to register their own properties online.

Dharani is currently offline because officers are busy updating the non-agricultural records.

Disproportionate power to tehsildar

The most extensive of the four new Acts in September, all of which the Governor approved, is the Telangana Rights in Land and Pattadar Pass Books Act that mostly relates to agricultural land. Passed in the lower house of the assembly on September 11, this Act gives tehsildars, who are block-level revenue department officers, the power to both register land transactions and update them in the Dharani portal on the same day.

In other states, including Telangana before this Act, this is a two-step process. The registrar of the Registry and Stamps Department creates a record that a landowner has begun the process of transferring land to another person. The tehsildar then verifies that the transaction is legitimate and after that updates the relevant land records. This system ensures checks and balances.

The new law “puts too much power in the hands of the tehsildar,” said a former special chief secretary of Telangana, who asked not to be identified. And because the tehsildar will be required to both register and update the land records on the same day without field verification, there will be less scrutiny, the official said. This will also increase the workload of tehsildars, which is already quite high across disparate fields, and that might increase chances of error. Tehsildars are also not conversant with registration laws and so would need to be retrained.

Another Act abolished the post of village revenue officers, whom people in villages used to approach for land related matters. The government says that the land records will be available online so people can access them from anywhere. But not everyone in villages is internet savvy. People will now have to go to the block office which is often far away.

The Telangana government did not respond to the phone calls and emails that sent to ask about the new changes in the land recording system.

Exclusion of small and marginal landowners

None of the new laws address a critical problem that the land digitisation process including Dharani introduced. It leaves out tenant cultivators of land. For decades, Telangana recorded the status of both tenant cultivators and land owners. This also helped the government track production of crops. But since 2018, tenant cultivators are no longer on the records.

Take the example of Karnatakapa Sammayya, a resident of Kothapalli village in Jayashankar district. He was always recorded in the cultivation column of the land record for a plot of land that he has been cultivating in his village for the last 50 years. But when passbooks were issued after the updation of land records some time in 2019, the title came in three parts. Two in the name of one Md. Hussain and Narasaiah who owned that land, and are now dead. One part, half an acre, was in Sammayya’s name, he said. There was no mention of him as a cultivator in the other parts.

These changes have effectively dispossessed Sammayya of land that he had possessed. In Telangana there is a movement to recognise rights of cultivators parallel to the rights of landowners. This would help them to access credit and government schemes. Sammayya’s rights as cultivator are no longer recorded.

Several problems like this have emerged since the updation of land records in 2017, local activists say. Some people have titles in their names, but no possession of the land. Others possess the land, but have no titles to prove it. The new laws do not address these problems.

Kiran Kumar Vissa, convenor of the Rythu Swarajya Vedika, a farmers’ rights organisation in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, calls the recent changes in the land records system as “reverse land reforms.” In the 1960s and 1970s, states across India imposed a ceiling on the maximum area of land that any individual could own. If they possessed extra land, the government could redistribute this land to the landless people. However, many small and marginal farmers who now cultivate the lands that were distributed to them still do not have land titles in their name because land records were never updated.

Vissa said there are many like Sammayya who now find that the land they had been cultivating for many years has been now recorded in someone else’s name. This formal recording coupled with exclusion of cultivators leaves people like Sammayya with no say if the government or a company acquires a piece of land that cultivators were using to earn their living.

Telangana has at least seven lakh tenant farmers, most of them Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes, said Y Sreenivasulu, an assistant professor at the Centre for Economic and Social Studies in Hyderabad. They are not eligible to get institutional credit because they have no collateral in the form of land. These laws to formalise land records might end up increasing the number of tenant farmers, who are vulnerable to exploitation.

The government has already linked its digitised land records to its Rythu Bandhu Scheme, which gives agricultural landowners direct transfers to supplement their income. If other schemes are also linked to land ownership, then rural landowners will have more incentive to not cultivate their land because then they can get two streams of income: one from the government as direct transfer in case of any schemes and the other from tenants as rent. None of these acts clarify how they would apply to Adivasi people living in scheduled areas, and assigned lands which the government gives to landless people to cultivate. Both of these are home to marginalised communities.

Bendur Krishna, a farmer in Telangana's Adilabad district, received government funds under the Rythu Bandhu scheme. Photo: Mridula Chari

‘Ease of doing business’

The state’s ultimate stated goal in each of the Acts and also in press statements is to improve “ease of doing business”. For that, it wants to minimise land conflicts. The Telangana Rights in Land and Pattadar Pass Books Act, 2020 sets up special tribunals as one-time courts to resolve new disputes and those pending in revenue courts. The government abolished the 1971 Telangana Rights in Land and Pattadar Pass Books Act under which the revenue courts were set up.

Revenue courts are a three-tier legal system to address land disputes and run parallel to civil courts. The lowest tier is that of a revenue officer at the block level. If parties dispute the verdict here, the case goes to the revenue divisional officer, who operates between the block and district level. The final appellate level is that of the District Collector. The government has set these aside and declared that there will be 13 one-time tribunals–around one for every three districts–to resolve around 16,000 existing dispute cases.

The former special chief secretary had concerns about this. There are around 400 tehsil officers, 90 Revenue Divisional Officers and 31 collectors in Telangana. The work of around 550 officers will be transferred instead to 13 tribunals. “Of course one can argue that these 13 people are dedicated to this purpose so it will be faster,” he said. But he added that in case the dispute does not resolve here, the only court of appeal that people will have are the civil courts, which are expensive and already overburdened with cases. The retired official said that many cases could be resolved in the three-tier system.

Telangana’s Chief Minister Rao has promised a comprehensive land survey multiple times, and again on 13 September. That has not yet happened. And without a survey to ensure that survey numbers in land records correspond to actual holdings on the ground, the disputes will keep happening. While there might be benefits to the fast track tribunals, said Sreenivasulu, if the government wants to truly address the problem of land disputes, it “would have to survey every inch of Telangana.”

Mridula Chari is an independent journalist.