India's poor risk loss of land, privacy in drive to digitise records

A view of a slum area in Ahmedabad, India, on Feb 16, 2020. The authorities have said this will enable them to monitor land sales more easily, increase tax revenue and reduce corruption. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI ( THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - A push to digitise land records in India to establish ownership and minimise conflicts has raised concerns over privacy for poorer communities and could make them more vulnerable to evictions, legal and technology experts said on Monday (March 9).

India's national land record modernisation programme seeks to re-survey lands, verify and upgrade records, and put the information online by 2021.

The authorities have said this will enable them to monitor land sales more easily, increase tax revenue and reduce corruption.

But with some states not having surveyed their lands in more than a century, digitising of existing records could be"counterproductive", said Ms Namita Wahi, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a think-tank in New Delhi.

In addition, there are data privacy issues with making land records easily accessible, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the sidelines of a land conference.

"Technology has the potential to be empowering, but it is possible that it will empower those who are already empowered more than those who are currently disempowered," she said.

Hundreds of laws and the lack of clear titles mean that matters related to land and property make up about two-thirds of all civil cases in Indian courts, according to a study by Daksh, a legal advocacy group in Bengaluru.

Population growth, industrial expansion and the need for more airports and roads are putting greater pressure on land, with more than 700 disputes over land across India, according to Land Conflict Watch, a research organisation.

Digitisation of land records is an important step towards greater transparency and efficiency, said Ms Amy Coughenor, chief executive of Cadasta Foundation, a Washington, DC-based non-profit that develops tools to document land.

"But having digital records doesn't take away the need to accurately and fairly document land in the first place, ensuring equitable access to those who have been left out of land systems," she said.

"Issues of consent, fair access and gender equality must be part of a broader digitisation strategy. Otherwise these systems can further marginalise and disenfranchise people without digital access," she said.

About 70 per cent of land in the developing world is undocumented, leaving more than a quarter of the world's population vulnerable to conflict, evictions and encroachment, Cadasta estimates.

With digitisation comes an increased burden on such people to prove their ownership and safeguard their land, said Ms Usha Ramanathan, an independent legal researcher who has studied India's digital identification system.

"For the government, digitisation makes it easier to administer and go to market. But what is the use of an open registry for poor communities and small and marginalised farmers who cannot access it?" she said.

India also does not yet have a personal data protection law, and it is unclear who will control the data and who has access to it, she said.

"Bringing in technology does not change the equation on the ground - people still have very differential access to technology," she said.

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