Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao recently declared that the State government will enact a “revolutionary and path-breaking” Revenue Act by this June. “Every little bit of land will be accounted for. After June, once the Act is in place, every issue, whether related to ownership by tribals, non-tribals, podu, revenue or non-revenue land, will be identified and conclusive titles will be issued,” he said.He even appealed to the people to have some patience and not to bribe anyone to solve their land issues!
In this context, it is important for us to know why land titles are unclear, what actually conclusive titles are about, what potential benefits to the people and the State are expected from such an Act and what challenges they pose in the process of their implementation.
Currently, the Transfer of Property Act, 1882, provides that the right (or title) to an immovable property (or land) can be transferred or sold only by a registered document. Such documents are registered under the Registration Act, 1908. Therefore, the registration of land or property refers to the registration of the transaction (or sale deed) and not the land title. This means a registered sale deed is not a government guarantee of land ownership.
Further, since no one document guarantees ownership in India, land ownership is established through registered sale deeds, record of rights, property tax receipts and government survey documents. This means, land ownership is presumptive in nature, and subject to challenge. The onus of checking past ownership records of a property is on the buyer, and not the registrar.
A conclusive title may be defined as an unassailable and conclusive proof of ownership of property. In order to reach the stage of conferring conclusive titles, four fundamental principles need to be in place, namely, that: (a) there should be a single agency to handle property records; (b) the ‘Mirror’ principle should be operative. This requires that at any given moment, the property records should mirror ground reality, ie, they should be ‘real-time records’; (c) the ‘Curtain’ principle should be applicable. This requires that the record of a title should depict the conclusive ownership status making probing into past transactions and titles of the property should become unnecessary; and (d) there should be title guarantee and insurance for indemnifying the property holder against any loss arising due to inaccuracies.
Most States, including Telangana, have two or three agencies handling property records. The Revenue Department usually prepares and maintains the textual records; Survey and Settlement Department prepares and maintains the maps; Registration Department does verification of encumbrances and registration of transfer, mortgage,etc, of property.
A few States have a Consolidation Department in lieu of a Survey and Settlement Department. In some, the local bodies have been empowered to do undisputed mutations. The urban local bodies update property records for purposes of taxation in urban areas. Merging these departments into a single agency is administratively and politically difficult.But that is precisely the challenge which the Telangana government is taking up.
The tedious manual processes of survey and of the system of property record management has resulted in outdated maps and vast arrears of data entry in a vast number of cases. Resultantly, the records do not always reflect the ground reality and, hence, are not universally ‘real-time records’. At present, registration of deeds and documents requires probing into past ownerships and transactions of properties to establish non-encumbrance due to the system of ‘presumptive’ titles and due to arrears in mutation. In the system of ‘presumptive’ titles, the question of giving title guarantee and indemnification does not arise.
As a result of conclusive titling, maintenance of property records will cease to be merely a tool for governance and revenue generation but will be added to the agenda of citizen services. This is a fundamental shift from the past and the new approach is in the absolute interest of the people.
Since computerisation will enable property records to be placed in the public domain, property owners will have easy access to their records, in contrast to the present system, where the property records are in the custody of Revenue Department. They will be real-time records obtainable from a single window, thereby, saving the time and effort of the citizen in obtaining them. Litigationwill considerably reduce once the titles are conclusive and tamper-proof. Moreover, the time taken for preparing and obtaining real-time records, registration and mutation will be greatly reduced.
This will also facilitate property transfers and electronic payment of stamp duty and registration fees. While the citizens are likely to be the real beneficiaries of conclusive titling, real-time records will also help in better governance as well, in areas such as disaster management, land acquisition, rehabilitation and resettlement, land use planning and consequential food security, management of barren land and watershed programmes, e-credit facilities, and enhanced revenues due to proper valuation of stamp duty and registration fees.
The Road Map
The last principle of conclusive titling,ie, indemnification will be possible only when the first three have been put into place. Such aprogramme has four major components – (i) computerisation of property records; (ii) survey and preparation of maps using modern technologies, (iii) computerisation of the registration process and (iv) training and capacity building.
‘Land’ is a State subject and the Central government cannot legislate on it. Each State government will have to bring in its own laws keeping in mind the overall spirit of conclusive titling and at the same time adjusting local requirements. Some Central Acts may also need modification for which the Central government will have to take the initiative. The latter is developing a ‘model law’ for conclusive titling as a handholding exercise for those States, whichneed help in drafting the State legislation.
In most States, Revenue, Registration, Panchayat Raj or local bodies departments are headed by separate Ministers/Secretaries. Politically and administratively, it is challenging to integrate them. Information Technology has provided a way out by enabling inter-linking procedurally without disturbing the present system until new arrangements are in place.
(The author is MLA and Humboldt-Expert in Agriculture, Environment and Cooperation)