Big Story 10

Urbanization triggers land disputes in Indian cities

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The rapid growth of Indian cities combined with unclear land ownership is increasingly triggering legal disputes, analysts said, while rights groups report violent evictions of poorer communities.

India’s urban population is set to grow by more than 400 million - more than the population of the entire United States - to 814 million by 2050.

As land is sought for offices and homes, developers and officials face multiple ownership claims and unclear titles.

“We have very few records for urban lands, as they were not a priority before,” said Deepak Sanan, a senior advisor at the New Delhi-based National Council of Applied Economic Research.

“Land was only measured and recorded in the rural areas in the pre-colonial and colonial times, as they were considered valuable and taxed.”

Many marginalized communities have been built on disputed land, and the advocacy group Housing and Land Rights Network said some evictions have been violent and took place without proper consultation, consent, compensation or advance notice.

About 31 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population lives in cities and towns, according to census data. But analysts say the figure goes by a decades-old definition of urban areas, and that the real number is close to 60 percent.

So-called peri-urban spaces have grown in the intersection of urban and rural areas, with lands once earmarked for agriculture being used for homes.

Meanwhile, India’s rank for registering urban properties fell to 154 from 138 on the World Bank’s Doing Business Index for 2018.

“We only have a presumptive titling system - it neither verifies that the seller or buyer is the indisputable owner, nor does it guarantee that the property is free from disputes,” Sanan said.

“So everything ends in litigation.”

Matters related to land and property make up about two-thirds of all civil cases in India, according to a study by legal advocacy group Daksh.

Land records are gradually being updated and digitized as India moves toward a conclusive land titling system. Several states are using blockchain technology to record land deals.

Rajasthan set up an independent authority to verify and guarantee land titles in its cities, the first state in the country to do so.

But other authorities remain focused on rural areas, said Frank Pichel, interim chief executive of the Washington DC-based Cadasta Foundation, which develops digital tools to document and analyze land and resource rights information.

“There is certainly a growing demand for mapping urban lands with the rising value of these lands and the potential for conflict. But for now, the focus remains rural,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a land conference in Delhi.