The inheritance of misery and ending India’s Apartheid towards its poor landowners

September 5, 2011 / By  

Last week saw an unprecedented turn in India’s history, when public opinion and passive resistance led by a small group of “civil society” representatives rushed the country’s parliamentarians to reluctantly proceed towards an anti-corruption legislation. With a series of alleged graft cases that emerged during 2010, the country is getting desperate for an urgent and decisive solution to its burgeoning costs of corruption.

Land and natural resources – their ownership, use, acquisition and availability form the core of public discontent and corrupt practices in India, especially for its poor landowners. Land tenures in India are subject not only to statutory laws, but also to customary laws in several cases across the diverse landscape of the country. Due to the lack of transparency in transfer and acquisition processes as well as establishing ownership, the advantaged sections have a significant control over land assets in the country. Corruption is evident in the change of land-use, processes of land acquisition and the numerous disputes over legal ownership of land assets in the country.

For some, it is a measure of wealth, for some, it is a means to subsistence and for others, land becomes the inheritance of misery. How do we end this apartheid towards a majority of poor landowners in developing countries?

The Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto argues in his seminal work ‘The Mystery of Capital’ that capitalism works in the developed countries because assets in these countries are represented in a property document, which “provides a link to the owner’s credit history, an accountable address for the collection of debts and taxes, the basis for the creation of reliable and universal public utilities and a foundation for the creation of securities that can then be rediscounted and sold in secondary markets”. On the other hand, poor property owners in developing countries lack the process to represent their assets and create capital. They might have houses, crops and businesses. What they lack are titles, deeds and statutes of incorporation.

The solution towards successful domestic capitalism in the developing countries would be to convert this dead capital into assets which represent legal ownership. Every developed nation in the world went through the transformation from predominantly informal and extralegal ownership to a formal and unified legal property system. Several recent measures by the government suggest that India is stepping into this long transitional process of providing identification to its people and their assets.

The first step towards legalising ownership is establishing the right to one’s identity. The various identifications issued by state and central authorities over a period of time have resulted in layers of multiplicity in identities due to the lack of reliable authenticity. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was established in February 2009 with an aim to provide a single source of identity verification for residents and maintain a centralised database of basic demographics and biometric information. This will be instrumental in proliferating financial, political, educational and healthcare inclusion; regulating the public distribution system and ensuring entitlements to state-sponsored and other socio-economic benefits and subsidies. Another initiative is the National Land Record Modernisation Programme (NLRMP) by the Ministry of Rural Development in India to computerise the land records, updation of survey and settlement records and the computerisation of registration processes.

Even if we have established the identity of an individual and her/his rights over their tangible assets, only fair and just legislations over acquisition of these assets would ensure that the rights are protected. Recently, the Ministry of Rural Development has drafted the National Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation & Settlement Bill to update the century old Land Acquisition laws in the country. It combines the process of land acquisition with the processes of rehabilitation and resettlement, as both of them are inseparable in context.

While some of these initiatives and processes are indeed lengthy and time consuming, the gradual changeover that we will witness will become a crucial milestone in the country’s history of giving its citizens inclusive rights, ownership and participation over growth and development.

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