India's push to digitize its land records to minimize conflicts and increase transparency of transactions is marred by torn maps, tradition and disputes dating back decades, according to an analysis of the progress made by three states.
The national land record modernization program, launched in 2008, aims to survey lands, update records and establish ownership. It is scheduled to be completed in 2021 after overshooting its budget and deadline.
The government says the program has covered about 565,000 villages, or 86 percent of all recorded villages. But progress is uneven, with many states unable to re-survey lands to determine their boundaries and ownership.
"Re-surveying is a difficult, long drawn process. There are legacy issues and other complications because the records are 100 years old," said S. Chockalingam, director of land records in Maharashtra.
"So getting digital records to mirror reality is a challenge," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Land records in most Indian states date back to the colonial era. Most holdings have uncertain ownership, fraud is rampant and disputes over titles often lead to protracted court battles.
Matters related to land and property make up about two-thirds of all civil cases in India, according to a study released last year.
Measurement errors, land use discrepancies, multiple owners and short-staffed local offices hampered the digitization of land records in the states of Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh, the analysis found.
Updating or correcting records took between 26 and 535 days.
"About 30 percent of existing maps cannot be used as they are torn or illegible," said Diya Uday at the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research that surveyed Maharashtra's records. "In some places, we were unable to measure land because we were threatened, and in others we could not locate the owners."
Distortion of India's land markets hamstrings economic growth, accounting for 1.3 percent of lost gross domestic product growth every year, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the global consulting firm.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is keen to unlock this value and has made digitization of land records a priority.
Rajasthan state has set up an independent authority to verify land titles in its cities, while others are exploring blockchain - the technology behind the bitcoin currency - to increase efficiency in land deals.
But customary tenure, where boundaries are often verbally agreed, and the tradition of sons inheriting land also pose challenges, said T. Haque, chairman of the land policy unit at government think tank Niti Aayog.
"These are sensitive issues that can't be solved by digital records," he said.