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Papers Faded, Hope Too: Land Records of Vulnerable Citizens

Binita Hazarika is a 45 year old single unmarried woman who lives in a rural area of Jorhat, Assam, very near to NH 37. She lives in a kaccha house built on a 1.5 bigha land, which she purchased 10 years ago for Rs. 3 lakhs. She lives with her 69 year old mother and runs a roadside food stall for a living. She used to run a stitching shop (for ladies) for close to six years before venturing into the food stall business in 2017.

1. Purchasing the Plot

Back in 2011, Bapuji Nagar area had no electricity and proper roads. She purchased the plot of land in 2011 from a local person (Person A) who, she believes, unethically grabbed many agricultural lands of villagers in early 2000s and sold them to other people for significant profits. (She claims that Person A is still in possession of many such lands and sells these to potential customers for well above Rs. 20 lakhs)

Transaction — There was a direct cash transaction between her and person A while purchasing the plot of land. He had initially quoted Rs. 5 lakhs as the price but Binita negotiated that to Rs. 3 lakhs (she takes pride in her negotiation skills!).

Measurement by patwari — Once the price was finalized, she visited the patwari office in Jorhat town and requested the official to pay a visit, measure the plot area and also fix the boundaries. Despite repeated requests, it took around two months for the official to visit. The official, accompanied by two more assistants, carried out activities using measuring tapes only. Binita was completely unaware of whether measurements were correctly done and whether or not her neighbors’ land was taken into account by mistake.

Registration at Sub-Registrar — The patwari charged Rs. 3500 for the tasks — a big amount in those days. A paper was handed over to her with a hand drawn map — with the plot dimensions and other details — which she didn’t understand much. The registration was done at the local Sub-Registrar’s office two months later. She spent a substantial amount of money on clerks/typists at the Sub-Registrar’s office simply to get her work done. She was handed a “patta” of the land with her name mentioned as “owner” of the plot. She received the patta 6 months after the registration process was initiated.

The plot was lying vacant till 2016 when she started building a small kaccha house. Till then she used to live in her ancestral home in a remote village in the outskirts of Jorhat.

2. The Ownership ‘Proof’

Binita’s “patta” and the map are paper-based and are on the verge of being torn. The colour of these papers have also faded over these years and it’s difficult to read the content written in assamese.

Awareness of digital documents — On being asked if digital documents would help, she remarked, “Yes, maybe. I can operate a smartphone.” She asked if it is possible to have the pictures of the property documents clicked and kept on the smartphone — She checked if these photo-documents are valid.

On being asked if she would like a mobile app where she could check her property records, she quipped, “That would be fantastic. I can operate Facebook and YouTube. I can handle a user ID and password just like Facebook.”

Any benefits of paper records? — The area does have electricity and access to drinking water, but these services are not attributed to the possession of property records.

3. Property Related Disputes

Dealing with encroachment and threats — Binita feared illegal occupation when the plot was lying vacant for 5 years. In fact there were a couple of attempts by some people to illegally encroach upon her land. She attributed these attempts to her being a single woman and hence being vulnerable to threats.

One such attempt in mid-2014 was aggressive as a person dumped bricks and stones on her plot to construct a house. The person claimed that he possesses property papers too and dared any action. Binita was taken aback. She reached out to Person A seeking help but was plainly denied. “The property is no longer mine. I sold it to you long back. The problem is for you to deal with,” he quipped. She then reached out to the patwari’s office and requested the official’s intervention. Thankfully, the official was prompt and honest too. He visited the plot with the relevant documents and had a prolonged discussion with the encroacher. Finally, the encroacher had to vacate. (Had the official been corrupt, he could have entered into a secret agreement with the encroacher and Binita might have had to do away with her property)

Disputes with neighbors — In 2015, with no concrete wall, a neighbour extended the common boundary into Binita’s property from his side. The dispute was again resolved by the local patwari. Once Binita lodged a complaint, the patwari sent two junior officials to oversee the case. Both the property maps (Binita’s and the neighbour’s) were compared and then it was concluded that it was an illegal extension of the boundary. This event catapulted her into constructing a wall around her plot and start building a kutcha house in 2016.

Other fears or risks — Binita believes she can fight it out legally if any person illegally encroaches upon her property provided the property records are safe. If somehow, these records are either damaged or stolen, she will be vulnerable to eviction with no other proof of ownership of her house.

If there is any eviction by the Government, she will have to move to her ancestral home in a very remote village. In this case, she will also have to do away with her food stall business as well, resulting in a loss of income.

4. Support from Government

Resurveying — There has been no resurveying ever, and the property was surveyed by the patwari only during the time of purchase in 2011. The topography of the area in 2022 has undergone big changes as compared to 2011. The motorable road in front of her property was built in 2019. There was also a pond diagonally opposite her plot in 2011. Now it has been filled and made into a plot for sale. “I doubt these changes are captured by the Govt. officials”, she says. Her paper map remains outdated.

No information around selling — Binita doesn’t have any plans of selling the property. Also, her knowledge is limited to the patwari’s office and Sub-Registrar’s office. The process of the transaction is not clear to her. She believes properties may be sold/ purchased by signing a few papers at the Sub-registrar’s office, getting a “patta” in the owner’s name and also paying some bribe to the officials in order to fast track the entire process.

The property records for a large section of the vulnerable or underprivileged population remain paper-based, not updated over time, and susceptible to manipulation in absence of enough safeguards. Ensuring digital, safe and easily accessible land records which are updated and verified frequently, can help large populations to live on their lands with dignity and safety.

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