All that he could produce was a tattered handwritten piece of paper that was denied by officials to recognize him as the rightful owner. "This is my land; I have been cultivating it for many years, but the government didn't recognize me as the owner," said Veeraswami and added, "I couldn't even get bank loans, and had to borrow only from the moneylender at very high rates of interest."
But it was a thing of the past now ever since the newly formed Telangana government has taken up the digitization of land records programme on a large scale across Telangana. As part of the programme, three youth from his own village, trained to assist in land matters came to his rescue.
Astonishingly, 90 percent of the farmers out of 105 families in the village are facing a similar situation. Most of them include from errors in the title deed to boundary disputes and encroaching government land. Their plight was made worse by erstwhile governments by failing to take up land survey since 75 years. The last survey in the state was done in 1940, said the state director of Landesa, a land-rights advocacy, Sunil Kumar.
Elaborating on this he said "a person can only be considered a landowner when he has a title deed with his name when his name is in the state land records, and he has physical possession of the land," he said and added "but most people are unaware of their rights, of how to use the law, or they have tried and failed and given up," he said.
ROLE OF LANDESA
Landesa has identified 75 potential problems related to land ownership in rural areas. Poor farmers like Veeraswami are often harassed by local officials who demand a bribe to correct or issue new documents, he said. Their only other alternative is to go to the court.
Matters related to land and property make up about two-thirds of all civil cases in India, according to a study by Bengaluru-based Daksh, a non-profit group that campaigns for better governance. Most litigants are poor men belonging to so-called lower castes, with only basic education, it said.
They lack the awareness and the resources to seek legal aid. In Telangana, they are being helped by the state program that trains college-educated young people from villages as paralegals to provide basic assistance in land matters.
In addition, Landesa trains three people as community workers in each village - always including a farmer and a woman - to conduct surveys, verify records, mark boundaries and help with documentation.
"Initially, they were reluctant to share information - maybe they thought we were going to take away their land," said Usha Ram, a community worker in neighbouring Kannayapally village. "Now that they understand the importance of updating records and having their names on the title deeds, they don't want to leave even an inch of land unregistered," she said.
Telangana and other states are racing to digitise land records as part of the national land records modernization program. Scheduled to be completed in 2016 with a budget of 56 billion rupees ($841 million), the project will now conclude in 2021 at a projected cost of 110 billion rupees.
The challenge is not just digitising ageing manual records, but ensuring existing records are accurate first. That requires door-to-door surveys and physical verification of boundaries by the community workers. In the Telangana villages where surveys have been completed and records updated, Landesa found that well over half the existing records were inaccurate, Kumar said.
"This is why the involvement of the community is key: you can ensure that the records are accurate because the community is aware and is involved," he said. Small discrepancies can be fixed in a few days, and most matters can be settled with a village council meeting, avoiding lengthy legal procedures, he said. New handheld GPS devices to map the land will help speed up the process. Government officials have backed the community-led effort, updating records and issuing new titles quickly, Kumar said.
After a decade of uncertainty, Veeraswami could finally get a title deed on his name. "It has taken a long time, but now I don't have to worry about losing my land or getting my dues," he said.
(Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)