Beating the Rhetoric
The recent Amchang eviction in Guwahati evoked strong reactions from different sections of the society. The image of men, women and children being ejected out of their homes by groups of police, forest and revenue officials armed with bulldozers and elephants made for a heartbreaking site. The state administration was following orders issued by the Hon’ble Gauhati High Court which had ordered the forest areas to be cleared of all illegal encroachers.
Such an eviction however can never have black and white narratives. Opinions would vary and so would the position as to how one sees it. Yet one of the first facts that bears mention is the fact that in 1980 there were only two recognised villages in the Amchang area – Ekarabari and Sowali. This means that the people staying in these areas have only settled in the last thirty years. While their pain is understandable one must not forget that illegal encroachments in and around the hills and wetlands of Guwahati have led to massive deterioration of the environmental quality of a city like Guwahati. Any city, Guwahati included must develop, but in a planned manner which would take into account environmental concerns while planning for the future. Unplanned haphazard expansion of a city can lead to a Delhi like condition where even the air becomes impossible to breathe! And this is why cities across the country must move forward cautiously towards expansion including cities like Guwahati and Shillong.
While the debate between environment and development would continue, one thing that must also be the focus of the debate is the question of land rights and land titles in India. Since independence the absence of any large scale land reforms have ensured that thorny issues relating to land and land rights always remain unsolved. The Amchang controversy too can be seen from the prism of land rights and titles and deeds. Land in a state like Assam consists primarily of government owned lands and privately owned lands (patta-mati). The patta owned mati become the building blocks of revenue villages which in turn forms the bedrock of administration in the country. Forest land once declared a reserve forest or reserved sanctuary cannot be classified as patta land unless the government recognises so. In this scenario the fact that many of the Amchang settlers were able to produce land documents or patta documents proves that the question of land rights and land titles have not been adequately addressed in the country.
Land records and titles are never properly managed in government offices. Often when land is bought and sold the government office is not intimated resulting in non updation of land records. These in turn result in evading of taxes as well. Discrepancies are often noticed in land records where maps do not reflect the actual ground position. Hence land record management system is poor in the country. If the question of land records had been streamlined proper records would have been available with all as to how the forest land of Amchang reserve changed into revenue villages’ along with proper documentation. Had this been available not only would it have offered protection to the government but it would have offered protection to the evicted people as well since their land title deeds would have been clear and accurate.
Land in India and administration regarding the same also suffer from other problems. The first is that land titles in India are often done reflecting the transaction and not the land itself. This makes the position of land unclear. While a particular piece of land may have been sold multiple times yet the owner on record might be someone else, since the original records may not have been changed. Secondly the cost of stamp duty in land transactions is very high resulting in people bypassing the same which results in further blurred results with respect to records and titles of possession of land. Thirdly spatial level data is almost never correlated with administrative records clearly demarcating boundaries. Once again this leads to ambiguities in classification of land and its title.
In order to address the same the Digital India Land Records Modernisation Programme is being undertaken since the past few years. The project has achieved considerable results. Till September 2017 almost 86% of the available land records have been computerised while almost 35% of total areas have been surveyed. 47% of the mutation deeds have been computerised while land records in close to 9% villages have been completely digitalised and computerised. While the pace has been slow yet this project once complete would undoubtedly give a big push to land reforms in the country and at the same time protecting the rights of all individuals. Once this program is completed and such data is in place the pain of Amchang would perhaps not be suffered by others.(Views expressed are personal)