By Rina Chandran
NEW DELHI, March 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Maharashtra state will use drones to undertake the "biggest" land survey exercise in modern India, as the government aims to give ownership rights to about 15 million rural households in the western state, a senior official said on Thursday.
Starting June 1, dozens of drones mounted with high-resolution cameras will survey the inhabited areas of 40,000 villages in the state, according to S. Chockalingam, director of land records in Maharashtra.
The exercise is expected to be completed in three years, he said.
"The villagers have been paying taxes on the land they live on, but they had no titles, as the land had never been surveyed," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It is the biggest survey exercise in modern India, and it will give the villagers security of tenure," he said on the sidelines of a land conference in New Delhi.
While agricultural land in India had been surveyed in the British colonial period, the areas where homes are built in the villages – usually measuring no more than 0.5 sq km – were considered "wasteland" and rarely surveyed, he said.
Only villages with more than 2,000 people were generally surveyed in the country.
In Maharashtra, only 3,000 villages had been surveyed in the more than 70 years since India's independence, Chockalingam said.
After a pilot survey last year, the state had issued nearly 400 title deeds within a month, using the village's tax records for verification.
There were few competing claims, as such disputes are typically settled by the village council, and villagers are able to use their titles to get loans from banks, and potentially benefit from any increase in land prices, Chockalingam said.
"With drones, we are able to cut down the time taken to survey significantly. What may have taken 30 years, we will be able to do in three years," he said.
India undertook a massive land record modernisation programme in 2008, aimed at surveying lands, upgrading records and establishing ownership.
Many areas in the country have not been mapped in more than a century.
In Maharashtra, the process of digitising about 270 million land records is nearly complete, Chockalingam said.
With the survey of village lands, the state will have a better idea of any idle land, he said.
"These villages are not seeing an expansion, because people are migrating to the cities for jobs," he said.
"But any excess land will be reserved for housing."
Governments should also acknowledge efforts by communities to collect data on land ownership, said Amy Coughenour, head of the Cadasta Foundation, which develops digital tools to document and analyse land and resource rights information.
That could help bridge government gaps in data and make any initiatives to improve land rights more transparent, Coughenour told the conference.
Cadasta is not involved in Maharashtra's programme, but has aided Odisha state in mapping its slums to provide rights to residents.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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