Further data tales: decoding land ownership and other challenges

Based on his experiences working in a successful slum upgrading scheme in Odisha, India, guest blogger Antarin Chakrabarty looks at the diverse range of institutions that own land and the complexity in getting tenure for their residents.

Antarin Chakrabarty's picture
Independent urban planner and geo-spatial expert, and a former team lead of Jaga Mission
25 October 2023
The transition to a predominantly urban world
A series of insights and interviews designed to share the experiences of community leaders, professionals, researchers and government from the global South
A street in a village with a house and a blue window and clothes hanging from a wire.

Urban periphery of Balasore, Odisha, India (Photo: ankyuk, via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

The Jaga Mission slum upgrading scheme now extends to 115 cities and a total of 2,919 slums. My past ‘data tales’ blogs have stressed the importance of operational aspects of large and complex urban development projects.

I’ve examined how implementation can become very difficult – if not impossible – without a creative combination of community participation (to tackle the ‘depth’ problem) and modern computing (to tackle the ‘scale’ problem). Perhaps nowhere does this reality hit home harder than in the implementation of mega-sized, slum land-titling and upgrading initiatives, such as Jaga Mission.

Legal clarity but an operational quagmire

The Odisha land rights to slum dwellers act 2017 (PDF), which guides the implementation of Jaga Mission, states in section 3, sub-section (1) that: "every landless person, occupying land in a slum in any urban area by such date as may be notified by the State Government, shall be entitled for settlement of land and certificate of land right shall be issued in accordance with the provisions of this Act". All very well intentioned and clear, but a whole operational quagmire opens up when one begins to implement its provisions.

The art of land administration in India is an elaborate one that pre-dates the Mughal era. Words like kissam (from the Farsi Qism, referring to land-use type) co-exist with the English 'record of right' in land revenue records, reflecting the deep and layered history of the subject. The typical planning student or professional is often not familiar with these terms used by the revenue department, let alone being able to intervene in the operational matters of land administration.

The slums in any city may be located on hundreds of separate parcels of land, which may belong to diverse kissams. These could be a mix of ‘non-reserved’ (where land rights can be granted) and ‘reserved’ (on which land rights cannot be given without ‘de-reservation’ following negotiation with the revenue department) categories.

And parcels belonging to different kissams could be owned by an array of government departments or private entities, depending on which it may, or may not, be possible to grant land rights. It is these attributes that must be cross-referenced with each other and with the locational and household data of the slum dwellers in order to satisfy all the conditions necessary to settle the granting of land rights.

Quantifying land complexity

Let's take the example of a single city – Balasore in Odisha. The 3,128 families living in the 41 slums of this city are located on 735 land parcels in a total of 33 different kissams.

Let's consider one particular kissam called ‘gharbari’ – which means ‘homestead’. There are 238 parcels corresponding to this land type, out of which 121 parcels are owned by private entities, 71 by the railways, 23 by temple trusts and 23 by various departments and offices of the state government. Only the slum houses located on the last 23 parcels in the above list, can be settled without getting into special arrangements and negotiations with other government departments and private entities. And this is just one kissam out of 33.

Now let’s consider the location of the 41 slums in the city and how the 3,128 slum houses intersect with the land parcels of various ownership types.

What has been described above is the situation in just one city out of 115 in Odisha, 41 slums out of 2,919, and 3,128 slum houses out of a total of more than 400,000.

This is ‘complexity’ quantified. And this is why we need the processing power of modern computers (not for making PowerPoint presentations on the achievements of the mission).

This is also the reason why in the first phase of Jaga Mission – covering about 170,000 slum households in 109 small and medium towns of Odisha – the government reached an impasse after granting about 70,000 land rights certificates. The remaining 100,000 households fell on land parcels belonging to various reserved kissam categories, restricted central government lands, private entities, temple trusts or environmentally hazardous lands.

Sometimes a strong political will isn’t enough

Instead of basking in the glory of having distributed 70,000 land rights certificates in less than two years of the mission (no mean feat), the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the nodal agency overseeing the implementation of the mission, went out of its way to negotiate with the revenue, forest and environment departments, and private entities (such as royal families, temple trusts and so on) to find workable solutions to grant land rights to the remaining slum households.

Special standard operating procedures were also created to address the challenge of slums located on highly-restricted, central government lands such as railways and defence, which may require relocation.

These special measures initiated by the government were a clear indicator of the strong political will that backed the granting of land rights to slum dwellers. It was also a clear indicator that even when that will exists (rare in itself), the implementation of any large pro-poor intervention may face serious challenges due to technical and operational reasons.

And it’s extremely important for people not directly involved with the implementation of such projects to have a thorough understanding of these operational reasons if they wish to engage effectively and critique accurately.

The media needs to get the story right

This video clip (YouTube in Odia) from Odisha Television, a regional news channel, was critical of the implementation of Jaga Mission in Balasore. It showed the residents of a slum, Godhi Basha, who had not received land rights certificates.

However, the news anchor could not give any reason for the state of affairs apart from the usual one that the government was failing to keep its promise to slum dwellers. But as we have already seen, lack of political will was definitely not a problem here.

What then was the problem in Godhi Basha slum? Had the journalist investigated just a little more, he would have discovered that the whole slum was situated on a land parcel belonging to the ‘South-Eastern Railway’ – and was just one of the 72 land parcels in the city owned by railway companies.

The crucial supporting role of data

This is why critical and participatory community engagement processes are not enough by themselves in the case of such large projects. It is necessary to be aware of the operational requirements and allow the methods of community participation and computing to function simultaneously and inform each other.

Jaga Mission was always strong in terms of its political will and field-based manual processes, but despite having created a huge digital database, it could not fully utilise it for computing, predictive problem identification and problem solving.

And yet, as we have already discussed in an earlier blog, just because the government is reluctant to take the next big step doesn’t mean that the people have to keep waiting too. Such are the untapped possibilities of technology in the present times.

Related blogs:

  • Data Tales part one looked at the generation, ownership and use of Geographic Information System (GIS) data to underpin the slum upgrading programme – or often the non-use.
  • Part two reported on what the author found when he went looking for relevant data. Despite being told by government officials that no such data existed, he discovered vast resources that were not being used.
  • Part three revealed the (unexpected) technological prowess of the urban poor.
  • Part four showed how the lack of relevant or accurate data on climate risk and resilience in slums could be resolved by making community-based data collection the norm.
  • While part five questioned whether the computing power at our fingertips is being used to best effect, and frustrations that ensued during the project.

About the author

Antarin Chakrabarty is an independent urban planner and geo-spatial expert, and a former team lead of Jaga Mission

Antarin Chakrabarty's picture