The Union government’s plans, first made public in 2014, to link land records to Aadhaar, the biometric-based unique identity for citizens, have been activated. In January 2021, the then Union minister for rural development, Narendra Singh Tomar, quietly approved a proposal to include the “integration of Aadhaar number with land records” to the government’s flagship land records digitisation programme, show government records reviewed by The Wire.
After the minister’s approval, the proposal was sent to the ministry of finance for its approval where it is at an advanced stage with a decision expected by September 30, a rural development official said declining to be quoted.
Once the finance ministry gives its nod, the proposal will be presented before the Union Cabinet for its approval.
If approved, Aadhaar linking could become a part of the Digital India Land Records Modernization Programme or DILRMP. The programme aims to digitise India’s outdated paper-driven land records and land registration system. The programme was scheduled to conclude on March 31, 2021. An extension for two years is also a part of the memo awaiting the finance ministry’s nod.
The government plans to link Aadhaar numbers with a proposed unique number assigned to each land parcel known as Unique Land Parcel Identification Number (ULPIN). On its records, the Union government has said the linkage will be ‘consent-based’. In other words, prior informed approval of citizens would be taken to link their Aadhaar numbers to records showing their ownership of property.
The Union government has also informed the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Rural Development of its intent to link Aadhaar with land records, according to the committee’s report which was released in March 2021. The committee supported the linking plan saying it would “enhance ease of doing business in a significant way”.
The government has planned to link Aadhaar numbers with land records since at least December 2014. In 2017, housing minister Hardeep Singh Puri had said that such a linkage was a “great idea”.
While recent news reports have focused on the introduction of ULPIN, the proposal to link this with Aadhaar number of landowners has not received as much attention. The government – which is fighting criticism over its mishandling of the pandemic – has also made no public announcement of the programme, nor has it issued a press release.
There are 301.6 million land records in India, according to the DILRMP dashboard. This is the first large-scale Aadhaar number linkage proposed by the government since the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar programme in 2018.
The department of land resources’ additional secretary Hukum Singh Meena, who heads the DILRMP, did not respond to calls and an e-mail seeking further details on the Aadhaar linking component.
Linking Aadhaar with land records
The Aadhaar linking is likely to begin in nine states (Goa, Bihar, Odisha, Sikkim, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tripura, Rajasthan and Haryana) where the ULPIN has been rolled out.
According to the department’s submission to the parliament, it has planned a fiscal expenditure of Rs 3 per record for linking Aadhaar with the ULPIN and another Rs 5 per record towards “Aadhaar seeding plus authentication”. The department has not clarified how the two activities are different.
The plan to link Aadhaar with land records has been in the works for years.
The department of land resources’ documents dating back to December 2014 show that Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Haryana, Tripura, Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh had initiated pilot projects to link Aadhaar with land records.
In 2015 and 2017, the department of land resources also wrote to states asking them to use Aadhaar as identity proof for registering sale and lease of property. A draft notification attached to the 2017 letter suggested that Aadhaar would be mandatory, and not optional. The letters said using Aadhaar would help prevent benami properties (where the property buyer/seller’s name is not genuine), and that it “eliminates the inconvenience to the potential registrant of dipping his fingers in ink to provide ink based fingerprints”. That year, a fake letter was also reported by some media organisations which purported to be an order of the Cabinet secretariat directing states to link Aadhaar to all land records (the cabinet secretariat has no such powers).
In 2018, the Supreme Court’s constitution bench upheld the Aadhaar programme and allowed Aadhaar numbers to be mandatory if it is used to provide benefits and services to citizens from Union government funds. It permitted ‘voluntary’ use of the Aadhaar as identity proof.
The department then released a guideline document in 2019 which recommended asking states to enable “consent based Aadhaar integration” in their land records software. “Aadhaar integration is vital to check benami /fraudulent transactions of land and also essential to promote Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) to the beneficiaries,” the guidelines read.
In the same year, the Union government also asked for mandatory linking of Aadhaar with agricultural land records as part of its income support scheme for farmers called PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN). The scheme’s operational guidelines said states had to link records of the scheme’s beneficiaries by March 2020.
The recent addition of Aadhaar-land records linkage as a component to the DILRMP completes this timeline.
In its 2018 judgment, the Supreme Court had restricted its use to verify beneficiaries of government subsidies and for linking it with income-tax permanent account numbers.
The court also struck down as illegal the Union government’s orders to link Aadhaar with cell phones and bank accounts. It also struck down a Section in the 2016 Aadhaar Act that had allowed its use “for any purpose” by private companies.
“The court had cautioned against the rampant use of the UID, and hoped that the government ‘shall not unduly expand the scope of ‘subsidies, services and benefits; thereby widening the net of aadhaar’,” said Usha Ramanathan, legal researcher and a critic of the Aadhaar programme.
“The state has consistently worked at flouting this, and linking the UID number to land records is one such blatant instance,” she said.
The need to link Aadhaar would satisfy a growing need to integrate identity proofs in land records documentation, said a secretary in the government of India with expertise in land records management but not involved with the linking programme.
“In earlier days the name, father’s name, caste and village were enough to identify a person. Now the population has grown, there is migration and people don’t know each other so well,” the official said.
“But that does not mean Aadhaar is the only way. Any ID proof to the satisfaction of the state government should work. If they want to use Aadhaar specifically, say to make use of its biometric features, then they should justify it accordingly,” the official said.
Nihar Gokhale is the associate editor at Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resource governance in India.