How Digitising Land Management Has Taken Away Its Socio-Physical Identity

While land records have become more standardised, land itself is posing new complexities – and possibilities – to the people managing it.

Governments around the world are outdoing others in building mobile applications (apps) that engage citizens. Lately, apps for internal government communication and surveillance of field bureaucrats are on the rise – to make them accountable to both citizens and their supervisors.

For the past six months, I have been studying the technology – old and new – of land governance.

Digital methods, I have learnt, bring in a veneer of clarity and homogeneity in representing land – which is starkly contradicted by the multi-dimensionality of land that people making the records encounter on a daily basis.

Apps for land governance

Mobile apps for land governance, in particular, are proliferating around the world. One of the key themes of the annual World Bank Land and Poverty conference in 2018 was, ‘New ways of using spatial data (imagery, drones, mobile phones etc.) to strengthen land governance, sustainable land use, and/or support land administration services in urban and/or rural settings’.

Apps developed under the United States Agency for International Development’s Mobile Applications to Secure Tenure programme allow rural landowners in many African countries to enter their own land-related information, create maps and share data with agencies that provide certificates and titles.

Citizens participate in the improvement of their own governance – providing information to the government without the aid of intermediaries, in a standardised format, and without the need for repeated physical verification by bureaucrats.

But the collection of land data via mobile apps must also be viewed from within a general economy of written records.

South Asian scholars, such as Arjun Appadurai and Sudipta Kaviraj, have pointed out that land records – historically produced through narrative accounts of physical and social relationships with land – have, at least since the emergence of a colonial fascination with quantitative documentation, been increasingly characterised by numeric and visual data.

The 2008 Digital India Land Record Modernization Programme led to the further shrinking of these once-descriptive accounts of land, as a result of computerised templates and standardised categories of recording data. Field bureaucrats, once concerned with accurately and capaciously describing land, are now occupied with ticking checkboxes against pre-determined features.

Standardising records

Besides economising the description of land records, apps – installed on mobile phones that bureaucrats carry to the field – are also a source of geo-tagged spatial data that allow higher-level bureaucrats to monitor and surveil the work of field bureaucrats from a distance. Measuring land with mobile apps thus produces its own digital audit trail.

Also read: All That Is Green Is Not Forest

Yet, a substantive part of the experience of measuring land lies outside these digital representations. So while the mobile app-based measurement of land records becomes thinner, linear and more standardised, the multi-dimensional experiences of field bureaucrats doing the work of creating the record become obscured.

An app made to digitise the survey of agricultural land in one Indian state is an example of this divergence. Over past months, hundreds of surveyors have been digitising original land-survey maps from a 19th-century revenue survey. Using an app built by a private start-up, they convert maps and measurements on paper into geometric shapes on the app, a process that is both time-consuming and physically daunting.

In the survey section of a small government office, 28-year-old Meena, a newly-appointed surveyor, grows frustrated at my ignorance of trigonometry and grabs my scratchpad and tears out a sheet. Shaping it into a cone, she describes how hilly land is measured.

If in the plains the measurement is in “chainlinks”, in hilly areas, she says, a “plane table” surveying method is used and the units are in feet, meters and centimetres. But this app requires her to convert these multiple measures into a standardised unit of meters. Meena enters the converted figures into the app – soon enough, a shape appears on the screen of her phone.

Beyond standardising the record, however, the app is also expected to be an improvement over the computer. No more can surveyors make excuses about not being able to scan and upload their sketches, or about system breakdowns and electricity outages. Once these original surveys are in the app, they will be the basis for all re-survey sketches in the field.

Each step of the process is tracked through an ID number, allowing for higher-level staff to know what stage it is at, who the surveyor is and how to call their mobile. The end product is a digitally-uploaded survey sketch and an accompanying number, which can then be circulated, monitored and made public. Reports that make visible open requests, pending surveys, dispatched requests proliferate. Weeks dedicated to the completion of pending survey work are ordered and observed.

Complexities in measuring, recording land 

But the work of recording land becomes more complex as land attracts a host of interests.

“Do you know what the hardest thing is for a surveyor?” Meena asks. “It is to take a map from the office and try to find the coordinates in the field.” British revenue surveyors placed black stones on the boundaries of land they had measured; finding those stones is crucial for surveyors to match the map in their hands with the contours of the land.

“Sometimes the stones are missing, removed or submerged inside the ground,” Meena says. “And you can’t always trust the later stones. Someone may have taken money to do the survey and place the stones over there.” So finding the original stones is the first task. A task at which even “senior surveyors” sometimes fail.

“Its rough out there,” Meena continues, describing her early experiences of surveying. Bruised feet, broken sandals, missed lunches. “It’s not always a field,” she says, “sometimes it’s like an overgrown forest.” Given the constant rise in the value of land, the threat of verbal or physical violence is never far.

One day, while we were eating lunch, she got a call from a person who identified himself as an applicant for a survey she was soon to undertake. A week before the survey date, Meena’s assistant had taken notice to him and his neighbours, informing them of the survey. The caller told her that she should be prepared to face resistance from people who contested the marking of the boundary, but that shouldn’t bog her down.

Meena put on a brave face on the phone, but did concede fear as soon as she hung up. She considered taking the police with her. In the past, she explained, if a man divided a property among his sons, it was done orally, without a sketch. But their children, in turn, have begun to dispute these verbal agreements and ask for official boundaries, because of an increase in encroachments. Meena seemed to be saying that as a result of the commodification of land, it is becoming the source of greater conflict, and thereby posing more complexity in measuring and recording it.

Also read: In State-Level Changes to Land Laws, a Return to Land Grabbing in Development’s Name

Corrupt practices

It’s not just the threat from an angry neighbour or a family member – the rise in the value of land seems also to have increased the opportunities for petty corruption manifold.

Meena recounts her six months of training as a surveyor. The final written exam would decide where in the state she would be placed. She scored well and was placed in an area that received a large number of applications for a survey.

Not everyone got that chance. After some thought, she pegged the number at 12 lakhs – “Bribe money” she said, “for a transfer to her area. That money can be recovered in two years”.

“How?,” I ask.

“If you get 20,000 in salary, an equal amount you can get from outside.”

“How?,” I persisted.

“We’ll go to the field and do the demarcation for a boundary. But people already know where they want the line to be drawn. So negotiation is made.”

She adds, “Do you know how hard it is to reverse somebody’s encroachment? They’ll come with their people and shout and threaten you a lot. There is a lot of stress. So it’s better to negotiate peacefully”.

Another source of illegal income is what she described as “private surveys” – that is, government surveyors conducting unofficial surveys on Sundays or holidays for people who don’t make an application at all. A surveyor can make a couple of thousand rupees on each such survey, and this service is in high demand.

Two things seem to be happening here. Digitisation streamlines, standardises and shrinks the record of land by cutting down on descriptive, narrative data in favour of a more discrete quantifiable form, and also enables quantifiable indicators that track the production of the record.

At the same time, in the context of greater commodification of land, staff engaged in doing the work of producing the record is coming face-to-face with multidimensional elements of land, in the form of an unpredictable terrain, contestation over boundaries and as a source of money making – elements that are kept out of both the digital record and its audit.

Nafis Aziz Hasan is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at UCLA, currently conducting fieldwork in India generously supported by a grant from the Social Science Research Council.

A version of this article was presented at a workshop on multi-dimensional land supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Oxford Department of International Development.