In India Possession is Maybe 6/10th of the Law

In India you will often see signs asserting Ownership and Possession on buildings and lots that are Meena1unoccupied or under construction. The reason is not to stop squatters but rather to avoid the double selling problem. In the United States, it’s fairly easy to find out who owns a piece of land or even an expensive asset like a car. The land registry and titling system in India, however, is expensive and not always easy to check. As Gulzar Natarajan writes:

For something so valuable, land records in most developing countries are archaic. No register, which reliably confirms title, exists anywhere in India. Small experiments in some states to build such register have not been successful. Existing registers suffer from problems arising from lack of updation, fragmentation of lands, informal family partitions, unregistered power of attorney transactions, and numerous boundary and ownership disputes. The magnitude of these problems gets amplified manifold in urban areas.

It’s possible, for example, for a family member to sell family land without anyone else knowing about it. In Muslim customary law, gifts made on the deathbed can override a will which (surprise!) tends to benefit late-stage caregivers. Verbal deals in general are not uncommon.

land ownershipIndeed, without proper land registration it’s possible for an entirely unconnected person to sell land that he doesn’t own. Even if the real owners have some type of title, the ensuing court process between the real owners and those who thought or claimed they were the real owners will be time and wealth consuming. Forged documents are common. A large majority of all legal cases in India’s clogged court system are property disputes. The best thing is to occupy the land but if you can’t do that you want to signpost the land to make it as clear as possible who owns it so if someone is offered the land for sale they know who to call to verify.

Signposting is an old device for avoiding the double spending/selling problem by making ownership claims public and verifiable. The blockchain ledger is a modern version. A land registry system on the blockchain could work and systems are being tested in Sweden, Georgia and Cook County. Implementing such systems, however, first requires that land be mapped and parceled–and in many states in India the last land surveys were done by the British before independence. Surveys are becoming easier with drones and automatic surveying but India’s land surveying, registering and titling system still has a long way to go.


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