Skip to main content


Digitalization of Land Tenure

The digitalization of land registries involves several challenges related to equal access and land sovereignty, the inclusion of customary rights, and citizen control over datasets


After India liberalized its economy in 1991, the country has been systematically digitalizing land registries on a massive scale with the aim of automating and securing land tenure. Digitalization has entailed many drawbacks: for example, it has failed to include the large variety of customary land systems in India and it has reinforced the pre-existing exclusion of marginalized farmers, tribal groups, and Indigenous peoples. AgriStack, a proposed government-backed data exchange in agriculture that enables the integration of digitalized land records with farmer profiles and other agricultural data, has opened the door to corporate access and takeover of these big datasets. This has served to reinforce the commodification of local knowledge, the appropriation of agriculture value chains, and the dispossession of farmers’  control over their data. Hence, in the present conjuncture, land and livelihood sovereignty has become enmeshed with data sovereignty. Technology does not override the power structures embedded in a society; rather, its trajectory is dependent on institutional choices. A pro-market, neoliberal technological path is likely to exacerbate long-standing inequalities. Therefore, digitalization must go hand in hand with land and human rights.


The central governments Digital India Land Records Modernization Programme (DILRMP) has been conducting a fast-paced digitalization process of land records data in Jharkhand, and several tribal and Adivasi (aboriginal) groups are bearing the brunt of its poor execution. For example, in 2019, the inhabitants of Naya Toli, a hamlet in the Indian state of Jharkhand became homeless overnight. Mukesh Kujur1, a 27-year-old inhabitant of Naya Toli, has been waging a battle against the Jharkhand government for the past two years, after he and his fellow villagers of the Oraon tribe woke up one day to discover that their 108 acres of land, purchased in 1973 by 19 families, were no longer registered in their name, but had been recorded as belonging to the previous owner. 

After receiving an unsatisfactory response from the state government regarding their appeal, the Naya Toli community have still been attempting to pay their land tax for the past two years, fearing that the state will eventually deny their claim to the land as a penalty for not paying their taxes. But this too has posed a challenge. When Kujurl went to the local Common Service Centre to pay Naya Tolis annual tax in 2017, officials refused to let him proceed with the transaction, citing that the community no longer owns the land according to the newly introduced DILRMP records.

As of 2019, Jharkhand is one of the few states in India to have digitalized more than 99% of its land records. However, several experts criticize its execution: only 2.3% of land in Jharkhand was physically surveyed, much less than the national rate which is just shy of 6%. These inefficiencies especially impact marginalized tribal and Adivasi groups. Not only do these communities regularly deal with encroachment of their commons, but they also have to fight hard to gain recognition for their customary rights of ownership to land, which are often overridden by digitalized land records. 

In 2021, it was announced that the land records digitalized under DILRMP would become the core” of AgriStack, a government-backed data exchange in agriculture that enables the integration of digitalized land records with farmer profiles and other agricultural data of non-human origin (meteorological, soil health, hydrology, etc.) helmed by the Indian government’s Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare. The purported intent is to aid the creation of personalized, data-enabled support services along the agricultural value chain from production support, financing, and farmer advisories to marketing and consumer linkages downstream – in order to enhance farm productivity and farmer income. 

AgriStack was proposed amidst one of the largest farmer  protests in modern Indian history which galvanized after three farming laws were passed by the Indian Parliament in September 2020 opening up the Indian farming industry to corporations. Although the laws were repealed in November 2021, this groundbreaking struggle against the corporatization of agricultural value chains continues, with several peoples movements expressing concerns over the institutional design of the newly proposed AgriStack and how it facilitates inroads for Big Tech into food systems. 

In 2019, the inhabitants of Naya Toli became homeless overnight because of the poor implementation of a fast-paced digitalization process of land records data in the state of Jharkhand



Farmer in India. / Brazil Topno

Digitalization of land tenure across India

AgriStacks usage of DILRMP, a database marred with several legacy issues similar to the case of Jharkhand, poses several dire implications for land sovereignty, as it systematically excludes landless farmers, sharecroppers, and communities with non-customary practices of ownership. These discrepancies, however, have been maintained and replicated ever since large-scale digitalization of land records became a priority for the state. 

Against the backdrop of failed land redistribution measures, land records digitalization was initiated by the Indian government in the 1990s to facilitate a transition to formalized and unambiguous documentation of property rights in order to make the countrys rural hinterlands more intelligible for an expanding real estate market.

The Bhoomi Project launched by the Karnataka state government was the first large-scale land record digitalization program in India and eventually became the blueprint for the nationwide Digital India Land Records Modernisation Programme (DILRMP) launched in 2008. Bhoomi was a simple yet revolutionary proposition: the creation of an interoperable, centralized database of digitalized land records, bringing together information about the physical characteristics of land, productivity, and economic claims (legal rights, registration, and taxation) available in real time to government departments and private agencies seeking to verify ownership claims. 

However, Bhoomi witnessed the challenges and contradictions typical of digital technologies in land registration. Within just a few years of the implementation of Bhoomi, it became evident that the shift from presumptive land titles to conclusive land titles through the creation of centralized land records databases was in fact threatening vulnerable communities’ ability to maintain their traditional claims over common land. Bhoomi was not able to document the diversity of tenure types. Of the more than 1500 forms of tenure traditionally present, only 256 types made it into the digital record. 

Intensifying land grabs by the powerful elite, Bhoomi reinforced social power hierarchies governing agrarian property relations. The trajectory of technology for development was thus firmly ensconced within Indias pro-market, neoliberal approach, dovetailing with policy reforms introduced in the 90s.

The DILRMP, a national digitalization program that aims to replicate the Bhoomi model has only further perpetuated these social inequalities, with customary tenure rights of marginal farmers, tribal groups, and Indigenous peoples unable to find their place. The process of standardization through digitalization, and the consequent loss of legibility of claims unable to be appropriately datafied, has adversely affected tenure rights. Most susceptible to exclusion were the customary claims of marginal farmers, who have limited access to the Internet to update their digital land records. Lands with complex possession claims were reclassified as sarkari land, which translates to government land’, and thus effectively acquired by the state. The trajectory of land digitalization and the specific institutional design choices in the Indian context show how a pro-market, neoliberal technological path is likely to aggravate engrained socio-economic inequalities. 

The national digitalization program DILRMP has only further perpetuated social inequalities, with customary tenure rights of marginal farmers, tribal groups, and Indigenous peoples unable to find their place.


A woman farmer from Pudukkottai, a district in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. / IT for Change

Data centralization and data control amidst a global corporate rush

After having implemented land record digitalization on a large scale, the central government aims to utilize  the DILRMP to unify the state land datasets into one interoperable, centralized database that will serve as a comprehensive source of land records information for citizens and public/private agencies engaged in land ownership verification (for example, banks and insurance companies). As part of this new strategy, in 2021, the Indian government initiated the Unique Land Parcel Identification Number (ULPIN) initiative, which assigns a unique geo-referenced 14-digit alphanumeric ID code to each land parcel surveyed in the country. Though the ULPIN initiative has yet to be implemented on a large scale, several critics already consider it a central tenet of the upcoming AgriStack that is likely to further invisibilize customary land claims and erase forms of collective land ownership. 

Despite the hallmark Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR Act) which curbs the powers of eminent domain by state authorities, the absence of commensurate administrative and bureaucratic reforms adversely impacts tribal communities, who often do not have individual land titles. It is therefore worrisome that without appropriate safeguards, the national AgriStack and other data exchange initiatives run by state governments in India could further disrupt and deny peoples historical rights and relationships with land. 

The aggregation of land records data with other crop and climatic documentation paves the way for easier land valuation and the demarcation of landholdings into the categories of productiveand unproductive. This reclassification is only likely to intensify the weaknesses of the LARR Act, allowing culturable wastelands that support local food security to be reclassified for non-agricultural purposes. It is also likely to bolster the states narrative of coercive land acquisition as a necessary means to job creation and economic development based on industrialization and urbanization in the face of agricultural decline.

In addition to bolstering the powers of the state, digitalization and datafication through programs like AgriStack accelerate corporate access to and control over big datasets, enabling the appropriation of agricultural value chains and the commodification of local knowledge by corporate powers. The Department of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare in India has already signed ten agreements with transnational and national corporations – including Amazon Web Services and Microsoft –to pilot value-added services for farmers that will become features of the proposed AgriStack. Without clear rules, data access by privately controlled intelligence systems can have compromise small and marginal farmersautonomy over their data. 

Moreover, risks of data abuse are particularly worrisome in a country that lacks data protection laws and robust regulation of financial technology. Globally, the digitalization of land records has facilitated the financialization of agricultural value chains. Artificial intelligence systems built on large-scale, aggregated food systems data provide real-time insights that drive end-to-end control of food chains, prompting speculation over land and agricultural commodities with little respect for labor, equity, and ecological impacts. This can also pave the way for land-grabbing and the loss of farmersproperty rights in the name of technological development.

In addition to bolstering the powers of the state, digitalization and datafication accelerate corporate access to and control over big datasets, enabling the appropriation of agricultural value chains


Members of the Ambuliaaru Agricultural Producer Company, a farmers’ collective. / IT for Change

Putting people and the planet at the center in digitalization 

With land tenure digitalization, land and livelihood sovereignty becomes intertwined with data sovereignty. Society needs to fundamentally shift its perspective in terms of data and data justice. Digitalization needs to be linked to an integrated set of rights that protects laboring communities from harm, fosters benefits for autonomous and flourishing livelihoods through public innovation, and nurtures the ability of communities to participate in and determine the building blocks of the governance of their data – that is, data about themselves and the resources that sustain them.

First of all, personal data protection and privacy safeguards must be instituted for all types of data sharing. An independent institution needs to be entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing participation in data exchanges and protecting farmer interests. Secondly, free riding on the commons of agricultural data must be forbidden. Regulatory guardrails should be implemented to prevent vertical consolidation and monopolistic market tendencies. Third, a clear framework for farmersdata rights should be developed and implemented in the agricultural sector, including farmersrights to access, contest, and audit their data held in centralized databases. Fourth, public sector innovation in agriculture must be re-invigorated by seizing the transformative power of the agricultural data commons, creating partnerships with farming communities for sustainable data-supported innovation, and addressing locally significant needs and challenges.

Likewise, the Tenure Guidelines provide a similar set of governance principles on how to apply technology to land tenure. Digital record systems should improve the security of all tenure rights (Article 17), not diminish them. States should take all means necessary to prevent corruption in the recording of tenure rights by widely publicizing processes, requirements, fees and any exemptions, and deadlines for responses to service requests”(Article 17.5).

Given the reality of the digital divide, the Indian government should guarantee that everyone is able to register their land by providing alternatives to digital systems and by making sure that customary tenure systems are respected in line with Article 9 of the Tenure Guidelines. Digital land records cannot be the single source of truth” if not everyone can access or be part of it; and such records should be created in consultation with farmersconstituencies, Indigenous peoples, and other communities with customary tenure systems. Relying on uncritical datafication will only intensify land dispossession and jeopardize land and livelihood sovereignty. In other words, todays data grabs become tomorrows land grabs. The rights of farmers, Indigenous communities, and marginalized people should be prioritized over any market-driven technological advancement.

Society needs to fundamentally shift its perspective in terms of data and data justice. Digitalization needs to be linked to an integrated set of rights to protect and benefit communities, and allow them full participation and control


This article has been written together with IT for Change. A detailed version of the case study is available here